Tag Archives: pedagogy

Grateful November and a give-a-way for you

Sometimes thank you has to be enough.

Last evening I joined in #poetrychat and learned from 28 teachers from various parts of the U.S. and Canada about how to more effectively teach grammar by using poetry. Chats like this inspire me, and I want to be a better teacher. Tomorrow I will share this poem with my students as we begin argumentative writing:  The Joy of Writing by Wislawa Szymborska, my new-found favorite poet.

Thanks to all of you who’ve joined in our monthly chats about poetry. I am a better poet, and poetry teacher, than I was last May when TTT started hosting the monthly poetry chat.

Also, I am a better teacher because of you, the readers of this blog. I teach with more intention because I know I will write about the lessons, activities, books, and other resources I use with my students.

Audience matters to every writer, and I consider it a gift that my audience is also my muse. Thank you for your questions that inspire such deep thinking and so many posts.

May November bring a sense of gratitude and rich blessings in the lives of each of our readers. Thank you for your confidence in us as we share the experiences, lessons, and activities from our workshop classrooms.

So what’s the give-a-way already?

Shana, Jackie, and I met online last week to talk about our goals for this blog and how we can support you more fully. We might be able to help more if you give us some direction. So —

We know it’s not much, but it will buy a few books: We’re giving away one $25 Amazon gift card.

Just complete the short 3-5 minute survey, and you’ll be entered automatically. We’ll choose a winner randomly on November 10 and let the winner know via Twitter or email.





What is it About Being Mean?

In the past three days I’ve heard two different stories from teachers who are already in high-stress because of encounters with co-workers. What?!

School started just this past Monday. Four days and we’re already mean?

What is is about some people who think they can speak their minds at the expense of being polite, kind, civil even? Isn’t teaching hard enough without having to deal with negative ninnies and downright mean people?

My mother always told me:  “It is the people who are the hardest to love who need it the most.” I believe this is true. Hurt, anger, and fear often manifest as aggressive, catty, spiteful behavior. “A root’s always poking holes in the cellar door.” I get that.

Many teachers who embrace the workshop model do so alone. They are the only teachers on their campuses who’ve “swallowed the Kool aid” and become “too idealistic for [their] own good.”

“You’re not going to have any better success with those kids that anyone else.”

I’ve heard my fair share, and I am fairly certain I’ve heard only a drop of a giant bucket of behind-my-back critiques. So it goes.

“You’re nasty and you’re loud,
you’re mean enough for two,
If I could be a cloud,
I’d rain all day on you.”
Jack Prelutsky

Today I am wondering:  How do we deal with colleagues who are mean, or bossy, or just plain rude? How do we smile with sincerity and stand steadfast in the face of criticism and disdain?

Please join the conversation. What do you do?

My Classes are Only 45 Minutes — How Do I Do Workshop?

It’s a movement, you know — this instructional practice called Readers and Writers Workshop. More and more educators are catching the vision and clarifying their focus as English educators. (There’s also a lot of nay-sayers, which I think means they are afraid. Let’s be patient with them.)

I received an email that asked a question that I wish I would have had answered for me years ago when I made the leap into choice reading and the workshop pedagogy. It’s important, so I knew it needed to be a post on this blog:

English I teacher asked:  I have a question for you about classroom routine. I felt I needed to ask someone who can answer with authority about this because there is significant resistance from teachers on my campus to the whole idea of workshop, especially from my department chair. For various reasons that I won’t bore you with, we need to do a “by the book” implementation. We will be under a lot of negative scrutiny no matter what we do, but things will go better if we are following some sort of precedent on certain details.

I’ve found specific information about block schedule and the frequency of in-class silent sustained reading, but I haven’t found anything for non-block schedules. We are non-block with 45 minute periods. I think I read on your blog that you used to use Workshop in a non-block schedule. When you did that, how often did you do the in-class reading?

I am glad you asked about non-block scheduling for workshop instruction. Yes, it is doable! I taught class periods of 50 minutes five times a week prior to moving to my current school. When I was first trying to figure it out, the best advice I got was from Penny Kittle. She told me:  “You choose to do this, which means you choose not to do that.” Here’s how I interpreted that:

If I have 50 minutes with my students each day. Every minute matters, so I must be intentional in the choices I make. 

I used to choose whole class novels and read at least part of the novels in class. I used to assign students guided questions to help their understanding of those novels. I used to give lists of vocabulary words and ask students to define, write sentences, create images. I used to give writing prompts and writing homework. I used to expect students to read and write outside of class without ever showing them the messiness, the thinking, the discovering of ideas and emotions and writer’s moves on the page. I used to make all the choices, and I expected my students to go along for the ride.

Some did. Many did not. It finally started to dig at me that many was so much greater than some.

I choose not to do any of those things now.

Now, my students and I choose to read books we find interesting, engaging, and important to our lives. We read, discuss, and write about how the ideas inside these books are windows to the world outside our own, and how they are mirrors into the joys, aches, and heartbreaks we see inside ourselves and within our families.

I wrote about 7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule a while ago. These moves are non-negotiable:  read, confer, talk, write, revise, share, mini-lesson. 

To make these workshop moves work, we must also include these tools as non-negiotables:  writer’s notebooks, mentor texts, high interest books.

As you begin to plan for your 50 minutes, think about this:  How can you ensure that all students read, write, listen, and speak in every class period? (These are best practices for English Language Learner’s, which in my experience means they are best practices for all students.)

You specifically asked about the frequency of in-class independent reading in a class period of 45 minutes.

Read every day. Every day. Every day.

If you want students to become voracious readers, time is the greatest gift you can give them. Students need to know that you trust reading as your ally. If you believe that through reading students will grow in fluency, stamina, vocabulary acquisition, comprehension… and empathy, which has been written about here Scientific American and here Psychology Today you must make it a priority. So how might this look in your classroom:

She asked for a book that would help her learn science and accomplish her reading goals. Students will challenge themselves if we let them.

She asked for a book that would help her learn science and accomplish her reading goals. Students will challenge themselves. Really, they will.

Read at the beginning of every class period — 10 minutes. You do not need a bell ringer or any other focusing task when students know that the expectation is to come in the room and get to reading. The first chapter in Steve Gardiner’s book Sustained Silent Reading offers some great information — and quotes Nancie Atwell on the importance of choice. Encourage and challenge students to read outside of school. Help them create goals, and them help them hold themselves accountable to reaching them.

Confer when students are reading. Make this a norm. Conferring moves readers workshop instruction forward. And students want and need us talking to them about their reading, about their thinking, and about their lives. One-on-one instruction happens here, and it is through this teacher move that belonging, identifying, coaching, challenging, and empowering happens.

When you create a classroom culture of reading, discipline begins to care for itself. It’s a matter of setting expectations and then being consistent with them. If I have a student who refuses to read, which happens at times, especially early in the year, I make sure she knows that she has that right, but she does not have the right to interfere with anyone else’s right to read. Sustained Silent Silence instead of Sustained Silent Reading gets boring after a while.

You’ve read, and you’ve conferred. Now, you make other choices about what to include in your instruction. These are ideas that work for my students:

Write about their reading. Now, I’m not advocating for dialectic journals or questions about plot and setting, but it is important that students become reflective about their reading. Find a balance here. We do not want reading to turn to work, and demanding that students write about their reading way too much may turn them off to reading.  Think about the books you and I read. How often do we have to write an essay about a novel we read?

The topic notebooks in my classroom. We write in them about every three weeks. This is a fun way to share our thinking about our books.

Penny Kittle taught me about topic or “big idea” notebooks, and I’ve had a lot of success with these. (That link is to Penny’s Book Love handout, which has other great ideas for students to write about their reading.)

Teach skills in mini-lessons. I decide on mini-lessons based on two things: 1) my standards, 2) student needs based on what I learn in conferences.

Say I need to teach them about using the appeals in an argument, I may teach a mini lesson on logical appeal one day. Then I will ask students to do some flash research and find evidence of this appeal in either their independent reading, a news article, or an online text. We’ll share our findings and do a lot of talking — Why’d the writer use that appeal? How does it contribute to the argument? etc. Then, students will know I need to see them use that appeal in their own writing. We write (and confer) for the rest of the class period. Or, we share our writing in our writers’ groups.

Or, say I’ve conferred with half the class about their reading. I’ve found that half of those students are having trouble finding books with enough higher-level vocabulary to add to their personal dictionaries. I know I need to teach a mini-lesson on text complexity and what it means to challenge ourselves as readers. I may choose a few books with similar topics or themes and show my students a reading ladder:

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper

Dopesick by Walter Dean Meyers

Homeboyz by Alan Sitomer

Tyrell by Coe Booth

The Absolute True Diary of a Part time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Letters to an Incarcerated Brother by Hill Harper

We’ll talk about why one book may be more complex than others. I might challenge students to read all of these titles and then tell me if I have the ladder right. (I may not, I haven’t read every one of these books, but I think I’m on the right track.) I’ll teach students about syntax and how that impacts text complexity as much, or more, than vocabulary. Then, I’ll challenge students to keep track of the complexity of the books they choose, not only by keeping their personal dictionaries up to date, but by adding codes to their reading lists. E – easy, C – comfortable, D – difficult. I show them my writer’s notebook and how this tracking helps me understand my reading habits.

Allow time to work. The greatest indicator that workshop works in my classroom is student engagement. When I allow students time to complete writing in class with me available to talk to and ask questions, they engage in the writing process more efficiently and effectively. I’ve let go of wanting a product, and now we enjoy the process of writing. We discover as we write. We revise because we know our writing improves as we revisit it. We share our writing because all voices in our classroom matter. The only way to accomplish these things is to build time to write right into the class schedule.

I wrote Choose to Become a Classroom of Writers a while ago. I still believe focusing on writing creates the smoothest transition to workshop instruction. Why? Because writers are readers first. Check out this post of 40 Inspiring Quotes about Reading from Writers. (Just a little proof.)

But that’s probably another post for another day.

Best blessings to you as you take off on this wonderful adventure with your students. Write any time: for support, for clarity, for whatever you might need. You’re blessing the lives of children. Our future –our society — needs educators like you.

Press forward (nay-saying department manager and all).



Dear reader, any advice you can offer our friend?

 ©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

My Take on Your Resolution Tricks

Before I wrote anything down for 2015, I needed to think through this idea of resolutions. (If you read yesterday’s post, you already know that.) Maybe more importantly, I started reading posts about resolutions and how I might make mine actually come true this year.

I found this article “The Tricks Psychologists Say Make Resolutions Stick.” Okay, then.

(Of course, I get the gist of the article, but let’s look at it through the lens of an educator.)

Don’t Have a Back up Plan

Evidently, “having a plan B at the back of the mind or simply using the wrong language to frame our resolution can end up scuppering the best intentions.” I’m not sure I buy it for every goal we set, but I really like the word scuppering.

I get that we can sabotage our best intentions when we frame our goal-setting around failure, but imagine if we never have a back up plan in the classroom? Many a day I conduct my first period, thinking I’ve got a good plan, all is well, students will learn, and BAM! it doesn’t work and slams right into the hardwood door. I have to do some fast thinking to create a better learning opportunity for my second period.

A teacher’s job is all about alternatives, especially in a readers and writers workshop classroom. We reflect on our practices. We rewrite lessons. We revision our classrooms.

So, really, when it comes to setting goals, we have to use language that allows us the freedom to change our minds without feeling like we’ve failed. It is okay if I set the goal to read 101 books this year, and I only read 58. Really, 58 books is a lot. And every one of them I can talk about with knowledge and passion and place in a young reader’s hand.

Sleep on It

This is a hard one. Every teacher I know is sleep deprived. If this is true, every school in the nation is in big trouble: “New research from the University of Hertfordshire found that lack of sleep can reduce self-control.” Of 1,000 people, “Sixty percent of people who slept well said they were able to achieve their resolutions, compared to just 44 per cent of those who slept poorly.” Teachers, we get an F.

Wouldn’t it be great if sleep were a talking point in ed reform conversations?

I could engage more students if I had more sleep. I could teach them how to have grit. I could create better assessments. I could prepare more kids for mandated tests.

Not really.

I lose sleep because I have a student whose mom has cancer. How can she focus on school work when she might lose her mom?

I lose sleep because I have students who read far below grade level. They want to go to college, but they are far from college ready.

I lose sleep because I’ve had students who were abused by uncles and fathers and strangers. They are still hurting deep within their beautiful souls.

I lose sleep because I am always learning, trying to find new ways to reach my hardest-to-reach kids. They are happy and out-going, but they are not ready for the challenges of 21 C literacy.

Don’t Say Don’t

We know we must use positive framing as we teach. We must be encouragers, facilitators, even hand-holders sometimes. Yet is a powerful word when students try to turn to the negative. “I am not a reader” so many of them say. “Yet” I interject, and they usually smile and repeat me. “I am not a reader yet.”

There is a time and place for the word don’t in education though — I’ve said it plenty when it comes to testing. I imagine you have, too.

Chop it Up

“Why give yourself one tick when you you can have 20? It’s more gratifying to work towards lots of smaller goals than one enormous (and potentially overwhelming) one,” the article says, and I know this strategy works, especially with students who do not identify themselves as readers.

We set small reading goals. Sometimes they are for overnight, sometimes a week, sometimes a semester. And we celebrate achieving them. Often in my conferences with students who’ve been stuck in a book for a long time, or they’ve been fake-reading way too long, I will challenge them to finish a book in a certain number of days. They come tell me when they reach our goal, and this usually turns into a happy dance (usually mine, not theirs).

Of course, short writing goals work, too. That’s what a focus on process in writing workshop is all about. We use mentors to show us how to frame our thinking. We practice writing leads and using supporting evidence, or whatever skills we need. We provide mini-lessons that target these specific skills. And we write and confer and write some more. Chopped up, little bits of effective and powerful instruction.

The large goal:  “My students will be prepared to write all three of the essays on the AP English Language exam in May” can only be reached in tiny bite-size writing instruction in one workshop after another.

Try ‘temptation bundling’

“This idea is to bundle ‘should’ activities with ones we have a strong desire to do.” I do this all the time. When I work out on the elliptical machine, I read. When I run, instead of listening to music, I listen to audio books. I read right before I go to sleep. This calms my mind much quicker than scanning my Twitter or Facebook feed.

I share these ideas with students, too. A few of them told me that they now read on the bus to and from school, or on the way to extracurricular activities. One student told me that she loves to read when she is babysitting her siblings. “They don’t bother me as much,” she said. (Of course, I want here reading, I hope she still pays attention to the children!)

One of the biggest problems I face with reluctant readers is what they perceive as a time factor. “I don’t have time to read,” they like to whine. In conferences, we often chart our time, hour by hour. Teaching students to not only monitor their time — few really know what that means — we have to teach students how to value their time. The cell phone in their hands is a mean master when it comes to the value of our young people’s time.

Raise the Stakes

Here’s a new take on high stakes:  money-losing incentives to help us reach our goals. Seriously, there are companies out there where we can bet against ourselves. StickK.com is one of them.

“The site asks users to sign a commitment contract, which they say helps define the goal. Users then decide how much money they’ll put on the line and where the money will go if they don’t fulfill that contract. (For extra motivation they can even designate an ‘anti-charity’, a cause you don’t believe in, to receive their funds.)”

Who’s in?

I did play along with something similar at my former campus. We’d have Hollywood Weight Loss Challenges. Choose the name of a celebrity, so you are incognito on the weight chart. (I always chose the pseudonym of Queen Latifah because she’s so beautiful.) Pay $20 to the pot. Weigh in weekly, and at the end of say three months, the biggest loser gets the cash. I did this challenge four times. Four times I gave my money, just gifted it really, to the biggest loser and didn’t lose a thing.

Obviously, $20 didn’t cause enough pain. High-stakes testing does.

It will be interesting to see how Texas Education deals with the huge number of seniors this year who have not passed their state mandated exams needed for graduation. They are seniors, credits earned and all, but they will not graduate according the House bill if they do not get qualifying scores on all five of their exams. Many of these kids have taken this test six times now. Failure after failure after failure.

Raising the stakes does not work when it comes to the benefit of a young person about to take her place in the world. Somehow there has to be a better way to see our students off into their futures.

Personal goals not withstanding, I wish the psychologists quoted in this study would conduct a study on the yearly goals of educators and how we put it all on the line to honor and serve and teach our students, year after year after year.

More about Readers/Writers Workshop

(See my post yesterday for the backstory of all this, if you missed it, and you’re interested.)

More on my exchange with Holly who is dedicated to moving readers and writers in her new workshop classroom. I am so impressed with her questions and reflection on her practice!

Her: I am slightly fearful but I’m trying to put “the test” out if my mind and work on creating readers and writers. Then the test will take care of its self. I hope!

Me (My heart singing because she gets it! It is not about a test; it never should be.): The first  year I jumped ship and swam my way in Workshop was scary. I didn’t do much that year except get kids writing more. That was the autumn after I did my Invitational Summer Institute with North Star of TX Writing Project. I know I didn’t hurt my students, but I didn’t help them become better readers and writers, although they did do a lot of writing. I’ve learned more about balance since then.

Her: My classroom library is in pretty good shape, but I could always use more. I’ll take advantage of donorschoose.org for part of my overall plan that I need help with. 

Me:  Your library looks lovely; however, how do students know which books to choose?

One idea I got from a friend:   if you will label the shelves, organize by topic or theme, turn some of the titles out — then students will treat your shelves like a library.  Also, I just got new “favorite YA books” from some of my classmates at UNH. I will [post] that list in another message.

Her: This is my work in progress…. Begin with 15 minutes of SSR. 2-4 Book talk or students share an interesting part of what they are reading to encourage others. . . .

Me:  15 minutes is a good idea; however, it is a LONG time for students who are not readers — yet. I am sure you know that already. I learned from my experiences that I cannot push too hard too fast, until everyone is matched with a book.

Her:  I also want to incorporate reading logs to have a functional use to teach literary terms and have students be responsible for adding 5 words a week to their own vocabulary journal.

Me:  Reading logs? What do you mean by that exactly? The research by Krashen, Allington, and others shows that readers who are able to read without a lot of demands will read more and move faster than those who have to document their reading all the time. Holding regular reading conferences with students and asking them about what they are reading about is formative assessment without them feeling bogged down about having to justify their reading in logs.

Do students need to write about what they are reading? Yes, sometimes. But we do not want to kill the love of just reading. (Thank God I do not have to log my reading life.)

Yes! to students creating their own vocabulary journal. I call them Personal Dictionaries. Same idea. Penny Kittle has kids find four words a week (she requires 2 hours of reading homework per week, based on each student’s individual reading rate). I am changing to this model.

Her:  Then I want to read aloud a chapter from an engaging YA novel or a piece of poetry everyday. (I’m struggling to think of novels to use. The ones that I have success with are being used in reading.) 

Me:  Besides the research-based benefits of reading aloud to students at all levels, WHY do you want to devote time to this? If you can answer that question, you will be able to find what to read.

Have you thought of doing craft studies with poems and short passages? Every book I read I watch for passages that strike me with their beauty. Every time, these passages are loaded with some kind of literary or rhetorical devices I can use for mini-lessons. Sometimes students and I read these passages together and discover how the author crafted the meaning. Sometimes we write written responses to the meaning/ or what strikes us as meaningful to the passage. Sometimes students model the passage.

Her:  Mechanically inclined lesson on Mondays and Tuesdays (We have an A/B day) mini lesson 10-20

Me:  I know students often lack grammar instruction, but is there a way to include these lessons within your writing workshop time so they do not look like grammar lessons, and they look like “Here’s-what-good-writers-do lessons?” If students see them this way, they are more apt to apply the skills they learn into their own writing. We have to be purposeful in helping them make those connections. Again, I know you know that.

Her:  Wednesday and Thursday direct instruction or modeling writing 10-20 [and] Workshop writing time 

Writing Genres 
1. Narrative 3 weeks 
2. Expository 6 weeks 
3. Persuasive and editorial 9 
4. Test taking 3 weeks before [state exam]
5. Last 6 weeks multi-genre project 
My goal is to incorporate  students sharing 1 published piece every 3 weeks in a read around and other real audiences with persuasive and editorials. 

Me:  Sharing published pieces is AWESOME. Once students feel successful as writers, they will write more — and better.  Love your genres list.

Her:  I don’t know if this will work or not. What I feel like I need help with the most is logistics and how do I incorporate curriculum reading? 

[Isn’t this always the BIG QUESTION?]

Me:  Why do you need to? Does the district require that you read specific texts? I thought not. If the answer is yes, then (I got this from my friend Tim who does workshop in IB classes) you focus on readers/writers workshop first, and then you do the “required” reading.

Here’s what I’d do:  select passages from the required texts in which you can model specific skills. Read and study those passages together as a class. Watch a few film clips and discuss those for content and scripts, etc — that kind of learning. Then challenge students to read the rest of the text as their SSR book.  If your principal has already given you permission to veer away from the standard curriculum, take it. He’s essentially already said you do not “have” to do any required texts. Hurrah!

And here’s the most important part of anything I’ve said to my friend Holly thus far:

You’ve got more thinking in these messages you’ve sent me than many educators I know who have been teaching for years. Seriously!

Note to all:  If you have not read the article “Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” by William J. Broz, well, you should. It might be just the thing to give those of us like Holly, who want so badly to do right by our students, the strength to keep powering on toward moving readers and writers in our workshop classrooms.

Holly and I are meeting in person to talk shop next week. I’m sure another post will follow.

My Top 5 Gurus – Who Are Yours?

Thank you, Melville Publishing for picture....
These people, places, and collections of great knowledge have made me a better teacher.  They are my gurus, my distant teachers, and my life-savers when the screws are put to me in the classroom, and for the 987th time, when the students have “turned the tables” on me, as my new favorite artist Adele sings.  Thank you, gurus, for moving me.  Thank you for holding the mirror up.  Thank you for forcing me to look into the teacher I thought I was after 11 years and igniting a flame that has burned up the dross in my classroom on a daily basis.  What remains after such an intellectual bonfire amidst the students and myself are the ashes from which knowledge, compassion, inspiration, communication, and fellowship arise.  It truly is a “beautiful collision” (thank you, David Crowder).

#1. The Buck Institute for Education – This organization acts as my collective teacher, from its web resources to its handbooks in print to its well-trained educators, whose blogs and conference opportunities have inspired me to let project based learning completely change my life.  I love teaching because of what BIE has taught me.  Check out their website and their blogs for new educators in PBL.  Fantastic research and downloadable resources! (PBL Do-It-Yourself is a life-saver!)

#2.  Aimee Buckner – Her tried and true suggestions for using reader’s/writer’s notebooks in Notebook Know-How and Notebook Connections have given me many ideas that actually work.  I wanted to know how someone specifically used the notebooks in an authentic and real way, and she even included actual copies of posts from her kids!  It’s fantastic!

#3. Cooperative Catalyst – This is an amazing consortium of bloggers, writers, teachers, and others who write about education, trends, needs for change, pedagogy, social issues, etc.  I have found all sorts of new gurus here!  Posts are by various authors – thus, the “cooperative.”  It is said of this blog that the more voices that join, the deeper the discussion goes.  Many of the authors here can also be followed on Twitter.

#4. Don Tapscott – His books Growing Up Digital and Grown Up Digital have exceeded my expectations of what I thought I might learn about technology.  Not only did I learn about the digital natives I teach, or the “hand-held” generation who have never known life with a record player, 8-track, or rotary phone….  But through his work I learned about myself.  My modeling of appropriate use of technology and my role as a respectful contributor in the digital marketplace is equally important to what they can teach me about new tech and devices.  Follow him on Twitter, where the nuggets of wisdom just keep coming…. (@dtapscott)

#5. TED – Two words: pure awesomeness.  TED is so awesome it might actually make you go blind.  Watch videos, learn what’s out there, [if you have cash – ha!] go to a conference and get goodies (then tell me what they were!), or just download the talks.  This conglomeration of cutting edge technology, insightful and charismatic speakers, and world-changing ideas has really given me great classroom engagement pieces.  The videos are mind-blowing at times, sobering at others.  If you haven’t tuned in to TED, run, don’t walk, and start with this amazing video, with technology now a few years old: “The Sixth Sense.”  Follow TED on Twitter: @tedtalks, @TEDnews, @ted_com.

Now, to you: who are your gurus and distant teachers?  And who will you then teach “everything you know”?