Conversation Starter: What kinds of reflections do you have for your year? Let’s start with celebrations.
Amy: Before I celebrate, let me say this: I have two whole pages of notes written on the back covers of my writer’s notebooks with reminders of what to do new and differently next year. Why is it always easier to focus on the negatives that need improving versus the positives that worked well?
Lisa: This was a year of experimentation and excitement, and my celebrations come from student reflection and collegial collaboration. Our district has a clear vision that they want to move workshop from K-8 to K-12, so it was a year of exploration. Last year, workshop loomed. We had very little knowledge of what it would look like at the high school level, so I naturally…Googled. Having read Penny Kittle and talked with a few colleagues who were already embracing elements of workshop, I was excited. I loved the idea of choice and set about organizing some notes of “how to.” I knew, as department leader, I would be tasked with spearheading the shift with my colleagues, so I wanted to have some solid ideas of how best to proceed.
If you Google “Readers workshop for high school English,” guess who comes up? Ta-da. I had found Three Teachers Talk. Specifically, Amy’s post with resources to make the move to workshop. I had struck gold. I read. And read, and read, and shared the blog with our literacy coach, and read, and started quoting sections of the blog and taking notes, and read some more. Real teachers, in real classrooms, with honest reflections on the work. I was elated.
Our district leaders moved forward, rolling out workshop with UBD training, visits to the middle school to see workshop in action, and reviews of Penny Kittle’s key principles. And while valuable and necessary for our progress as a department, it wasn’t until February when Amy and Shana came to Franklin, professionally developed us by teaching us in the workshop just as they would their own students, and let us experience workshop firsthand that workshop really took off. The department was excited. There was wild planning, replanning, reading, purchasing of books, collaborative meetings on the fly (five minute passing periods afford more than enough time for drive-by enthusiastim). And talk. So much talk. Though we weren’t expected to make the “official” move to workshop until next year, we were all trying new things (book talking, setting up writer’s notebooks, and shopping on thriftbooks.com), seeing incredible responses from students (readers spread out all over the building and students writing something, anything, every single day), and basically diving into the work to see what would help us float.
It hasn’t been easy, but as I wrote yesterday, the small (and for some of us BIG) moves we are making have us enthusiastic about what workshop will look like across our department. It’s been a great year to grow and see some incredible enthusiasm from students as choice changed their minds about the written word and its power.
The big takeaway from workshop this year? Do it. Now. You won’t regret it.
Shana: This was a weird year for me, and I’m wistful. I was just telling my mom that I feel like I barely taught this year, and I think I mostly feel that way because I didn’t have a firm end of the year (I was out on maternity leave from mid-April to the last day of school). Instead of doing reflections alongside my students, studying their self-assessments and working with them on the year-end MGPs, learning from my own thinking and my reading of my students’ thoughts, I just…slowly drifted away from my classroom and saw most of my students for the last time at their graduation instead of for a celebratory last-day-of-school photo. It made the end of my teaching career feel really nebulous. I hated that.
But, there were lots of great things about this year. I looped with my students, so I began the year knowing most of their likes and wants and needs already. I was able to dive right back into helping some of my reluctant readers find new books, help my new students assimilate into a workshop culture more seamlessly, and leap into newer, more complex writing tasks with more confidence. I loved that so many tenets of workshop were already norms in our classroom in September–book talks, conferences, notebooks, and just book love in general. It was transformative to begin a school year without having to gain students’ trust with the workshop model, instead having the trust already established.
And my students did and wrote and created great things. Carleen reassured me that workshop structures made her fall in love with reading again. Jak showed me that having choice in reading helped him advance as a reader far further than any assigned text could have catapulted him. Tyler showed me that even the most reluctant reader can fall in love with a complex classic. And countless other kids helped me re-fall in love with reading and writing and teaching every day in my classroom, when they had miniature successes and failures and highs and lows. I celebrate that act of falling in love with literacy all year long.
Amy: My biggest celebrations came in the form of one-on-one moments with students. I wrote about an experience with Diego previously. He ended up writing a well-constructed
and extremely personal multi-genre piece about his brother’s drug addiction. Our final conference was a powerful moment. Diego opened up about his love for music and showed me how to find his YouTube channel. He is a talented musician. His ability with poetic language suddenly made sense. I wish I had a do over with this talented young man. I would have done things differently.
Another celebration came from a conference I had with Emerita in the spring. She was a tough student: smart, outgoing, talkative, eager — but she didn’t like that I wanted to
push her into writing even better, reading even better. We locked horns, and sometimes her silent attitude made me feel inept and out of sorts. (I know we shouldn’t take things personal, but I struggle with this. I want everyone to like me.) Finally, in a moment of
divine inspiration, I gave students to opportunity to do some extra credit. Anyone who wanted to improve their grade could research the work of Carol Dweck on mindset and then write up an essay that answered specifics about the characteristics of Dweck’s work and how it relates to their attitudes in school. Emerita changed after that. She understood what I’d been trying to get her to see all along: we can always work on our craft and improve. After our conference reviewing her extra credit essay, her work improved as did her attitude towards everything we did the rest of the year. I share a copy of her conferring notes here.
What are some things you know you want to do differently?
Amy: Well, like I said, I have two pages of notes. Some of them relate to things I’ve done successfully in the past and just forgot to do this year like taking more time to allow students to decorate their writer’s notebooks. I’ve always allotted sufficient time for students to do this in class, but I didn’t this year, and as a result, I noticed quite early on that students did not have much attachment to their notebooks. They still represented “just another composition notebook for class” instead of a place to capture ideas and notes about themselves as writers. I’ve already got NOTEBOOKS clearly outlined on next year’s calendar.
I also need to be a better Reading Teacher. That might sound strange since I teach AP Lang, but many of my students struggle with reading, not to mention critical reading. I need to utilize strategies that will help them not only read more, which I already do quite well, but read better. I’m re-reading Cris Tovani’s books, and I will introduce Beers & Probst Notice and Note next year. I’ve used both in the past, but not with AP students. After two years in this position, I’ve learned that we’re going to need to practice some basic comprehension and some thematic work before we can go too far into rhetorical analysis.
Shana: My hubby spilled an air freshener on my notebook yesterday, so from its ruined depths I’ve turned to my “teaching ideas galore” section for this question. The first thing I’d like to shift into thinking about is ways to write or respond to reading nonlinguistically. For years, much of my students’ writing was about reading. Then I shifted away from that and toward making reading and writing activities independent and celebratory, while still asking what we could learn from one and apply to the other. I’ve kind of gone back toward writing more about reading this year, but next year I’d like to see how we might tell stories through visuals, or write book reviews in doodles, or create collages to illustrate patterns in a text, or diagram similar story arcs across independent reading books. I’ll be on the lookout for this theme during my summer reading of journals and books.
The obvious change I’ll be shifting to is toward working with preservice teachers rather than high school students. Still, I’d like to keep many similar structures in place. As Tom Romano began every class with two poems, I think it’d still be valuable to begin classes with two booktalks. Writer’s notebooks are a must, as are things like book clubs, wide reading, and writing with an eye for mentor texts. I’ll be asking myself, though, how to prepare a new generation of teachers for the wild world of high school learning.
Lisa: Give me a second, I need to gather the seven million post-it notes I have scattered across my existence and I can tell you the six million things I am ready to improve for next year (the other million notes are on books I want to read).
One thing I am really looking forward to is the idea of total immersion. We’ve done a lot of standards based planning around this move to workshop, and I’m excited to blend the skills focus with the choice I’ve already dipped into.
I’m also excited about the creative aspect that Shana talked about above. While more and more skills based over the years, my instruction, up until recently, had really still focused on reading and then writing about that reading. Analysis is obviously important, but there are so many more authentic, thought-provoking, student-driven assessment tools and just plain exploratory modes of expression, that I really want to delve into. To think, I taught through a few years there where poetry was almost lost in my classroom. Thank goodness I rediscovered it for mentor work and had my students writing powerful verse over and over. What amazing modes discourse will I discover next year that I will eventually be appalled to have missed before? Geek alert. I am so excited to find out.
Finally, better time management. A wonderful colleague of mine, Mrs. Leah Tindall (co-organizer of our high school’s incredible Literary Showcase) said of this year that we were stressing out because we were trying to balance new work with an old workload. This was so true. The work I need to be doing is talking with my students, reading with my students, getting organized enough to have conferences lead to more pointed minilesson work, and provide ongoing feedback that doesn’t require every extra minute of my existence to “grade.” Certainly, workshop is no easy way out in terms of time invested, but it’s time invested differently. Time invested with one-on-one feedback at the forefront and building our students up by our own examples as readers and writers. This certainly takes time, but it does so in a way that makes so much more of an impact than just red pen on paper. It’s honest communication. It’s investment. It’s caring.
I need to stop using reading time to take attendance, and get out there and confer with my students. I need to stop putting off the reorganization of my library, because really, how can I make solid recommendations if I can’t find the book I’m after? I need to stop providing the bulk of my feedback with a pen at all and start using my ears more – feedback after careful listening and reflection. That’s what I’m after next year. I want to hear my students talk from their hearts and their minds and on paper in ways my previous teaching didn’t account for. I can’t wait to hear all that they have to say.
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