Tag Archives: planning

Planning Time for Thinking

One thing I know for sure:  Writing is hard. Lately, I’ve been reminded how hard as I’ve tried to keep up with Sarah Donovan’s challenge #verselove2019 to write a poem a day during the month of April.

It’s only day 9, and Oh, my!

It’s not even the poetry part I’m finding difficult, which is surprising. Deciding on an idea and then sticking to it has wrecked me for eight straight days. And now I’m wondering:

How often do I expect students to dive into drafting without giving them time to talk and question and change their minds about their ideas? Do they have enough time to play and mull and sit with their thoughts before they make a commitment–or before a draft is due?

I know what so many great writers say:  Just start writing; you’ll discover what you want to say. But what if that doesn’t work for everyone? Lately, it hasn’t worked for me.

So now I’m wondering:  How can I plan for enough time to give everyone the time they need to settle in to their ideas before I plan enough time for them to write?

Now, I’m not talking about timed writing — or state-mandated test writing. Those are different (and in my humble opinion) horrible inauthentic beasts. I’m talking about the process of thought. The thinking it takes to draft with intention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve rushed it.

And I want to slow it down.

#verselove2019

Amy Rasmussen lives and writes from her home in North Texas where the bluebonnets are blooming beautifully. She thinks about writing all the time and needs to get better at getting her thoughts on the page. Writing poetry, which is far out of her comfort zone, may help. You can follow her on Twitter @amyrass

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5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction

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First draft of a unit plan in my notebook

I plan my units of instruction in three-week chunks, alternating between a reading-focused unit and a writing-focused unit.  In every unit, and in every class period, I keep some routines the same, much like Amy describes here.  While I do most of the big thinking about a unit up front, I do leave some holes in the plans to make space for mini-lessons that are responsive to what I discover students need during our conferences.  And every year, I design brand new units.

While each unit is unique, I was reminded while at the NCTE Annual Convention of five non-negotiables to keep in mind when designing writing instruction.

Writing should be low-stakes.  Students need to write a lot, and a lot of that writing should be ungraded, unread, or worth very few points.  I have felt liberated in terms of grading writing since I read Kelly Gallagher’s research-based statement that students should be reading and writing four times as much as a teacher could ever grade.

I think, since I embraced that philosophy, that my students also feel liberated.  Their notebooks are a “safe place for regular, ungraded practice,” as Penny Kittle described in her Ignite session.  While we write in our notebooks every day, and outside of class in one-pagers, I only collect notebooks every two weeks, and only carefully read and respond to one or two pieces my students have marked.  Indeed, 80% of the writing we do stays in our notebooks and never makes it to ‘published’ form.  This takes the pressure off writers to produce something perfect or error-free, because “our classrooms need to be a safe place to fail,” in the words of Taylor Mali.

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The first two weeks of Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan–week three is filled with revision and getting to best draft #3 at the ‘deep end’

Teaching writing is complex, layered, and nuanced.  In her session on revision, Georgia Heard shared the five things all students need in order to make authentic revision happen:  “opportunities for students to write, mini-lessons on craft and revision, choice in topics, mentor texts, one-on-one conferences with both teachers and students.”  Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan he walked us through adhered to those rules remarkably well.  “Assigning writing and teaching writing are two different things.  Grading writing and assessing writing are two different things,” he reminded us.  It is impossible for students to produce great writing if it is merely assigned.  Thus, when I plan a unit of writing instruction, I leave ample time for craft mini-lessons, modeling my own writing, and talk amongst students and myself.

When teachers are writers ourselves, and experience the process of topic choice, revision, and studying craft moves beside our students, we can become the most effective teachers of writing.  We have to walk the talk.  “Great, effective teachers must be informed AND inspired,” Kwame Alexander asserted.  To be a truly informed teacher of writing, a teacher must be a writer herself. I learned more about writing a strong narrative while participating in NaNoWriMo alongside my students than I ever did just trying to teach fiction before I wrote fiction.  I loved the experience six years ago during my first attempt, and I’ve continued to complete all assignments beside my students ever since.  When we write with our students, inspiration will spread through “the contagion of passion,” in Penny Kittle’s words.

Writing should be personal.  While I love to write about reading, and find it valuable for students to do so often, most of the writing in my classroom is personalized, choice-driven, and often remains private.  When we do a nonfiction writing unit, like the rhetorical analysis we’re in the midst of right now, our written products are focused on the students’ relationships to the texts they’re analyzing–in this case, the misleading rhetoric often found in American politics.  Mostly we write narratives, even in the midst of nonfiction, telling the stories of our connections to the topics we discuss in informative or argumentative genres.

“You can write yourself out of dark places. How much of the writing we do in school nurtures that?” Gary Anderson wondered in his session on reflection.  We have to honor the fact that students are not inherently motivated to write for their futures–for college, job applications, or resumes–but rather they are motivated to write for the here and now, and for themselves.  This is why choice is, and will remain, at the center of my writing instruction.

How do you design writing instruction?  Share your process in the comments!

5 Ways to Enjoy the Last Month of School

Today we start a fun two weeks. Texas state exams and AP exams dual for the attention and time of most every student and teacher in the building.

Two weeks of juggling tests with students in and out of classrooms. Teachers putting on hats as proctors and hall monitors, shuffling to teach in different rooms so students can test in theirs. Stress can make cranky even the calmest souls.

Two weeks until the end of school after that. June 6 is our last day. Some days that sounds like the equivalent of enduring 12 long winters.

smart-goals1I must make the choice daily to be optimistic, to see the possible in all the end-of-year chaos.

5 Ways to Enjoy the Last Month of School:

1. Talk about Books. I will double the amount of time my students and I talk about books and reading. Summer slide is real, even for students in high school and AP English classes. I wrote some thoughts about summer reading here. I want my students to enjoy the reading they do this summer. Most have read double, some even triple, the number of books they read last year. I cringe thinking that many may not read even one book this summer. (The AP English Literature required summer reading holds little promise with Brave New World and Beowulf.) If we talk about books enough, and if my students write down titles that sound interesting enough, and if maybe I allow them to take enough books from my classroom library home for the summer — maybe even my most reluctant readers will read at least one book before they come back to school in August.

2. Sit and Listen. Last week a student tapped on my door during my conference period. “Mrs. Rasmussen, are you busy?” I was but I waved her inside. I shut my laptop and turned my chair, and Mikaila began to talk. She told me that she’d been in her business class when an idea for her writing project “burst in my brain, and I started writing it down, and the more I wrote the more I imagined and the more I began to cry, and then the teacher looked over my shoulder and got worried about what I was writing. I told her, ‘I’m okay, I just need to go see my English teacher.'” Grinning, she finally took a breath. Mikaila stood and talked with me for the rest of the period. She’s got a lot of hurt in her, and she needed someone to hear it. That is all I did. I listened. I still had essays to read and leave feedback on, but that afternoon with this sweet young woman was the best I have had in weeks. I felt needed. During the next few weeks I will try to be still, open my door, and listen. I doubt Mikaila is the only one who needs to talk.

3. Allow Students to Self-Assess. When my students care about their topics, their writing is always better, but after 11 years of school, so many of my writers care more about the grade they’ll get than about the quality of their writing. I’ve tried to change that all year. For the next few weeks, my students will read and revise their own work again and again. They will read one another’s writing and offer feedback, and then they will revise again. We have done two rounds of this already, and with the exception of just a few kids who put forth little effort and scored their work high, most everyone wrote an honest assessment of their writing process. They are thinking about the thinking they do as they write on the page. That’s the best kind of assessment possible.

4. Begin Planning for Next Year. Not full-on planning, mind you. That would make me crazy, but I have started a list of things I will change. I know I need to do a better job with organizing writer’s notebooks and teaching vocabulary. I know I want to read more poetry, although I added a lot in my primarily non-fiction AP English Language class this year. I know I need to do the lessons we did just last week early in the fall. I’ll add tabs in a writer’s notebook that I can use as a sample with my new students in the fall, and I’ll tinker in Drive as I make notes in my lesson plans. Planning gives me energy, so it makes sense to note changes I want to make now instead of hoping I remember them later.

5. Confer and confer and confer. Like you and your students, the relationships my students and I have built all year are strong and trustworthy. I want to utilize this trust and push my students further in their reading and writing than I would have been able to do earlier. The only way to do this is to talk with them more one-on-one. Every day as students read their self-selected books and write their self-selected projects, I will pull up a chair and we will talk. “What are you thinking?” I’ll ask, and they will open up and tell me. They know I will listen and offer feedback that they can take, or not. That’s the beauty of teaching students to take ownership of their learning.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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