Tag Archives: Readers Workshop

Co-creating Workshop-Based Units to Personalize Them

As my school district began to anchor itself in the world of personalized learning, I quickly realized that this was a nice fit for the workshop model since both valued voice and choice and both operated on a student-driven framework. One of the aspects of personalized learning that really appealed to me was the idea of students actually generating the learning topics, tasks, and assessments. It seemed like it was helping accomplish a key workshop goal, which is ownership. So as this school year began I resolved to give it a shot–I wanted to build the year in such a way that it was workshop-based but so that it also allowed for personalization through the co-creation of our units.

Getting started

To do that, I used a resource our district provided called “Orchestrating the Move to Personalized Learning” in which Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick outline 7 areas that teachers can begin the shift to student ownership. They give practical examples of what co-creating looks like at different stages with the goal of moving from teacher-driven to student-driven learning. At a workshop this summer Zmuda pointed us to a couple of other practical co-creating resources, like this play-by-play for co-creating curriculum with students by Sam Nelson (video version here). In short, the progression through the standards stays the same (this is my background work) while there is flexibility in the content or how students access the standards.

How we’re trying to do it

This is a rough outline of the process we have followed in my junior level English III classes this semester to build our workshop units together:

  • Select the semester’s topics: At the beginning of the year we took a day as a class to give input and feedback about potential topics for the school year. I narrowed our list to 10 and students voted on three first semester units. They chose Friday night lights, school shootings, and perfectionism. Below left is what they saw; below right is part of the results.
  • Build the unit’s essential questions: We began each unit by generating the essential questions–what we would study.  I used a resource from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe to help students understand the traits of good essential questions, then we used the PEM (philosophical, ethical, and moral) framework to build questions. Students did this in teams, then submitted their questions to me. I organized by combining like questions and eliminating stray or non-essential questions. We used these questions to guide our reading and writing times and to design the final tasks and discussions (including the Unit 2 Socratic seminar, comprised entirely of their questions). You can see what they built for Unit 2 and Unit 3
  • Choose a reading pathway: For the violence unit (Unit 3) I gave them a list comprised of my recs and their recs. They could choose beyond the list with prior approval. Having many reading pathways allows the unit to be personalized and allows reading workshop to keep the class discussions centered on skills rather than plot events. I also like that they can have choice but still participate in ongoing thematic discussions. Some chose books based on the unit’s essential questions, and some chose the book and then worked to determine which questions matched up to their book. Some chose academic non-fiction and some chose young adult novels. Students also set their own reading schedules based on a series of 3-4 deadlines.
  • Define the learning goals/outcomes: At this point in the year I am still doing most of this work. I envisioned students designing ways to demonstrate their learning and understanding, but there are so many moving pieces right now that I decided to find ways to give them some managed choice. They have set some independent goals for reading and writing, but I have controlled the end tasks (informal reading check-ins, design challenges, and seminars) with a goal of finding ways to bring their workshop reading into some meaningful collaborative discussion.
Unit 3 seminar discussions

Takeaway

As we are beginning the final push to finish this semester, I’ve been really encouraged by the learning experiences we’ve had and I think it’s because of the investment in personalizing the course’s structure. In the past my focus was on helping students to read tough material (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) that I had selected or to discuss open-ended questions I had designed. Now, students are digging into the nuances of research on gun violence in a much more organic way. Because they had generated the topic, chosen the book, and generated the questions, our Socratic seminar was really authentic and full of meaningful dialogue. It’s far from perfect, but I’m excited about the effects of the small shifts in ownership that we’re making.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s currently learning to be a good passenger while his baby girl learns to drive. Follow Nathan @MHSCoates

Mini-Lesson Monday: Great Sportswriting is Worth Two Reads

In fifth grade, I attended a writing workshop with sportswriter Paul Daugherty at the helm.  A columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, he encouraged we wee ten-year-olds to think about how we might revise more quickly and do our prewriting in our heads.  He spoke about his experiences writing half a story while watching a game unfold, sometimes being tempted to write the ending before the ending had even occurred.  At age ten, I found him eloquent, mysterious, and inspiring–I decided then that I wanted to be a journalist.

Although I dropped my journalism major after one year in college, I still enjoy Daughterty’s columns in the Enquirer and occasionally Sports Illustrated.  And as an adult, I see his process in his product.  The craft of Daugherty’s writing is one of the things that made me enjoy sportswriting, and now, strong pieces about America’s most-loved athletic pastimes are some of my favorite things to read.

So, when Tom Romano sent me this piece from the New York Times, I thought immediately of how students would love the “metaphorical, descriptive” writing “with quotes and assertions and a great final line.”

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Tom Romano’s great description of this piece in the Times.

Objectives: Identify patterns in the author’s writing to characterize his voice; find where the author cites evidence that supports his claims; infer the writer’s process; apply concepts of writer’s voice and strong argument writing to your own nonfiction pieces.

Lesson:  I’ll distribute copies of “Twitchy, Sweaty, but Triumphant” by Michael Powell for students to read, but I’ll also have the piece projected on the Smart Board so kids can see the great accompanying photography.

Because ’tis the season of moving past narrative and into nonfiction writing (in which we often harness the power of narrative, by the way) students will have already been immersed in a study of making claims supported by evidence, crafting a clear and purposeful structure, and maintaining a voice and style that defy the conventions of a five-paragraph you-know-what.  This article will serve as a mentor text that features all three, plus some insight into that long-ago lesson I learned from Paul Daugherty: the speed of a sportswriter’s process.

“We’ve been studying a variety of nonfiction pieces that have great style as well as strong claims–commentaries, columns, and speeches.  And here’s another example of those traits in this sports article.

“As you read it, look for the writer’s voice and the way the writer makes claims and supports them with evidence, as we’ve been doing throughout this unit,” I request.

We take ten minutes to read through the article, annotating quickly and noting writerly moves that jump out at us.  I model on the document camera, noting what I see–the unnamed players throughout the first paragraphs of the piece, creating a universal scene; the sheer entertainment of his vocabulary (words like gluttonous, beatnik, facsimile that you wouldn’t expect in a sports article); his unique turns of phrase.

I then ask students to share in table groups what they noticed about craft and claims.  After they share and we debrief, I return to the article.

“One of the things I find fascinating about sportswriting is how quickly it has to happen.  The turnaround is so quick–we spend a few weeks polishing pieces of this length, but these writers only have a few hours.”

(In keeping choice central to my curriculum, students always get to choose either their process, genre, or topic.  Because in this unit students are constrained to one genre–nonfiction–I will make an effort to help them choose their own topics and processes.  That’s wisdom I gleaned from Writing With Mentors.)

“I want to consider the writer’s process, and I found some good evidence of it:  let’s look at Powell’s tweets from during the game.”

I pull up Powell’s Twitter account and we scroll down to see his game-time tweets, many of which contain some of the same phrases  in the article: the Dead End Kids, the Lackawanna freight train rolling through, the pitchers being gassed.  Students notice these unique phrases immediately.

“What could you infer about Powell, given that this game ended at around 1:00 am and his piece ran at 9:00 am?”

I elicit students to share:  “He was already writing a bit during the game.”  “He writes sports all the time so he can already pull up a lot of the jargon quickly.”  “He really loves his subject, since he’s up watching the game and tweeting and having fun with it.”  “He’s knowledgeable about the history of these teams–maybe he did a lot of research beforehand or maybe he just knows it from writing about it a lot.”

Now, students have painted a picture of the piece’s author.  We can go into the reading warm, not cold.

“So, let’s read again, and consider his process this time,” I ask.  “Look now to see how his tweets–evidence of his prewriting–are in the article and what that teaches you about his process.”

We read the article again, a fresh purpose for reading helping us see the writer’s process come to life.  Once we’ve finished, we talk in table groups and then debrief as a whole class about the evidence we see of Powell’s writing process based on his tweets and what we know about sportswriters as a group.

These two reads give us three things:  another example of writer’s craft, more examples of claims with supporting evidence, and an example of process.

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I love this great photo of the Cubs’ moment of triumph from the Wall Street Journal. 

Follow-Up:  After students read this piece, there are many opportunities for follow-up.  One is to simply have them apply its writing lessons to their own nonfiction pieces.  Another is to have a lengthy conversation on writing processes, and how they can be short yet incredibly effective–students can see that prewriting doesn’t have to take the form of a web or an outline, but that it can be tweets, too.

Daugherty’s work, the now-defunct Grantland, and The New York Times sports section are some of my favorite places  to find great sportswriting.  What are some of your favorite resources for finding great nonfiction for your students? Please share in the comments!

A Reader’s Workshop Starter Kit to Jumpstart the Process

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Jackie in 2014, shows us how to jumpstart readers workshop and includes a helpful starter kit.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–what are some of your most useful workshop tools?


Think back to your first day of teaching on your first year of teaching. What were you feeling? Happy, nervous, excited, afraid?IMG_1776 Fear. Fear was the first thing I experienced when I stood in my classroom on the first day of school. That and enthusiasm, excitement, eagerness, and hope, but ultimately, I was afraid, knee shaking, stomach churning nervous as I stood in front of my new class. Fear comes with the unknown, which is why my nerves of being a new teacher were compounded by my entry into the workshop model. The concept of the workshop model is simple, yet it’s a structure that so few of us grew up with. In turn, as I transitioned my classroom, I found my nerves could be categorized into the fear of breaking tradition, the fear of parents, the fear of students not reading, and the fear of proving rigor. I was not alone though. Interns and teachers who were new to workshop model faced many of the same fears. In turn, I created a reader’s workshop starter kit to provide my colleagues with concrete documents that helped them establish the workshop model in their classroom. The starter kit includes the following documents:

  • Elements of a Reading Workshop by Penny Kittle
  • Reading Letter for parents
  • Calculating Reading Rates & Reading Rates Log Sheet
  • Weekly Reading Recording Sheet
  • Excel Sheet Weekly Reading Recording Sheet
  • Book Conference Log
  • Questions to Ask While Conferencing
  • Book Talk Outline
  • Resources for Helping Students to Find New Books

Whether you are a new teacher or simply new to the reader’s workshop, I hope this starter kit will make your journey a bit easier. Enjoy every step and savor even the smallest successes. If you have any questions or comments about starter kit, please feel free to contact me at Jackie.catcher@gmail.com.

Click Here to Download the Reader’s Workshop Starter Kit

The Right Book May Be an Audiobook

headphones_bookMatching the right student to the right book is at the heart of the reader’s workshop, and lucky for one and all, there are plenty of great books to go around–even for the most reluctant readers.  As a reader’s workshop leader, teachers must be well versed in a variety of genres to do their jobs well:  young adult, nonfiction, and even the classics.  But what about audiobooks?

Admittedly…I’m a book snob.  I was dedicated to paper books for years, until I got married and my early-to-bed husband complained about my reading lamp’s brightness.  Enter my very first e-reader, with which I quickly fell in love.  I reasoned that even though I wasn’t reading a book, per se, I was still reading.  I still wasn’t on board the audio train, though; after all, listening isn’t the same as reading.

Enter my best friend’s move to Virginia Beach, then a 10-hour drive away from our native Cincinnati.  What was I supposed to do for 10 hours whilst driving to visit her?!  “Listen to an audiobook,” she suggested.  “Duh.”  So, I grabbed Thirteen Reasons Why on CD from our library, and (12 hours and a one-state detour thanks to being so caught up in the book that I wound up in Maryland later) I was hooked on audiobooks.

It’s important to note that listening skills are not the same as reading skills, but in the battle to build literacy, one is a scaffold to the other.  While decoding can only happen when a reader is looking at text, the analysis of universal themes, practice of reading strategies, and ability to make connections can happen with any text, written or oral.

“Understanding the message, thinking critically about the content, using imagination, and making connections is at the heart of what it means to be a reader and why kids learn to love books.” –Denise Johnson

Were it not for audiobooks, my own reading life would almost certainly be suffering right now, as I’m so busy and sleep-deprived with an infant, but I love listening to my favorite murder-mystery series in my spare moments.  In countless conferences with my student athletes, I’ve come to realize that their practice and travel schedules keep them incredibly busy on nights and weekends, and audiobooks have helped them remain readers in their busiest seasons, too.

I strongly believe that audiobooks can save, strengthen, and supplement any rich reading life, and as such, I take great pains to recommend this medium to my students, often in the following categories.

51NcMaqTCsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Series – A great way to immediately get students hooked on audiobooks is to recommend a series they’ve already started.  Sequels to titles like The Maze Runner, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Legend, Divergent, City of Bones, and more are great gateways to the world of audiobooks.

Books read by their own authors – Many writers read their own audiobooks, and it’s fascinating to hear the nuances of Michael Pollan’s or Malcolm Gladwell’s writing as he reads it aloud.  The likes of Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, Barbara Kingsolver, and even Barack Obama have deigned to offer themselves to readers in audio form.  It’s endlessly fascinating to me to add a new dimension to “reading like a writer” when I listen like one, too.

20910157Humor – Similarly, so many amazing essayists, comedians, and satirists read their own audiobooks.  Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling, Neil Patrick Harris, and more are just a few of the folks whose movies or TV shows I’ve watched, and who’ve then joined me in my car or at the gym in audiobook form.

Challenge Books – Books that for one reason or another–length, difficulty, topic, multiple narrators–are challenging are great candidates for audiobooks.  I don’t think I could’ve made it through Unbroken, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Thinking Fast and Slow, or other lengthy, difficult tomes had I not listened to them rather than read them.  Their tough topics and intimidating lengths would have been much too off-putting for me, and many students find themselves in similar situations.  Audio is my favorite way to scaffold students up to the level of a slightly too difficult text.

Whatever’s always checked out – No one could ever find Winger, Crank, Paper Towns, Because I Am Furniture, My Book of Life By Angel, Boy21, Red Queen, or The 5th Wave this year–they were just way too in demand.  Instead of waiting for those titles to be returned, many students opted to download the audio version instead.

What are your thoughts on the world of audiobooks?  Which titles are your favorite?

#FridayReads: Hot Non-fiction for High School Readers

I still have non-readers. We are ending the ninth week of school, and usually by this time each fall, my Hold Outs experience a shift. They start reading. I haven’t pinpointed exact reasons for the resistance this year — I think I’m doing as many book talks, conferring sessions, and cheerleading-moments-about-books that I have in the past, but something is up with a good number of my students.. They just do not want to read.

I asked Bryan about his reading yesterday. He said, “I only read when I have to.”

“What can I do to help you want to read?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

This is where it gets tough. I get to be a magician and a mind reader.

Or, I just need to know books and keep talking about them. I just need to keep encouraging my students to read and surround them with books they will find interesting.

A few weeks ago, Jackie wrote Top Books for Reluctant High School Readers, and I remembered Ready Player One, Gone Girl, and Perks of Being a Wallflower. I need to book talk those!

About two months ago, I wrote about the novels-in-verse I got for my classroom. Many of my students who had never read a book have read two, three, and four of those titles now.

I know many boys will read non-fiction when they won’t read “make believe.” Seems it’s time for an infusion of hot non-fiction books that might add some intrigue to my classroom bookshelves. I need books that students like Bryan will want to read.teen_school_boys_reading

I posed this question to my writing partners:

What are the hottest non-fiction titles in your classroom library?

Here’s our master list:

Jackie’s List

Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

I’m Staying with my Boys by Jim Proser

Jarhead by Anthony Swofford

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides

Kick Me by Paul Feig

Shana’s List

Pretty Little Killers by Daleen Berry (two girls murdered their best friend at the other high school in our county…kids cannot put this book down)

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink (about Katrina; pairs well with Zeitoun)

Missoula by Jon Krakauer

…anything by the great sportswriter John Feinstein (The Punch, Next Man Up, A Season on the Brink)

Stiff by Mary Roach

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty (similar to Stiff; about working in a crematory)

…my War shelf, featuring Lone Survivor, American Sniper, Redeployment, or any other autobiography of a soldier

Erika’s List

Lucky by Alice Sebold (account of her rape and healing)

The Prisoner’s Wife &  Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Story  both by asha bandele

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin

Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael G. Santos

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Yummy by G.Neri (graphic novel based on a true story)

Shaq Talks Back by Shaquille O’Neal

Raising My Rainbow by Lori Duron

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Adult and YA)

A Child Called It, The Lost Boy, The Privilege of Youth, A Man Named Dave by Dave Pelzer (four part series, but each piece can be read independently)

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Journey to Reunite with his Mother  by Sonia Nazario

The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise & The Bond by Sampson Davis and George Jenkins

Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi

Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir & Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum

Amy’s List

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Letters to My Young Brother by Harper Hill

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo

American Sniper by Chris Kyle

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Exactly as I Am by Shaun Robinson

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Journey to Reunite with his Mother  by Sonia Nazario

Life without Limits by Nick Vujicic

Do you know of any titles we left out?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Readers & Writers Workshop–Beyond English and Into Journalism

dotCJR-blog480Are any of us really just English teachers?

It has been rare in my teaching tenure to only teach English–and in my current position, my schedule is no different.  I teach Yearbook and Newspaper, in addition to four English classes.

Learning the content of those new-to-me courses has been one of the biggest (and most fruitful) challenges of my teaching career.  While writing instruction is naturally paramount in journalism courses, teaching photography, design, AP style, and the interview process were foreign concepts to me prior to starting this job.

So, when I discovered that I’d be teaching journalism, I did what any good teacher does–I began to research.  This article describing the four properties of powerful teaching–presence, personality, passion, and preparation–reminded me that I had the first three qualities when it came to teaching journalism.  I just had to do the work of preparation.

After a long summer of workshops and self-teaching, I felt well-versed in lens aperture and the inverted pyramid, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to structure my journalism courses.  When I boiled down the values I wanted my young journalists to prize, though, they came down to doing good writing, good research, and good thinking–all values that are foundational parts of the readers and writers workshop.

So, each day in Newspaper and Yearbook, we begin with ten minutes of reading.  I confer with students and we discuss how to read like writers.  We analyze how a writer sets a scene, much like how a photographer composes a picture.  We note the author’s style, filing away their craft moves for use in our own copy writing.  We speculate about the writer’s inspiration for the story, trying to find our own topics to write about.

After two booktalks (often nonfiction), we then move into a quickwrite, thinking in writing for ten minutes about a variety of subjects–sometimes responding to simple questions, sometimes practicing journalistic writing skills, and sometimes brainstorming ideas for articles, photo stories, or coverage.

A ten- to fifteen-minute mini-lesson follows, taught either by me or the editor-in-chief of the day’s publication.  These mini-lessons are based on trends the editors and I notice as students submit their work.  Yesterday we worked on strengthening our headlines; today we’ll focus on brushing up on the conventions of AP style in our copy.

We leave ourselves with a sixty-minute writers’ workshop every day, which is packed full of collaboration, conferring, and chaos.  That last hour is productive until the bell rings, with every student journalist working toward a unique deadline or assignment, receiving guidance from any and every other person in the room.

Watching and participating in the organized, creative chaos of a journalistic writers’ workshop is probably my favorite time of day.

I asked two students how they felt that the workshop enhanced their journalistic learning.  Ryan feels the quickwrites are most valuable:  “Your notebook allows you to open up and be yourself when you write,” he says.  “You learn to still have a voice in journalism, which is usually just really formulaic.”

“I really like that you learn while you write,” he emphasizes, repeating that twice in our brief conference.

Gabi agrees.  “You’re learning as you do the writing–learning from your mistakes–rather than having concepts spoonfed to you,” she says.  “I think everyone likes to learn hands-on, by actually writing, instead of just reading other people’s articles.”

In what electives or non-English classes do you employ the workshop model?

On Annotations and Assessment in Readers Workshop

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I advocate for self-selected reading in all English classes. My students read stacks of books each year that they choose for themselves, and they read four titles for in-class book clubs that they select from my short stack of complex (mostly) contemporary titles.

The question I get the most from teachers who do not practice this choice pedagogy is “How do you know your students are reading?”

My initial response is usually:  “I ask them.”

But if you practice readers and writers workshop in your classroom, you know that it takes a bit more than that to know that students are developing as critical readers.

We do still have to teach.

Shana wrote a post recently about the value of talk in her workshop classroom, and I was intrigued by one of the comments:

I think we should consider what would be the best balance between between teacher and student talk. As the literacy expert in the classroom, I think the reading/language arts teacher’s voice needs to be heard often. While we all can be our own teachers, we will probably learn more with the wise guidance of a teacher.” 

But, of course.

Balance is key. So is authenticity.

These two ideals drive the choices I make in my workshop classroom.

My new friend, Lisa, sent me a question that got me thinking about both as I composed a response. I share her question here and how I replied to this dedicated teacher who is moving herself as she moves her readers.

Question:  Do you assess any annotations the students do with their reading? I’ve included a rubric we have been using to give students some feedback on their annotation of fiction. Their annotations in the text, and thereby their discussions about the texts, has greatly improved!! However, providing feedback on their annotations takes FOREVER. Just curious how you handle any sort of assessment related to students reading their chosen texts.” 

Response: Initially, when I read your question about annotations, I thought of these two questions:

1) Why do you need to leave feedback on the annotations in their books?

2) You said your discussions on the texts have improved. Are those discussions not enough of an assessment on their annotations?

Then I read your rubric, and it got me thinking.

I love the simplicity of the rubric, and I can see how students would notice more and be able to contribute to discussions more thoroughly and completely if they mark their books accordingly; however, I always use caution when it comes to interrupting a student’s reading flow — you know, reading for the sake of enjoyment.

In my own reading life, I rarely mark up a piece of fiction, unless it is for my own book club and I want to remember a significant passage that I loved, or didn’t understand, or a moment in the text that shocked or saddened me so much that I want to bring up in the discussion.

When I have my students engage in book clubs or self-selected reading, I want them to have authentic experiences and discussions about their books. (I quote Louise Rosenblatt on experiential reading at the end of this post.) That hope for authenticity is what drives what I have students do while they read.

And it is hard, and I have to trust that students notice the nuances and the complexities in the language and all the important literary aspects of their books. Sometimes they just don’t.  Sometimes they need to focus just on comprehension. I have to be okay with that.

Here’s how I try to facilitate learning:

1. Model my reading. I show students the books I’ve read for my book clubs and the kinds of passages I’ve marked so I can remember them for discussion. I encourage my students to mark their books in similar ways. Some will, and others never will. Some show me that they can think about their books without ever marking them. I have to let them learn the habits of readers that work for each of them individually, and I have to trust that they will.

This goes for writing, too. Every major writing task I ask my students to do, I do it first. I show them my process and later my product. For my ESL students, this is the single most effective strategy I do. I’ve asked them, and they’ve told me. I know that if this modeling helps my students who struggle with language, I know it helps all of my students.

2. Teach mini-lessons. Say I want students to focus on literary devices. I show them a variety of “beautiful sentences” from various texts; 51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature was a perfect resource for this. I pulled several of these pretty slides and put them on a presentation in Drive. I projected them in the front of the room, and students and I talked through what we noticed in these sentences.

We discussed the craft in the sentence and why the author might have made the moves he or she did. This focus on the writing in a text often leads to greater critical reading of a text just as critical reading should lead to better writing.

Next, I asked students to go into their books and look for beautiful sentences. I gave them each a note card, and they had to find two sentences — one for each side of the card — where they could tell where the author did something interesting with language. I instructed them to write the sentence and the page number at the top, and then they were to identify the device/s, interpret the meaning of the sentence, and analyze the meaning, based on what they’d read in the book and what they believed the author was doing there as it related to the meaning as a whole.

What does this assess? A lot.

  • I know immediately if students know how to identify literary and rhetorical devices.
  • I know if students understand what they are reading, especially if the activity is during book clubs, and I’ve read all the titles in which students choose.
  • I know if students can analyze the author’s use of the device versus just summarizing the meaning of the sentence.
  • I know if students are reading their books. They are not going to choose a sentence on page 195, if they haven not read that far. They will not know how to tie their analysis into overall meaning

(The sentences I used for this mini-lesson lead to book talks, too, and I had one girl come in the next day with a copy of Anna Karenina that she’d bought for herself. Hooyah!)

Mini-lessons like this can be done over and over again — perhaps with a different skills focus each time, and the more students see that we are going to ask them to go into their books to focus on a skills, the more likely they are to start marking significant sentences and passages as they read. It becomes a natural move on the reader’s part instead of a mandate by the teacher.

3. Teach Notice & Note signposts. If you are not familiar with Notice & Note, Kyleen Beers and Bob Probst researched the patterns in story arcs and crafted six signposts around the moments in the text that appear the most often in a vast number of fictional pieces — short stories and novels. Students at all levels can apply the signposts as they learn to ask themselves questions as they read. In my experience, their understanding of theme improves dramatically.  If you Google Notice & Note signposts, or join the Facebook group, you’ll find many teachers who share their resources.

My students and I learn the signposts with short stories, and then throughout the year, we practice applying them to our full-length novels. Best thing I’ve done to help students analyze theme, which is SO HARD for some of them. I don’t quite understand why, but it is singularly the thing my students year after year struggle with the most.

For assessment, again, I do a lot with note cards. Quick, short writing snapshots where students can talk to me about what they know. I can grade these easily and leave feedback in the form of questions to direct students to look deeper, or closer, or whatever. I usually score these with check plus, check, or check minus and leave feedback in the form of one thing the student did well and one thing that might need improvement.

4. Write reader’s response. I have 35 composition notebooks that I labeled with thematic topics. I learned this strategy from Penny Kittle (Here’s a handout from 2013 that has a list of topics for notebooks in it.) I morphed her idea with Notice & Note, and it works well for reader’s response, another piece in holding students accountable for their reading and assessing their acquisition of skills.

At the beginning of the year, when composition notebooks are .50, I buy 35, and I label them with a variety of topics like Penny has on her list, plus some. I glue a handout of the signposts inside each one. Then, every once in a while, I’ll pull the notebooks out and set a handful on each table.

Students know to find a notebook that they can tie the thematic elements of their independent reading book to. We write for about 10- 20 minutes, depending on how in-depth I want students to go with their thinking, and then they share out what they wrote with their table mates. (This works as book talks, too, because students hear about what their friends are reading.) I wander the room and listen in. This is formative assessment. If a student has written about theme, shown that he is reading and understands how the book relates to that thematic topic, I know he is learning. Of course, the reverse is also true. I use check marks for grades of this kind of assessment, too.

Now, having told you all of this, I am not saying to ditch your rubric. I am just always trying to figure out how to put more of the responsibly for the learning (and the work) on the students, and probably most important to my sanity — the need to cut my grading time.

Regarding your rubric, I wonder:

A. How can you ask students to practice annotations with short stories?Then when you go to leave feedback on what they have marked, zero in on one or two slices of the rubric — never the whole thing. And be sure your feedback is something that will resonate. All too often students do not care about what we write, they only want to see their grade. I saw this great reminder in a tweet today:  “Put comments on my paper that begin conversations, not end them.”

B. Instead of trying to leave feedback on every students’ annotations for their whole books, how can you ask students to apply what they have learned from annotating?

For example, choose a slice of the rubric. Give students a half sheet of paper (or a notecard) and have them synthesize their annotations into a paragraph or two that answers a question. Something like :  Think about the things you’ve annotated about the characters in your book, how have the behaviors of the protagonist advanced the plot in the story?  Explain how any single or series of choices by the protagonist has surprised, unsettled, or shocked you.

C. How can you use the rubric to guide your conferences?Instead of checking their annotations, ask students to use their annotations as they talk with you about their books.

For example, choose a slice of the rubric. In a one-on-one conference, or in a small group conference if students are reading the same book, ask:  In regard to your annotations about literary elements, what have you noticed about how the author uses them? How do these elements help the author craft the story? Talk to me about some passages or sentences in the book that you’ve been particularly moved by.

You will know if students are paying attention as they read., and you’ll know so much more because your assessment shoots over the annotation itself and gets to the thinking behind why we want students to annotate in the first place.

Lisa and I would love to know your thoughts on annotations and assessment? Please leave a comment

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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