Tag Archives: penny kittle

Making the Most of Summer

If you’re anything like me, based on the fact that August is just around the corner, your computer screen probably looks something like this:

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Those 10 or so tabs contain articles, blogs, book recommendations, and more for me to mine for ideas.  Once I’m done perusing those, I’ll return to my very full writer’s notebook to sift through the myriad of quotes, lessons, and resources I’ve jotted down while attending various classes this summer.  After that, it all comes down to remembering what I learned and actually applying it in my freshly-waxed classroom.

Honestly, that’s always been somewhat of a struggle for me–managing to sift through those summer lessons and remember all of them well enough to apply them.  So, in order to make the most of this summer, I’ve decided to boil down the biggest takeaways of my three workshops here.

Takeaway from UNH Literacy Institute – “I am the sum of my mentors.”

For two years now, I’ve learned most of my daily classroom practices from Penny Kittle.  However, what I’ve really begun to pay attention to is that by reading Penny’s writings and taking her classes, I’m not just learning from her.  I’m learning from Don Murray, Don Graves, Kelly Gallagher, Louise Rosenblatt, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Romano, Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, Alfie Kohn, Nancie Atwell, and many more.  Penny has expertly absorbed the ideas of all of those other teacher-writers, and seamlessly integrated them into her own philosophy and craft.  That is my goal–not to mimic Penny or any of those other teaching geniuses, but to meld all of their research findings into my own practice; to become the sum of my mentors, as Meenoo Rami says.  Of course, that’s easier said than done, but definitely worth the attempt–and the hefty credit card bill that comes after a Heinemann ordering spree.


With that being said, there is one idea of Penny’s I’d really like to integrate into my classes this year–storyboarding.  This visual way to process a story’s plot is a gateway into analysis and evaluation.  If talk is rehearsal for writing, then to Penny, so is storyboarding–sketching out little comic-strip squares of events.  This was something that I couldn’t really wrap my mind around how to execute after just reading Book Love, but now that I’ve seen Penny do it, it makes perfect sense, and I can’t wait to try it out.

Another lesson for me came from the fact that I couldn’t grasp the concept of storyboarding without seeing it modeled.  That was another weighty reminder of the importance of my serving as a writing mentor, modeling process for my students.  If I am the sum of my mentors, so are my students–and I am perhaps their only mentor when it comes to being a good reader and writer.  This big responsibility reinforces the importance of staying informed on current research–without great mentors, I can never be a great teacher.  I need those teacher-writers to help me help my students.

Takeaway from Balfour Yearbook Advisers Workshop – “There are two kinds of writers–good writers and quitters.”

In addition to teaching English, I also teach Journalism and Yearbook.  I traveled to Dallas this summer for what I thought would be a boring jaunt through yearbook software and technology, but I was pleasantly surprised by being surrounded by amazing teacher mentors to learn from.  Lori Oglesbee, a Texas teacher and our keynote speaker, spoke about the fact that great journalism comes from strong writing.  She preached that all students, no matter what, can be great writers if we lead them to it.  Lori then proceeded to show us many examples of award-winning yearbook writing, and I grinned–here were mentor texts again!  I really saw the relevance of mentor texts across all disciplines.

Takeaway from ASNE-Reynolds Journalism Institute – “Good writing comes by studying good writing–period.”


This lesson came in the form of an irreverent lecture by the delightful journalist and author of Radical WriteBobby Hawthorne.  An advocate of “writing for the reader, not the rubric,” Bobby spoke to us about the general lack of quality in student journalism writing.  School newspapers across the land are plagued with crappy writing, he preached!  (I learned that journalism, until very recently, was still laboring under pre-Graves and pre-Murray delusions about writing–no I, no emotion, no personality, no rule-breaking.)  Bobby advocated for throwing out all of our old notions about how to teach journalistic writing and just getting our students to find a story hidden in an event and tell it.  He felt strongly about the power of the narrative form, reminding me of more of Penny’s ideas from Write Beside Them.  And in fact, she agreed with him:

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Bobby wasn’t the only speaker at the two-week Institute to urge we teachers of journalism to simply teach our students to find and tell stories.  I heard that message over and over again, from photographers to journalists to writers to teachers.  The power is in the story, they urged.  Find it, and good writing will come naturally.

So, I’ll approach this year with those takeaways in mind.  I’m excited to try the workshop model out on my journalism students, who will be starting a newspaper this year.  I’m curious about how my teaching of the reading and writing workshop will change in its second year.  And, I’m optimistic about having so many new mentors to act as the sum of my teaching.  I hope I’ll make the most of my summer and transform my teaching, as I do every year, by putting my writing and reflecting to work.

Sharing What We Know and Do

I’d like to introduce you to my friends who have validated my thinking and taught me how to think more clearly. They are my zen when I need support or encouragement or recommendations for books. They are classmates from the past two courses I’ve taken from Penny Kittle at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute. We bonded again this year over Book Love.

How often do we feel like we are an island? Not just on an island but the island itself? We understand what it means to be a workshop teacher, to allow and encourage students to choose what they read and what they write about, to build classroom libraries that rival the ones down the hall, to spent our own money on books because “It might be the right one for (boy/girl name) this time.”

Often we are alone. Alone on our campus, in our grade-level teams, during our planning time. Alone because while we admire many of our colleagues, they just don’t get it.

#UNHLIT14 Book Love

Erika, Samantha, Shana, Amy, Jackie, Penny

Shana Karnes, Erika Bogdany, and Jackie Catcher get it, and Heather and I invite them to be regular contributors to our blog. They each have unique stories of how they run their workshop classrooms and how this pedagogy works with their students. While Shana and Erika contributed last year, like me, they know that the learning to ‘get it right’ never ends.

Workshop takes practice, and it take patience. Having friends to share with, and blogging about what we learn, is a way we’ve found to be the reflective, thoughtful, writers we hope to inspire our students to be. (See the About page for more on our bios.)

Thanks for reading.

Oh, and if you’ve been following along for a while and would like to be a guest blogger, send me a message. We’d like to read about how workshop works for you and your students.

Christmas Miracles


December has traditionally been my least favorite month of the school year.  Something about it bogged me down, without fail, every winter–the dark, sunless days…the mountains of papers to grade…the looming specter of exams–to write, administer, and grade.  I hated my job in December.  From old journals, I know that I was consistently unhappy in the twelfth month of the year, and I wanted to quit teaching every time it rolled around.

This December, though, things couldn’t be more different.  I am LOVING my job!!  Last week, I found myself completely caught up on grading–something that literally hasn’t happened yet this school year.  Somehow, I had plenty of time to plan great lessons, confer with students with no back-of-the-brain worries, AND reorganize my classroom library.  I was a productivity machine–and it didn’t stop at school.  At home, I found the energy to assemble Christmas cards, decorate my apartment, and make some holiday crafts.  As I type this, my fingers are still sticky with powdered sugar from the big batch of cookies I baked this morning.  What’s with the freakish perfection, you ask?  One little, made-up, three-week-old, hashtag of a word:  #nerdlution.


Teachers across the country made nerdy resolutions that would be kept for 50 days.  They could be anything–write every day, exercise, a more robust reading life.  A Thanksgiving day Twitter chat gave rise to that wonderful idea, which I hope will become an annual tradition.  Still riding my NCTE13 high, I resolved (nerdsolved? nerdluted?) to spread professional ideas about English teaching any way that I could, every day.

IMG_1036I started by leading an epic two-hour workshop for my English department.  We book-passed (a la Penny Kittle) the entire contents of my professional library, shared best practices in a “gift exchange” of ideas, and made our own heart books (a la Linda Rief) of things we wanted to try.  Afterward, Kristine, a 20-year veteran with a reputation for pessimism, approached me.  “I used to have your energy,” she said.  “I don’t know what happened, but I haven’t had it…for years.”  She teared up, then borrowed Blending Genre, Altering Voice by Tom Romano, a balm for her troubled teaching soul.  Other books from my NCTE haul were checked out, too–Georgia Heard’s brand new Finding the Heart of Nonfiction was battled over by two first-year teachers, Penny Kittle’s incredibly dog-eared and highlighted Book Love and Write Beside Them were taken by veterans, and Tom Newkirk’s well-loved Holding On To Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones was checked out by our department head, who has held his position since 1972 (I’ll let you do the math on that one).

I was elated, and my colleagues’ willingness to try new ideas didn’t stop there.  The next day, a friend came and talked through some ideas about having her students do mini multigenre projects on Greek gods.  Enthused, I told her I couldn’t wait to see the results.  The following morning, Kristine, the tired veteran who’d borrowed Tom Romano’s book, stopped me in the hall.  “I came to school every day this week with a new attitude.  I feel the spark again,” she told me.  I nearly cried after we went our separate ways.

IMG_1313The following week, it all seemed to be coming together–our entire English department was on board for trying something new, especially the workshop model.  They wanted to see it in action.  In five days, I was observed eight times by fellow teachers, and they saw my students doing amazing things.  With heads down and pens on paper, their extended narratives were growing to eight…twelve…twenty-six pages long.  They were BEAUTIFULLY written, and on an incredible variety of topics–hunting, car crashes, detectives, breakups, death.  One male student wrote a narrative about rape from a woman’s point of view after hearing me booktalk Speak.

IMG_1314As my colleagues listened in, my students conferred with me about their writing like the confident, thoughtful, reflective authors they are:  “I want it to read like a Rick Riordan story,” Kenneth told me.  “Do you think the pace is too slow?” Nora asked.  “I just need to zoom in a little more on this,” Tevin realized.  “I’ve resorted to writing in my vocab section because the rest of my notebook is full,” Adam admitted with a giggle.  I ended every class with a smile and a feeling of pride threatening to burst out of my chest.  My colleagues were stupefied.  “How are you getting them to read so much?  To write so much?  To work on this stuff in study halls and for homework?”  They were flabbergasted, but all I had to do was point them toward that professional bookshelf, full to bursting (but with more and more empty spaces!!) with the brainchildren of so many of my teaching heroes.

So, my #nerdlution, as well as this little workshop experiment that Emily, Erika, Amy, and I have been trying out, is going beautifully.  The two are combining to bring me the most peace I’ve felt during the holiday hustle and bustle in a long time–and that, for me, is a Christmas miracle.

What’s in Your Teaching Soul?

Our Compass Shifts 2-1I am an idea machine. Really, it’s like Boom! This might be cool–or this–or this. How about this? It relates to that and that and that. Sounds like a pretty great machine, right?

Not even. It’s a problem.

I get so many ideas spinning that I get dizzy with possibilities, and inevitably, I get frustrated. You know what happens next. Do you hear that crashing?

So, as the days of summer disappear, and I start thinking about school starting up again and what I want to do differently with my students this year, the idea machine hums at high speed. And there is just no room on the planning calendar to do every idea that I think is a cool one. And really, why would I want to?

I do this to myself every year:  I try to do too much, so my students rarely get the chance to do some things really well. We’re in too much of a hurry to move on to the next great thing. No wonder I am a stressed out, headache prone, insomniac from August until June.

At the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute learning from Penny Kittle, she asked us at the beginning of the course and then again at the end:  What is your teaching soul?

The first day of class my answer went something like this:

I’ve lost it. That’s a lot of the reason I am here. My passion for teaching has taken a beating–a lot of it influences from outside of school, (It’s been a hard year personally)– a lot of it the choices I made within the classroom.  I’m here to get my passion back.

The last day of class, and it’s really no surprise, since, you know, I was learning from Penny Kittle, my response was something entirely different. The discussions about writing, the experiences with reading–mostly analyzing author’s craft, and my own writing practice all helped redefine who I am as an educator and as an individual.

And that is what I want for my students. I want them to know who they are and what they have to offer.

So, what is my teaching soul? What are the non-negotiables that matter, the things that will help me keep the passion and help my students define themselves as readers and writers and individuals of tremendous worth? I know in my soul the following things matter:

Community Matters. My students must trust me to establish and maintain a classroom community that allows for risk and creativity. I must encourage conversations that allow students to be their authentic selves so they can find their authentic voices in their writing. Every discussion and every activity can help us feel at ease as we grow to know and appreciate one another as developing readers and writers. Keeping writer’s notebooks, talking about books, sharing our writing–every single day–will help my students feel safe so they are willing to speak up and let me see glimpses into their lives and how they think.

Reading, Writing, and Thinking Matter–a lot. If it’s true that to develop fluency in reading and in writing, students must read and write, then it only makes sense that to develop fluency of thought, students must think. Asking students to analyze, synthesize, revise, create, etc  on a daily basis is the only way to build this fluency. I can start with asking good questions, but more importantly, I want students asking good questions. A student-centered, student-driven inquiry cycle will lead to thinking that involves and engages every learner.

Modeling and Mentoring Matter. I’ve learned the difference between showing students something I’ve written and writing something in front of them. In front of them–so they see the thinking and the struggle–works so much better. If they see me as a writer, and I talk to them as writers, our writing community helps us all grow in our craft and experience. The same holds true for reading. Students have to see me as a reader. Mentor texts that we study for craft act as professional coaches to show us the moves and stylistic devices published authors use to create meaning. My job is to ‘hire’ good coaches and make sure my students know that we can learn from them.

Authenticity matters. I’ve thought about this a lot:  How can students be their authentic selves if we never let them make choices? I read something once that compared high school to a dystopian society: wear a certain thing, eat at a certain time, respond to the bells throughout the day, come and go when they tell you, talk when they let you. All that control. I get that schools must function a certain way, but can’t we give students some control? Allowing them to choose the books they read and allowing them to select topics that interest them to write about gives students a little freedom. The more freedom we give students, the more interest they’ll have in their learning. The more interest they have, the more commitment they will have. Isn’t that what we want–students committed to their own learning? This is where blogging comes in for me, too. By encouraging students to create and post on their blogs, I learn who they are as individuals. I read about the topics that matter to them, and they find their authentic voices as they publish to a world of potential readers far beyond me as their teacher.

Dialogue matters. In a training last spring, Kylene Beers reminded me that “the smartest person in the room is the room.” I needed this reminder because I often shut down conversation when I could explode it. Rich classroom discussion can lead to intense learning. I must trust that when students engage in conversation surrounding a topic, they may learn more from one another than from me. They can learn from me in the dialogue we share during our one-on-one conferences. Talking to students about their reading lives and their writing processes is the best teaching tool I have as an educator–and the best use of my teacher voice.

As I use the last of my summer days to plan the best learning I can for the students I will serve this fall, I pledge to remember how my heart healed in July. I know the power of a student-centered workshop classroom, and I will remember to allow my students the opportunities to learn the way Penny allowed me to learn at #UNHLit13.

I met some awesome educators who will help me remember, and they will help you, too. We bonded over books, breakfasts, love for PK, and zen. In an effort to focus our teaching this year around the things we learned in NH, we devised a plan to 20130713_193936keep us connected and accountable. Once a week we’ll write about our experiences, practicing in our classrooms the things we learned this summer.

We’re calling our reflections Our Compass Shifts because it has and it does, depending on the needs of our students. From Texas to West Virginia to California to New York, we are four high school teachers with different backgrounds, teaching experience, and student demographics, who believe in the genius of our students.

Please meet my new colleagues:  Shana Karnes (WV), Emily Kim (CA), and Erika Bogdany (NY). You’ll find their bios on our About page, but I’ll let them introduce themselves and their students as they take turns posting each week. They’ve got teaching soul that makes me shiver. Oh, and see? They are walking talking FUN.

Think about what swells in the heart of your teaching. I hope you’ll share the answer: What is in your teaching soul?

Dream Come True: Conferring with Penny Kittle

imageFor a teacher like me, this moment was a pretty big deal. I attended the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute and learned from Penny Kittle for two weeks. Her class was called Writing in the World, and I have to tell you, I learned more than I could have hoped for when I set off with my new green notebook for New England, a place I’d never been.

I’d heard Penny present before, first at Region X here in DFW, and then again when my district brought her in for a couple of days–both turning points in my classroom instruction as I changed my thinking about teaching readers and writers and not just reading and writing. Then, of course, I was a fangirl at NCTE last fall in Las Vegas, tracing my hand in my notebook like she does in hers.

But sitting in her class every day, listening to her read poetry, share videos of her students, and explain that all students will write–and write well–when they are given the opportunity to explore their hearts, reshaped me as an educator, and thankfully, I got my passion back.

Everyone who knows me well knows I had a tough year. Lots of reasons, and none of them pretty. At one point I thought about throwing in the pubic education towel, even applied to Pearson in a moment of desperation. See? I was quite low.

When Penny meets with students in a conference, she focuses on the writer and not the writing. She let me ask questions, and she alleviated my fears. She prodded and questioned, and I found answers to questions I didn’t even think to ask. I saw myself as the student, and I saw my students in me. And I realized when it comes to meeting with my students to help them improve as writers:

I can do better. I must do better.

Of the huge stack of books I lugged home from UNH [I am Amy, and I am a (book) addict], Tom Newkirk’s Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones resonates in my teaching soul. Even this one little thought speaks to me: “excellent instruction rarely feels rushed.” I know that, really I do, but why do I always feel like I’m in a hurry?

When it comes to teaching writing effectively, helping students to see themselves as writers, allowing students to feel accomplished communicators, I must slow down.

I need to do what Penny did for me in New Hampshire: relax into chair, look into my face, smile her warm smile, and speak to me like she already knew I was writer.

[Special thanks to Emily Kim for capturing this special photo. I owe you.]

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