Tag Archives: Professional Learning Community

A Call for Real Opportunities to Learn — Not More Test Prep

Natl Literacy Trust Survey 2016

Of course, this data caught my eye.

My friend Gary Anderson posted it on Facebook with this link to the National Literacy Trust Findings from their Annual Literacy Survey 2016: Celebrating Reading for Enjoyment.

I had just spent the day working with teachers in Clear Creek ISD as they launched their two week STAAR Academy, a series of summer school-like classes designed to immerse students in authentic reading and writing — not the typical mode of tutorials often offered in the hope of helping students pass their state mandated English exams.

Billy Eastman, Clear Creek ISD High School ELA and World Languages Coordinator, is a visionary who believes in his teachers and in the students they serve. He knows that when students choose books they want to read, experience learning in an environment that validates their personal lives and learning journeys, and are given space and instruction that allows them to write about the topics that matter to them, students grow. They grow in confidence, and they grow in ability.

Thirty-five teachers met with me in a two hour institute this morning. We read and talked and wrote and talked. We built a community of teacher-readers and writers. We engaged in learning — all with a central goal:  How can we create a space for all students to advance as readers and writers?

Then, teachers planned. In teams they designed lessons intent on engaging students as real readers and writers — not just students reading and writing for a test.

After lunch, teachers facilitated similar community building activities with the roughly 250 students attending the academy.

With generous funding by his district, Mr. Eastman was able to provide books, lots of new high-interest YA literature, in which students could choose a book they want to read. This is the first step in “celebrating reading for enjoyment” and all the benefits that come with it.

As I visited the 12 classrooms this afternoon, I witnessed students writing and talking about their reading lives.

“I like stories okay,” one boy said, “but I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not really into reading,” said another.

“Reading isn’t my thing,” another boy said.

I asked one young man if he liked to read, and he told me: “Yes, I read a lot.” He had just selected Scythe, the new book by Neil Shusterman, and I could tell he was eager to get started reading it. He’d already read Unwind and quickly told me how much he enjoyed that series. The other three students in this boy’s small group were less enthusiastic about reading anything, but they were willing to try. One chose Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, another Boy 21 by Matthew Quick, and the other Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez.

As I observed every classroom this afternoon, I noticed a few things:

  • The ratio of boys to girls in most every classroom was at least 4 to 1.
  • Boys want to read books that look “tough.” The cover has to captivate them.
  • Girls will choose books with male protagonists more often than boys will choose books with female protagonists.
  • Few students choose historical fiction — they seem drawn to realistic fiction and dystopian.
  • Many students chose books teachers might deem too difficult for them. (One of the most popular book choices offered today was All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.)

For the next nine weekdays, students will read their chosen books and spend time engaged in their community of learners. They will practice the moves of real readers and writers as teachers practice the routines of readers-writers workshop and read and write beside their students. Besides the obvious benefit for students, teachers will engage in the kind of professional development that truly matters, the kind that gives hands-on experience with students as they practice the art and craft of teaching.

I am excited for the outcome. I am excited that teachers are excited. I am honored to be a part of Mr. Eastman’s vision for his district.

So what does this have to do with the National Literacy Trusts’ Annual Survey? A lot.

As I read through the report this evening, I found nothing startling or surprising. Of course, there are advantages to reading for enjoyment.

But then I shifted my thinking and began questioning the why and the what. Why does the data say what it does? Why are their gaps in enjoyment between boys and girls? Why are their gaps between age groups? What is happening in schools that might be causing these gaps? What is happening in students’ lives that might be causing these gaps? What can change if we approach reading and writing instruction differently? What should change?

I challenge you to read the report and ask yourself similar questions. Then, I challenge you to take the next step:  follow Billy Eastman’s lead. Whatever your sphere of influence, how can you allow a space for reading for enjoyment? And if you haven’t done so yet: How can you change the model of instruction in your classroom, in your school, or in your district so all students have the chance to become real readers and writers who enjoy what they read and write?

Don’t all students deserve similar opportunities to learn — not more test prep?

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

Join the #3TTBookClub

We’ve probably all seen a ton of posts about the “best” books of 2016, and our To Read Next lists and wish lists and carts in numerous online book shops have grown like crazy. Thankfully, I have some grant money just itching to be spent on new books for my classroom library. Here’s a list all in one place, if you want to take a look. Thanks @shawnacopola!

We’ve also probably set reading goals for ourselves. I played in my new planner, setting some goals that I will share with my students when I ask them to create their new challenges.

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If you are looking for a way to spice up your reading in 2017, consider this:

Join the #3TTBookClub on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page.

Why #3TTBookClub?

In the introduction to her book Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller writes: “I want my students to enjoy reading and find it meaningful when they are in my class, but I also want them to understand why reading matters to their lives. A reading workshop classroom provides a temporary scaffold, but eventually students must have self-efficacy and the tools they need to go it alone. The goal of all reading instruction is independence. If students remain depends on teachers to remove all obstacles that prevent them from reading, they won’t become independent readers.”

How do we help our students become independent readers if we are not independent readers ourselves?

I am often surprised at how many English teachers I meet who admit to not reading. I wrote a bit about that in a post last year, and I extend the same invitation:  Are you walking the talk in your content? (The invitation to guest post on this blog stands as well. Every teacher’s voice matters. Your voice matters.)

How will #3TTBookClub work?

We batted this one about a bit, but it didn’t take long to decide that even when it comes to book clubs, choice matters. Each month Shana, Lisa, and I will choose a book. We will introduce our books on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page and invite other readers to read along with us. Read one of the books, two of them, or all three (My personal goal, but, you know…time… and all that feedback to leave on all those papers.)

We will share ideas on how we might book talk certain books with our students, share insights from pedagogy books we read, share ways we might use excerpts to teach craft, and just overall share our deep and abiding book love.

What have you got to lose?

We hope you will join us in #3TTBookClub in 2017 — and please, use the #3TTBookClub hashtag and invite your friends. See you on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page.

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Follow Three Teachers Talk on Twitter @3TeachersTalk, on Instagram at 3TT.us, Pinterest at Three Teachers Talk, and Facebook @ThreeTeachersTalk. Oh, and remember to subscribe to the TTT blog, so you never miss a post.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

Shana and I were privileged to present a session during #TheEdCollabGathering on Saturday. If you joined us live, thank you! If you’d like to see our session, here it is. If you have questions we did not answer, leave them in the comments. We’ll do our best to answer.

Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

A big thank you to @iChrisLehman and the EdCollab Community.

Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

In a readers and writers workshop, everything comes back to choice.

Have you seen the movie You’ve Got Mail?  If so, you’ll recall the scene where Tom Hanks is giving Meg Ryan business advice.  “The Godfather is the answer to any question. ‘What should I pack for summer vacation?’ ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli.’ ‘What day is it?’ ‘Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.'”

It’s the same with choice.  “How will I know they’re reading if I haven’t read the book?”  They’ll be engaged, authentically, because they’ve chosen their books.  “How will I get them to want to revise their writing?”  They’ll want to strengthen the writing about topics and in genres they’ve chosen.  “How can I assess them if they’re all reading different books?”  You offer choice in ways for students to show their mastery–reflections, conferences, blogs, and more.

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We have written about choice here and here and here.  It crops up again and again in our writing, thinking, and talking.

And we’re excited to talk more about choice with you all this Saturday, April 2, during The Educator Collaborative’s annual Gathering.  This amazing, free, inspiring day is the perfect way to spend a spring Saturday, as it will leave you energized, rejuvenated, and brimming with ideas.  It’s the modern PLC at its best, and the perfect way to help you finish the school year strong.

Tune in at 1:00 EST as we discuss choice as the keystone in English instruction.  We’ll share:

  • Research to support choice in literacy education
  • Strategies for teaching independent vs. small group vs. whole-class novels
  • Why conferring is at the heart of workshop
  • Writer’s workshop non-negotiables and the use of skills learned from independent reading

Please let us know in the comments, via Twitter (@amyrass or @litreader), or on our Facebook page what questions you have about choice as the keystone in secondary English classes.  We’ll be happy to answer them Saturday, and we can’t wait to see you there!

#3TTWorkshop: Asking Good Questions When Making the Move into Workshop

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Book talks about NF like Columbine by Dave Cullen and talking about the writer’s research process capture many readers

Shana and I recently conducted a two-day professional development workshop in Franklin, WI — such inspiring teachers in Franklin!

Franklin administrators asked that we help their teachers move into a workshop pedagogy, which is, of course, a favorite topic at Three Teachers Talk. We shared the background of workshop, which stems from the work of Don Murray and Don Graves, and from the work of our mentor Penny Kittle, whose ears had to be ringing and ringing since we said her name a million times throughout those two days.

Franklin teachers caught the vision and the value of letting loose the reins and opening their hearts to choice reading and writing. They just needed to experience it themselves from the seats of their students.

The discussion covers five of the pressing questions teachers asked during our pd.

They:  Where are some great places where I can get resources for books and materials for my classroom library?

Us:  The good news for Franklin teachers is the buy-in from their insightful administrators who have reserved funds to begin building classroom libraries. Not all teachers who catch the vision for choice independent reading, and the need for engaging, well-curated classroom libraries, are so fortunate. We weren’t. But finding resources and is certainly possible. Shana wrote this great post awhile back about grants she’s been awarded and the many businesses that give funds to buy books. Amy’s had great success with Donor’s Choose, one of the options Shana mentions. Three grant projects funded there so far! Lewisville Education Foundation has also been a great resource for Amy’s students and the books they love. Be sure you check out the grants offered through your own EF.

Other resources besides books are important, too. We spent time watching and responding to spoken word poetry with our new friends, modeling quickwrites, and studying the craft moves of these poets. Some of our favorite spoken word poets are Shane Koyczan, Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, Marshall Jones, and Amy’s new favorite Harry Baker. Search online, and you’ll find YouTube videos and posts with the texts.

Engaging non-fiction articles are an essential in workshop instruction. Mentor texts, craft studies, and pairings with literature all make for authentic engagement with thought-provoking non-fiction. Find interesting articles at NewsELA, Izzit.org, Essay5W, and The Learning Network at the NY TImes. And, of course, the excellent mentors curated by our friends at Moving Writers.

They:  How can I design units that foster inquiry-based outcomes for my students?

Us:  We lead teachers in a gallery walk activity where they explored ideas of what authenticity, modeling, dialogue, inquiry, and other workshop essentials look like from both a teacher and the students’ points of view. It was interesting for us to see the many iterations of inquiry these teachers listed and how closely they overlapped with authenticity. Yes, they should.

However, getting students curious about learning does not always happen instinctively — especially when they come to us hardened by years of sit ‘n git classroom instruction. We must provoke inquiry, pique imaginations, inspire curiosity.  Of course, the move to choice opens doors to many of these needs. Providing, introducing, and talking about highly engaging literature helps. But so does allowing students to decide how they want to read it and what they want to do with it to show they are learning from reading it.

Teachers have to let go of control. We have to trust that students want to learn. We have to stop doing all the hard thinking for them. What if we let them find the mentor texts that best suit their needs as writers? What if we give them chances to determine themes they want to study, and then let them take those themes into other genres and ideas?

Let’s invite students into authentic and on-going research, so we move far far away from the one-unit-one-major-research-paper. Shana’s multi-genre project and my students’ engaging in our multi-modal feature article unit are good examples of how we apply this thinking in our own classrooms.

They:  I write every day for my job, but I have never written a “persuasive essay” for my job. How do I design authentic instruction that mirrors what my students might have to write in the future?

Us:  Read like a writer. Look for mentors everywhere. And know your kids. 

We know, if the answer was really that easy, everyone would do it. Although we do believe every teacher could. One way we’ve found to incorporate authentic instruction is to conduct regular craft studies of a variety of texts. We read a lot, and we look for texts in which we can discuss with our students topics like structure, literary and rhetorical devices, tone, etc. We call this reading like writers.

Shana and I agree, we first learned the value of reading like writers from Katie Wood Ray in her book Wondrous Words. Here’s a great Pinterest board to get you started. Shana and I will post the craft studies we find and use with our students more often. You’ll find several we previously posted when you search the “craft study” category.

They:  How do we hold students truly accountable?

Us:  In a word, conferring. We must talk to our students often and with purpose. 

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Modeling Silent Reading Conferences

Amy remembers when she first started moving students into self-selected texts how her conferences revolved around the books students read. Eventually, she realized that if she wanted to truly move readers, she needed to talk more to the student — as a reader — than about the book she was reading. This is an important shift in mindset and practice.

If we only encourage students to talk about the plot, summarizing this or that, maybe describing the characters, we miss out on valuable opportunities to help the reader stretch and grow in the skills she needs to mature as an independent reader. Identity matters.

Teachers foster a love of reading not by focusing on the books but by focusing on the reader of those books and helping those students identify themselves as readers. If you need ideas on conferring, Amy and Jackie discussed conferring in this #3TTWorkshop post, Amy wrote about conferring in a crowded classroom here, and Shana wrote about a what to read conference here.

Another important thing to remember about accountability:  We can ask students to write about their independent reading. Shana and I both ask students to evaluate their reading lives — several times a year. We consider these summative assessments, and students provide thoughtful commentary on how they struggle, grow, and succeed as readers. Amy quotes many of her students’ evaluations here. They are honest and insightful.

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Speed dating with books increases student talk about books, which increases students reading good books

When we ask students to write about their reading, it must be a task they see as worthwhile — and one we see as a support to our ultimate goal:  developing life-long readers. Too often, we read about teachers who punitively assign tasks to “catch their students not reading.” If this is you, please stop.

They:  How do I create engagement not compliance due to grades?

Us:  Choice. Choice leads to engagement. Engagement leads to autonomy. Autonomy leads to independence. Independence is engagement.

Trust the process, and see for yourself.

 

The Best Lesson Series: What Makes a Work of Literature?

NTCE Affiliate Breakfast with Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year

A few weeks ago I read this post by Shanna Peebles, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, “Building Bridges with Visual Literacy.” She writes about her lesson in the book The Best Lesson Series, a book in which I also contributed a favorite lesson. Shana includes the background of her lesson, an experience and a realization she had when she began working with refugee students many years ago.

Reading Shana’s blog, I reflected on my own refugee students. Mine come from Myanmar, most having walked through Thailand at night holding the hands of younger siblings while moving toward their fathers who left their villages months before to secure passage for their families. These children grew up fast and they hope for much. They study hard because they know the value of education.

They represent the reason that I teach literacy: It is through literacy that we gain power.

The way to grow as literate individuals is to read. I’ve heard my mentors say it again and again: “The only way to develop readers is to get them reading” and “The only way to learn to read is to, well, read.”

Of course, the same holds true for writing.

The lesson I contributed to The Best Lesson Series pertains to both. Here’s the background of my lesson:

I am not one of those readers who jumps to the last few pages to read how a book ends before I have ever started it. I do not understand those people. At all. I like to savor a good book, take it slow — sip the beauty as I breathe in the language, sigh with pleasure as I see how the words work to shape meaning. Or, I like to devour a book in one sitting, curled up on the couch, holding my breath and gasping for more. So, it’s a little surprising that I pulled the last paragraph of a book to use as a craft study.

I promise it gives nothing away. I also promise:  You may just shudder at the loveliness of the language like I do. Or not. Seems some critics panned The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt while others raved about its uniqueness and style (See the Vanity Fair article “It’s Tartt, But Is It Art?. Of course, critics cannot seem to agree on what makes a text literature either. (See the Harper’s Magazine article “What Is Literature? In Defense of the Canon”.)

The author of the article about Tartt’s work poses the same question I ask my students to ponder each year:  What makes a work of literature, and who gets to decide?

Since mine is a workshop classroom where our primary focus is writing, students choose the books they read. That is not to say we do not read high-quality complex literature or read literature as a whole class. We read many passages together and learn skills that students then apply to their independent reading and the novels they discuss in book clubs four times a year.

My goal with books is to develop readers, and too many of my students did not read when I made all the decisions about their reading. However, many of my students do not know how to choose books they might enjoy or books with enough complexity to challenge their thinking. The drive to fulfill my goal to develop readers becomes multifaceted. Allowing choice means I must constantly be on the lookout for richly written passages that we can study, and I must read volumes of high-quality literature, YA and adult alike, so that I may match my adolescent readers with good books.

I love the last paragraph of The Goldfinch because I can use it for several learning opportunities. This short passage can teach us much about what makes a work of literature. I agree with researcher and reading theorist Louise Rosenblatt:  “Students need to be helped to have personally satisfying and personally meaningful transactions with literature. Then they will develop the habit of turning to literature for the pleasures and insights it offers.”

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  We help our students love literature so they learn from it as we do.

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It’s an honor to be a part of this work. I am surrounded by inspiring educators with intriguing and thought-provoking ideas, and I hope you will consider adding this title to your professional library so you will be surrounded, too.

Teachers sharing with teachers what works. That’s the best pd I know.

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Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning From My Mistakes

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A student caught sneaking his independent reading book into his lit circle novel…this is a first.

Every year I arrive at the second quarter with a new approach, idea, or plan.  This will be the solution! I think.  This will sustain momentum.  This will help us make it through the slump.  This will be the difference between dreading quarter two and praying for quarter three, but year after year, I am wrong.  For the past three years I’ve convinced myself it is the book—Lord of the Flies is too boring; they can’t appreciate Bradbury’s language in Fahrenheit 451.

The problem isn’t with my students though—it’s with me.  I am doing it wrong, and while I am ashamed to admit the honest truth, I realize now the error of my ways.

I “gave up” traditional teaching three years ago, when I transitioned to a workshop model of education.  I carved out time for reading, instated notebooks, poured over workshop guides, and asked countless questions of my mentors and colleagues.  The bare bones were in place, and I was convinced that I had the structure necessary to shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom built on choice.  In many cases I did; every start of the school year began smoothly with excited readers and passionate writers.  We told stories, read poetry, shared quick writes, and analyzed craft, but I dreaded quarter two, the quarter when together, we would read our first of three required whole class novels.

Quarter two was when I lost their voices, their attention, and their passion.  With whole class novels, our focus shifted from “who are you and what are you thinking?” to “who is your author and what is he thinking?” 

Under the weight of scaffolding, curriculum standards, core competencies, and competency based rubrics, my mini-lessons focused on literary terminology instead of literary exploration.  To me, reading mini-lessons meant teaching the same terms I’d grown up with: symbolism, Freytag’s pyramid, direct and indirect characterization, round and flat characters, etc.  This meant my lessons shifted from writing-centered lessons that started with the question, “What do you notice about the author’s craft?” to terminology-centered lessons, that started with, “Apply your understanding of (fill in the blank) to the book.”  The latter produced significantly less empowering results.

So, I asked and probed my students.  I peppered them with questions during study halls and extra help; I snuck in questions with the straggling Writer’s Club members after meetings, gave out surveys, and chatted at lunch with colleagues.  And while I was convinced that it was because I was “forcing” them to read unrelatable classics, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was missing something bigger.

By the time I sat down with my living mentor Linda Rief at a coffee shop in Exeter, I realized I was doing it wrong in quarter two.  The pieces gradually added up—I knew the three reading options I had given them for literature circles weren’t choices at all.  I was hoping they would read the books in their entirety, but I knew that this year would lend itself to additional groans, frustration, and abandonment.  At the end of the day, I was a workshop teacher defaulting to a traditional methodology or worse, was I a traditional teacher pretending to run a workshop?

The two greatest pieces of advice came first via my special educator mother, who asked, “Why not just teach them good writing?  Isn’t that what classics are?” And second through Linda Rief, who pointblank asked me why I needed to teach plot triangles anyways.

Were there successes in my literature circle unit? Most definitely.  Sure, the vast majority didn’t fall in love with Golding, and it breaks my heart that they couldn’t revel in the beauty of Bradbury’s language, but in final surveys, nearly every student appreciated the time they had to discuss the novels in small groups.  They enjoyed talking about the stories with peers, and while not all of them loved the books, many pointed out that this was the first time they engaged in authentic conversations about literature without a teacher moderating the discussions.  They learned; they just didn’t learn the way I had hoped.

Part of me feels like I lost four weeks that we could have spent more effectively growing together as readers and writers while looking at the beauty of craft in book clubs centered on young adult lit of their choosing.  The other part of me feels like I failed my students in providing this idealized version of what I hoped our class would be and then slamming them back to reality with the same sort of stock analysis I question.

I am impatient when it comes to growth, particularly when it comes to my teaching.  While I understand my students’ needs as developing readers and writers, I am quick to judge my own struggles.  Even as an intern, one of my personal goals was “to be at the level of a second year teacher.”  I repeated this mantra knowing full well that the only way to be at the level of a second year teacher was to be a second year teacher.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.

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