Tag Archives: penny kittle

6 Ways to Spend Your Snow Day

snow-day2So it’s your fifth snow day this winter…or your fifteenth.  Either way, you’ve done all of your spring cleaning, you can’t grade or lesson plan because you haven’t seen students for a week, and you’ve completely emptied your queues on Netflix and Hulu.  What’s a teacher to do?

1. Read a good book.  If you’re anything like the hundreds of English teachers I know, you love reading.  Use the time you’ve been cooped up to read something you’ve been wanting to but just haven’t had the time to start.  I haven’t stopped hearing about Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot SeeI’ll think I’ll try to tackle the last two this week.

2. Write around a poem.  Penny Kittle shared once that she likes to tape poems into her notebook and write around them–it’s one way to move toward doing your own beautiful writing, she advised.  So, I signed up to receive the Poetry Foundation‘s daily poem via email, and when I read one I love, I print it and tape it into my writer’s notebook.  I’m amazed at the nuggets of written wisdom I arrive at after responding freely to a poem in writing.

3. Read a teaching book.  I’ve been wanting to finish Tom Romano’s Zigzag and Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild for quite some time now, but with the day-to-day craze of the school year, it seems like the only time I find to read teaching books is over the summer.  This is the time of year, though, that I often need a little lift in my teaching spirit, so it’s always rewarding to explore some new thoughts from some of my old favorites.  Since I’m in the middle of a nonfiction book club and writing unit right now, I think I’ll settle down today with Georgia Heard’s Finding the Heart of Nonfiction.

4. Check out that dreaded State Test.  Dana Murphy at Two Writing Teachers reminded me that when our students are accustomed to writing in a choice-based, unit-driven workshop, they are not accustomed to writing to a prompt, and that while standardized tests do leave a bitter taste in our mouths, they are a reality our students must face.  If we want them to feel confident as writers in all environments, we must prepare them for all writing situations–especially the two or three standardized writing tests they may face each year.  Here in West Virginia, we’ve elected to go with SmarterBalanced as our Common Core-aligned assessment.  Today I’d like to spend some time looking at the writing portion of that test and brainstorming some lessons to help my students feel confident writing to those prompts.

5. Catch up with your tweeps. Twitter is a bottomless pit (seriously; you can get lost in it) of resources, ideas, and inspiration for teachers.  I could spend hours perusing the archives of #engchat, #titletalk, and #litlead, just to name a few.  I’d also love to look at the archives of some chats I missed recently–#mindsmadeforstories, for one.

6. Read incredible teacher blogs. I could browse the virtual thoughts of my colleagues forever!  We have so many brilliant and inspirational people in our profession, from the genius team at Nerdy Book Club to the marvelous ladies at Moving Writers; the steady wisdom of What’s Not Wrong to the joyful inspiration of the dirigible plum.  I’ve also been loving the thoughts of Hunting EnglishThe Reading Zone, and countless more…really.  I could never list all the great teacher blogs I’ve stumbled upon.  I feel so grateful to the many, many teacher-writers who have helped me fill my writer’s notebook with thoughts and ideas on dreary snow days like these.

What are your favorite ways to relieve the restlessness of several snow days?  Share in the comments!


Teach Readers, Not Books: A Case for Choice Reading in ALL Classes

Recently, in a pretty typical high school hallway, I overheard two very different conversations about books.

Conversation One:
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Oh my gosh, yes, I did, and I couldn’t believe the ending!!”
“I know! I cried so hard! I got makeup all over the pages!”
“Me too! But it was such a good ending, right?”
“Yeah. It had to end that way.”

Conversation Two:
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“What happened? I think we have a quiz today.”
“Well, the main character ended up…”

The first conversation was one between real readers. The second was a conversation between students just trying to pass their English class. It’s obvious that the kids who are already readers are the kids in the first conversation, while the kids who are being besieged by negative reading experiences are the kids in the second.

The day I heard those conversations, someone tweeted Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s “Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students.”  She writes powerfully about how some story mediums gave her “large and instant rewards for spending time with them,” but that reading novels and completing “deadening take-home reading comprehension questions” assigned to her did not.  I recognized myself in this post, as I had much the same experience.  It wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to read the classics, which I’d merely SparkNoted in high school.  This is me we’re talking about, who snatched the Twitter handle @litreader in 2008.  I, the kid who decided in 6th grade to read the entire public library, starting with author A and ending at Z, didn’t read what was assigned to me…simply because it had been assigned.

And then came Amy’s courageous and oh-so-right post yesterday about choice in AP and Honors level English classes.  I wish she’d written that post 12 years ago, when I was being beaten over the head with The Scarlet Letter.  Or 7 years ago, when I somehow, despite my own negative experiences, first began teaching and jumped into whole-class novels with gusto.  Thankfully, I met Amy a few years after I’d realized that that wasn’t the best way to get kids to love reading, and she’s helped me strengthen my teaching exponentially since then.  I’ve realized that it’s not the books that make kids love reading…it’s the experiences kids have with books, and it’s up to us to create conditions that foster the most positive of reading experiences.

When we value choice and focus our curriculum on authenticity and our students’ voices, we cultivate practices of lifelong reading. When we assign whole-class novels and base most of our coursework around them, we show students that we value books, not the act of reading itself.  Further, this practice values the teacher way too much–while in Penny Kittle’s words the teacher should be the best reader in the room, the teacher certainly shouldn’t be the only reader in the room.  Our students have excellent minds capable of making choices that will challenge their reading and thinking abilities.  We shouldn’t make all of those choices for them.

While you may believe that it is important for every student to be able to recognize a quote by Shakespeare at a cocktail party, you also hopefully believe in the value and power of reading. The only way to get our students to read for the rest of their lives–and become informed citizens and thinkers as a result–is to look into our classrooms and see our students as readers hungry for knowledge and wisdom, and not students who just need to know about certain books. The second doesn’t matter, at all. It’s not why we got into this profession, I hope–or at least it’s not why I got into this profession. If we want to create readers who will think and hope and dream and change the world, we have to teach those readers, not books.

A student-centered classroom that places choice and authenticity at its center is the answer.  The reading-writing workshop is a really effective format for that kind of classroom, and having it in place these last three or four years has made a world of difference in how my students and I view our time together.  Teaching has become much less a job for me, and much more a pleasurable way to pass my time.  I love talking to students about books, using my own expertise to help scaffold them up a reading ladder of text complexity.  I love reading their amazingly diverse writing and getting wonderful, authentic ideas for activities from them in writing conferences.  I love the sense of pride a kid shines with at the end of the year when he has defied an IEP and finished 18 books…but it breaks my heart when he fails senior English after a year of multiple-choice tests over Shakespeare.

And so, in the words of Natasha Vargas-Cooper, “To hell with Gatsby’s green light!”  Let them ponder it on their own time (they will; I promise you…I did).  Let’s teach readers…not books.

#NCTE14 J.44 Nonnegotiables Across the Landscape of Workshop

Jackie, Erika, Amy and I are excited to present at NCTE in Washington, D.C. on Saturday at 2:45 pm. Penny Kittle is our Chair. We are session J.44. Join us!

“I am the sum of my mentors,” writes Meenoo Rami in Thrive.  As a student at Miami University in 2005, I had no idea how fortunate I was to have Tom Romano as one of my mentors.  As a leader in educational writing, a teacher with his thumb on the pulse of research, and the giant who first introduced me to NCTE, Romano has always been my single biggest mentor.

As I thought for months about what I wanted to share with teachers regarding the readers-writers workshop at NCTE, I was reminded of an assignment I’d done in Romano’s class–to find the “red thread” of my teaching…my nonnegotiables regarding our profession.  I dug for it in the depths of my hard drive.

Re-reading it, I laughed as I always do at my older writing, but then I smiled.  Many of my nonnegotiables remain unchanged: sustained silent reading.  Craft informed by research.  Authenticity.  Engagement is central.  Model, model, model.

Tom Romano obviously did a damn good job as a mentor.

IMG_5031Those simple principles–plus my genuine passion for reading, and writing, and the joy I believe they can bring everyone–inform my practice day in and day out.  They are supported by the research of Penny Kittle, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Newkirk, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Linda Rief, and more.  I am the sum of those mentors, and in this season of giving thanks, I’m so grateful that I am.  My students have found incredible success because I stand on the shoulders of those giants, and I can’t wait to share their stories at our session in Washington, D.C.

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?

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