Tag Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

The Language of Flowers: Characters in Bloom

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Image courtesy of Posterspy.com

In an unparalleled school year…

One of the books that spoke profoundly to my students was Patrick Ness’ award winning story of love and loss, A Monster Calls. If you’ve never read it, this book would be an excellent addition to your summer reading list. I promise you’ll be moved by the story’s symmetry, truth, and Jim Kay’s breathtaking illustrations. In addition, the book is framed around four tales of life and death that are anything but average, all available on YouTube as short videos excerpted from the feature film starring Louis MacDougall, Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones.

One of the main characters in A Monster Calls is an ancient monster formed from a yew tree who comes to bring truth through stories and healing. Since much of the narrative is framed around a massive tree, it was natural to invite my students to analyze characters using the language of flowers or “floriography,” the Victorian era’s version of sending a snap or a text message. Thanks to Michael W. Smith & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements for introducing me to this approach!

In Victorian society, one could express admiration or disdain for another person by sending a particular floral arrangement. Each flower had its own meaning, and in the context of our classrooms, this transfers seamlessly to literary studies. The beauty of this kind of response is that it works with any book study in which one of our goals is to challenge students to cultivate their knowledge of characterization and metaphorical thinking.

As Kate Roberts wisely suggests in her book A Novel Approach, one of the best things we can do as teachers of English language arts is give our students the books they need, and then use those books to teach them skills that can be applied to multiple texts, rather than teaching one book for weeks on end, plowing through every line and extracting all of the joy from the novel in the process.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Floriography is a creative way to invite students into analysis and inference. It begins by giving students access to charts (readily available online from a variety of sites) that link flowers with different meanings. For example, heliotrope means devotion, while a yellow carnation represents rejection. I use different charts to give students a guide for creating character “bouquets” composed of flowers that represent traits (both qualities and flaws) of principal or supporting characters in a whole class text, or a novel that a student has chosen to read independently or as part of a book club.

Usually, I will ask students to choose three flowers for a character, and then provide rationales for each of their choices. Often, students will end up choosing more than three flowers once they get into the “rhythm” of this type of response. Floriography also works well as a way of inviting students to compare and contrast characters.

While I was skeptical the first time I tried this approach, I learned that students appreciated having the tangible floral “frame” to explore metaphor and construct meaning. Soon, when we read together, they were asking if they could create character bouquets as a way of expressing important elements they noticed such as character motivation and relationships. 

A copy of the job sheet that I shared with students the first time we tried character bouquets with A Monster Calls is linked here.  Students enjoy creating character bouquets collaboratively as well as individually. My students Chloe and Josie wrote character bouquets linked here.

Character bouquets are also an excellent way to analyze character development in short stories when there is a particular character who changes dramatically in a short time, such as in Shirley Jackson’s “Louisa, Please Come Home,” a thriller that my eighth graders enjoy reading when we study Jackson’s iconic works.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into deeper thinking about story and characters?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

In Memoriam: Celebrating Memories in Writing Workshop

By Elizabeth Oosterheert: Contributing Writer

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Last week…

I attended a conference in my district for language arts teachers. One of the themes was the importance of sharing stories that tell the truth. I also have the privilege of working on a postgraduate study in adolescent literature this summer with a professor who has mentored me throughout my teaching career. I’ve had time and space to write and reflect, and to reconsider how vital it is to share true stories (including our own) with students in the context of our reading and writing workshops.

Come with me, and I will invite you into stories I’ve been reading that tell the truth, and collaborative, creative writing experiences for our students based on a variety of mentor texts.

Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue


Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Honor winning memoir Everything Sad is Untrue, defies classification. While it includes true tales from Nayeri’s youth in Iran and in refugee camps before his family finds asylum in Oklahoma, it is also a fictional nod to Scheherezade, the famed storyteller from Arabian Nights who uses story to preserve life. The writing is so riveting and arrestingly poetic that I often found myself moved to tears, folding pages and highlighting passages as I read so that I could quickly return to them later. The true hero of the story is Nayeri’s mother, whom he describes as a relentless force.

Nayeri writes, “I don’t know how my mom was so unstoppable…Maybe it’s anticipation. Hope. The anticipation that the God who listens in love will one day speak justice. The hope that some final fantasy will come to pass that will make everything sad untrue…Unpainful”(Nayeri 346). 

Photo Courtesy of Red Samurai on Zazzle

Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig

Fleischman, who is renowned for his Newbery medal winning book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, also wrote Whirligig, the story of one teen’s transformation from a murderer riddled with guilt, to a prince of tides. 

After accidentally causing the death of Lea Zamora while attempting his own suicide, Brent Bishop’s penance, assigned by his victim’s family, is to create whirligigs and place them in each corner of the United States in their daughter’s memory. Though Brent doesn’t feel worthy of forgiveness, he considers that perhaps the decisions he made that led to Lea’s death don’t make him irredeemable. It’s possible that he is a beautiful mess just like everyone else. He also reflects on the longevity of the whirligigs he’s created, and the legacy he’s left behind.  “Maine summers, like dawn colors, were brief. Darkness and winter predominated…but his memorial would give off sound and color all year, holding back the tide of death…Lea would not be swallowed up”(Fleischman 125). Brent has morphed from a prisoner of his past to a prince of tides, free to roam and create a new life for himself from the ashes of his old one.

 Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and the World War I Poets…

I’ve written previously for Three Teachers Talk about how much I enjoy sharing Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Our Town with students, but Wilder also wrote a plethora of shorter plays beginning when he was a teenager longing for distraction from the monotony of algebra. He composed a variety of what he called Three Minute Plays for Three Persons, and one-act plays including Pullman Car Hiawatha, a play that was in many ways a prototype for Our Town, and playlets like The Angel That Troubled the Waters. 

What’s fascinating about these plays is the way that they mirror human life by illustrating the miraculous in the mundane. They invite us to recall that even when we might feel like we’re in the gutter after an exhausting year of teaching, the stars are still shining. We only have to look up to see them. 

Reading Wilder’s plays, famous World War I poetry, and letters written by a relative of mine who died in the Battle of the Argonne inspired me to write my own short play recently (an excerpt is linked here).  

This year, during our study of stage and page poems, I would like to invite students to use a combination of World War I poetry and several of the poems that we read by living poets, to write their own scripts. This will give students an opportunity to write collaboratively from mentor texts, and to blend narrative, poetry, and maybe even pieces of their own life stories that might otherwise be lost to history and imagination.

World War I Poet Rupert Brooke

Poetry Foundation has excellent resources for delving into the work of World War I poets such as Rupert Brooke, whose movie star looks

 and ability to capture public sentiment in the early days of the war, gave him mythical status during his brief lifetime. Other poets whose work has endured include Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen. One of Owen’s most famous poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” has many different recordings on YouTube that are fantastic for classroom use. My favorite is this version performed by British actor Ben Wishaw. 

I hope that your summer is filled with opportunities for relaxation, and also with reading of stories and poetry that move you with their beauty and honesty, and will in turn move your students in their reading and writing journeys.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Tried and (Still) True: An Architectural Approach to Writing

Helen Becker

If you know me, you know that I am a Brene’ Brown fan. No, take that back. I’m a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Brown helps me make my life make sense, both personally and professionally. Brown’s work as an ethnographic researcher influenced my research in educational best practices. As I began my doctoral research in self-efficacy and perceptions of college and career readiness among high school students, I gravitated to Brown’s experiences in grounded theory. Grounded theory, she writes, evolves from people’s lived experiences rather than from experimentation to prove or disprove theories.

Brown adds, “In grounded theory, we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how it fits in the literature.”

Reflecting on these statements, I had an “A ha!” moment: much the same happens in the writing process when a teacher allows students to authentically express their thoughts and ideas. We create opportunities for our students to start with a topic – maybe a person, place, or a moment – and see where the writing takes them. Then we add layers and layers of instruction to shape the first draft into new drafts and eventually, maybe, into various writing products. A poem? Perhaps. An essay? Form follows function.

We teach writers how to bend their writing into new and different forms rather than generating prompt after prompt after prompt for students to write in circles of nothingness.

So how does Brene’ Brown fit into this blog post? Brown’s May 4th Dare to Lead podcast features author and leadership expert, Douglas Conant, and his new book (with Amy Federman) The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. Conant’s book, like many featured by Brown, has high priority on my “To Read Next” list. In the podcast, Conant discusses the importance of a strong foundation to guide us through times of uncertainty. Times like now. Our experiences, Conant states, are a blueprint for our future.

Brown and Conant’s discussion intersected my own thinking as I pondered the next installment of “Tried and (Still) True” for Three Teachers Talk. What came to mind? Blueprinting.

Blueprint writing from an equity stance means considering spaces other than the “traditional” blueprint layout.

Tried and (Still) True – June 2021

This month, I’m sharing The Blueprint, modified from a lesson learned by many Abydos teachers, with credit for the original lesson going to Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll in the first edition of Acts of Teaching and Peter Stillman in Families Writing. While the original lesson described in Acts of Teaching calls for a house-esque foldable, over the years, I modified the lesson to have students think about any dwelling space (a home, a basketball arena, a car) where they could envision a blueprint. Modifying the lesson in this way meets the needs of students who may not have a place to call home but rather a place where they feel at home.

Here’s a rough sketch of The Blueprint lesson cycle:

We begin with the concept of a blueprint: what is a blueprint, who uses it, what it communicates, and why it is important? We look at sample blueprints and engage in some inferential thinking based on what the blueprint communicates between and beyond the architect’s blue lines.

Then I invite students to think about a space that is important to them. We might draw on previous pre-writing activities such as “People, Places, Moments” or an A to Z list. I encourage students to think about spaces other than a house: one student drew the dashboard of his beloved vintage (beatup) Camaro while another chose the principal’s office because he spent a lot of time there. Before students land on a place to sketch, I model how I sketched the blueprint of my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas. I tell them how the details you can’t remember don’t matter. What matters is what you remember. I also remind them this isn’t Art class. I’m not grading the accuracy of the drawing.

Once students get their own blueprint generated, I have them focus on one aspect of the blueprint where they can add more detail: what is on the walls? Is there furniture? Plants or trees? Photos? This line of inquiry generates more details to add to the blueprint.

For example, some student-writers feel more comfortable on the basketball court or soccer field.

Then I invite students to write about the connections they feel to this space or to one aspect of the space they just drew. These connections may turn into a narrative or an informative piece or a poem. Form follows function.

One year, a student blueprinted my classroom. He wrote, “In Mrs. Becker’s classroom, I can be myself. I can walk in the door, sit in my desk, look at the pictures of her family, and I feel like I am part of her family too.”

Carroll says in Acts of Teaching, blueprinting “allows students to recreate places that hold memories worth writing about” (18). It is in these memories that stories come back to life from the perspective of the writer, now a few years older and hopefully wiser. Collecting these stories on paper, what Brene’ Brown calls “storycatching,” becomes a means to understand our past and use our memories, both positive and negative, to guide our writing and shape our future selves.

About the author:

One time I blueprinted my Moscow kitchen and wrote about scorching quinoa and testing the bounds of international relations.

Dr. Helen Becker has used blueprint writing as a pre-writing vehicle in nearly every high school ELA course she has ever taught, accounting for roughly 16 years of her own blueprint stories! She has blueprinted about life in her tiny Moscow apartment (pictured here) with her husband as well as the layout of the #8 hole – her nemesis – at Leland Country Club. In her current role as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas, area, she is more likely to blueprint her two-screen Excel spreadsheet dashboard than the dashboard of her car.  Her newest blueprint story though? Designing the guest room of her new home to welcome her first grandson for a visit at the end of June. The library of children’s books continues to grow by the day.

Ode to Moving

The Beckers are on the move again, which means boxes. Lots of boxes.

I’m no stranger to moving boxes, having packed and unpacked thousands of them over my lifetime. I’ll never forget moving to Seattle, Washington, shortly after my college graduation. Seventeen boxes shipped via Greyhound Bus – yes, leave the driving to us Greyhound Bus – full of blazers with shoulder pads, photo albums, stuffed animals, and books. Lots of books.

It’s hard to believe now that my life fit into 17 boxes then. I’ve added a few more boxes of memories since that first big move to Seattle when boxy blazers were in. Very in.

According to my memory and Mapquest ®, the latter certainly more reliable than the former, I’ve made ten significant relocations, adding up to 20,083 miles moved. With each move comes the sober reminder that while our possessions can be put in boxes to arrive, hopefully unscathed, at our next destination, our memories fade over time, the photograph of what we left behind becoming a little less clear with each passing day, week, and year.

That’s where my writing finds me today – possessions in boxes and memories of the last 20,083 miles of my life still (thankfully) vivid and poignant.

Not calculated in my frequent mover statistics are the eleven miles I moved in Summer 2019 from Clear Creek to Clear Brook High School, and then a few months later, the seven miles I moved from high school teaching to an administrative position in the Learner Support Center of Clear Creek ISD.

When I left the classroom, I gave away most of my teaching books. But there’s a box labeled “Not ready to get rid of yet” still lurking in my garage, wondering if it will ever go back to a school, wondering why its owner can’t bear to get rid of the contents

Enter the brilliant, sweet, encouraging Amy Rasmussen.

When Amy Rasmussen approached me about writing regularly for Three Teachers Talk, I voiced some concern as to my relevancy, especially since I’m not in the classroom anymore. “Amy,” I emphasized, “I’m in the Assessment Office now.” As if that retort meant I wasn’t qualified to write about writing anymore. But that’s when I zeroed in on the boxes of my teaching life, the years and years of lessons that, even in a new paradigm of pandemic-era teaching, are tried and still true.

So that’s what I’m calling my segment: Tried and (Still) True. The first Monday of each month, I will recap a lesson from my teaching past that still has impact today, a timeless lesson available for teachers to adapt and make their own, much as I did many years ago with my own lessons.

Tried, and (Still) True, Monday, May 3, 2021

“When I Read, I Feel…” List Poem adapted from the brilliant mind of another mentor of mine, the late Shelly Childers.

When I taught Junior English at Deer Park High School – South Campus, many of my students rediscovered their love for reading. Some actually realized for the first time that they liked reading after dreading it throughout previous years of school. And, well, some still hated reading no matter how hard I tried. Regardless, at the end of the school year, instead of having students write a benign reflection paragraph, I had students compose a poem based off a list of adjectives describing their reading lives. Here’s a rough idea of how I paced the lesson:

I began by inviting students to list three (3) adjectives describing how they felt when they read. Of course, I modeled a few words of my own, but since we had previously done some writing with Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities, students already had a descriptive vocabulary. After waiting and conferring with students as they thought and wrote, I then invited students to think about the first word they recorded (we called it Word A) and then write three (3) statements that said more (I always referred to that step as say “s’more”) proving the range of their emotions, comparing their feelings to something else, and of course, modeling with my own example. I repeated the instruction for Word B and Word C. I next modeled how to take what we had just written and express it in poetic fashion. When I nudged students to do this next step on their own, the magic happened. Students had words to describe their feelings, and in the end, I got an honest, perhaps too honest, self-assessment of each student’s reading identity.

Teacher note: In most cases, students could generate some surface-level emotions for the first two describing words, Word A and Word B. It was when I asked students to come up with a third word, Word C, to describe their feelings for reading that I hit a core of emotions reflecting a student’s authentic experiences.

Teachers can easily adapt the “When I read, I feel _____” invitation to different tasks: reading, writing, researching,…even moving! Here’s my opening stanza from a work-in-progress:

When I move, I feel free.

I ride the bus in a foreign country,

            my new home,

            making new friends with my kind eyes and a smile.

            No language skills, just an open mind

            and open heart.

            Open to new adventures.

I bet you’d like to see some student samples, wouldn’t you? I have a few, but guess where I’ve kept them all these years?

You guessed it. They are in the box of things I just can’t bear to get rid of yet. If ever.

About the author, Dr. Helen Becker

Helen Becker currently serves the education community as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas area. Prior to being a numbers and stats girl, Dr. Becker taught all levels of high school English for Deer Park and Clear Creek ISDs. Maybe you’ve attended a workshop facilitated by Dr. Becker, or perhaps you’ve been in her Reading/Writing workshop sessions. Or maybe she was your high school English teacher. Regardless of your relationship, you probably know that Dr. Becker wants nothing more than for you to take her ideas, make them your own, and bring powerfully authentic writing experiences to your own classroom. If you want more information on this Tried and (Still) True lesson cycle, feel free to e-mail her at beckerhelenc@gmail.com. She hasn’t packed her computer yet, so it’s all good.

By the way, Dr. Becker really is on the move, this time to a house down the street more fitting for new grandparents!

If you enjoyed this post, read this one from Shana Karnes entitled Mini-Lesson Monday:  Imitating Poetry: https://threeteacherstalk.com/2015/10/26/mini-lesson-monday-imitating-poetry/

Shake the Dust: Writing an Epilogue Poem

Faith, Rhett and Deacon on stage in November for a production of Copperfield, now a favorite memory…

This is for the bus drivers driving a million broken hymns. This is for the men who have to hold down three jobs simply to hold their children. This is for the night schoolers, and the midnight bike riders who are trying to fly. 

Shake the dust….Anis Mojgani

Shake the dust. My students and I have been reflecting on what it means to be “dust shakers” during a year when we’ve all experienced “broken hymn” moments. This spring, as our time in writing workshop draws to a close, I’ve asked my students to cultivate their writing gardens by composing what I call an “Epilogue Poem,” a reflective piece about an element of their journeys as eighth graders. 

Our mentor poems for Epilogue Poetry are:

“The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes:  (If you’re not familiar with Golden Shovel poetry, check out this New York Times article for suggestions on how to write a Golden Shovel Poem using a newspaper headline as a mentor text!)

“Remember” by Joy Harjo (Thanks to Oona Marie Abrams and Go Poems for suggesting this poem!)

“The Breath of Life” by Scott Myers: This poem is about the inestimable value of every breath.

“A Long and Happy Life” by Delta Rae (Thanks to Brett Vogelsinger for introducing me to this song!) In addition to playing the song, I like to share this behind the scenes video with my students because band members talk about using book titles as mentor texts, childhood artifacts,  and  discuss what having a “long and happy life” means to them. This inspires my students in their thinking about abundant life as they write their poetry.

“Shake the Dust” by Anis Mojgani: This beautifully written spoken word gem speaks to anyone who has ever felt marginalized.

After listening to the mentor poems, discussing craft moves, and making annotations throughout the week, we take the next step into writing a poetic reflection on any of the following:

  • A “watershed moment” in our lives. I define “watershed” as a moment that alters the trajectory of life such as a birth, death, divorce or separation, etc. While I would never obligate a student to write about a watershed, many choose to do so after a whole year of writing together.
  • Something we’ve learned during the pandemic
  •  A  favorite elementary or middle school memory
  •  A tribute to someone who has mentored us
  • What it means to have an abundant life
  • A reflection on our families

 We use Wakelet to curate golden lines from our favorite mentor poems and then try writing our own lines modeled after the mentor or simply publish an idea that we have for a poem.

My student Daiva posted:

 I chose this golden line from “Shake the Dust” :”So when the world knocks at your door, turn the knob and open it up, and run into its widespread, greeting arms.” I chose this line because the writer makes the world sound like a person. This line reminds me that the world will always welcome us, though we may hesitate at first. I liked all of our mentor poems, but this one spoke to me the most…

Natilia wrote a few of her own lines using “Remember” as a mentor text:

Remember the night sky.

Remember the look of it at 10’o’clock on a summer evening

With the breeze blowing in your face…

I wrote beside my students by posting on Wakelet, and then sharing a draft that I was composing using the Scott Myers piece as a mentor.  A portion of my poem, “Alive and Breathing,” is linked here.  Students will use the Wakelet posts as a springboard for their rough drafts.

April is the perfect time to shelter in poetry with our students, and to reflect on the joys and challenges of this “broken hymn” season in our learning lives.  Epilogue poetry compels eighth graders to capture their favorite memories, before they’re lost.

What are your favorite ways to shelter in poetry?


Elizabeth Oosterheert teaches 8th grade language and theatre arts in Iowa. She  loves writing beside students and sharing the stage with them.  Her favorite stories are Our Town, The Outsiders, and Peter Pan.  

Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

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Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

The Three Comic Book Commandments

I went to a college known for giving students a lot of reading.  The main library stays open until 11 on Friday and Saturday nights.  If that wasn’t enough, there were five bookstores within walking distance of campus.   The best bookstore of the bunch was in a church basement that was so big and so confusing it had a map.  

 

So here I was in book paradise, where everybody had opinions on books down to which translation of the Iliad was most legit and which edition of Shakespare’s plays had the best commentary.  But no kinds of books could get us as worked up as comic books could, and it was comic books we were trading with abandon, not different versions of Troilus and Cressida.

 

As passionate readers, we realized that books can do many things, including feed the soul.  Comic books fed our souls.

 

We were not “smart” with comics the way we might be “smart” with Heidegger.  We did not underline, post-it note, highlight, or read with a lens for character or theme.  Instead, we just read.  And after we read, we traded.

 

Comic books (or graphic novels, I use the words interchangeably) are a crucial part of my reading life, and I urge you to make them a part of yours, too by honoring three comic book commandments:

  1. Resist temptation to privilege text over image in conversation with students.

 

 

I can hear a well-intentioned adult telling a teen, “It’s great that you’re reading The Walking Dead, but when are you going to read a real book again?”  Similarly, I cringe a bit when teachers suggest that graphic novels are a good book to read when a student left a book at home.  When we say things like this, we send a message that graphic novels are not considered legitimate forms of literature.

 

Similarly, students may be afraid to pick up a graphic novel because they fear you or others will judge their reading choices as “too easy.”

 

  1.  Read at least two graphic novels this year.

 

If you’re a graphic novel newbie, I’d recommend reading Nimona, American Born Chinese, and March: Book Three, which have all received major literary awards.  If you want a list of recent greats for kids  and teens, I’d recommend the Cybils Awards lists and YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists.

 

  1. Pick up some graphic novels for your classroom library.

If you don’t already have a collection, I encourage you to start one this year!

 

Amy Estersohn is an English teacher in New York, and the best translation of The Illiad is from Robert Fagles.

How to Make 28 Teens Feel Special Immediately and Simultaneously: Or How I Manage Conference Notes

One of the most difficult parts of setting up a workshop was figuring out how to use and organize notes.  Those videos that show elementary school teachers walking around at leisure, seeming to write a paragraph on each child?  Not even possible, not even under the best circumstances.

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Wall space can also be temporary storage for conference notes and for giving you a “status of the class” picture of student progress.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to How I Workshop.

  • Figure out what you, as a teacher, are out to accomplish.  Are you trying to do a quick check in with each student, or are you going to do extensive work with 2-3 kids?  You need both kinds of conferring styles, I’d argue, but you also know which mode you are using, when, and why.
  • Write down 1-2 words in conference, add notes later if you need to.  When I sweep and chat to each student, as I did today, I’ll scribble in a few more notes after class if I need to.  
  • Notice patterns.  I like using my post-it notes to “snapshot” where students as a whole are and where I need to teach something the following day, especially if I find myself repeating myself over and over again in conferences.
  • Diagnose and select students for extended follow up.  If I notice that a student is working on an issue that involves more conversation, I’ll prioritize them for the next day.
  • Save and document information.  I can pop these post-it notes into a plan book.

How do you manage your conference notes?

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She never met a Post-It Note she didn’t like. 

 

Book Talk in a Blog Post: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Too often book reviews focus on personal opinions of a book, but as teachers of readers, it’s not all about us.  This post is one of some in an occasional series in which I review  and recommend books for student readers.

 

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart belongs in a middle school teacher’s literature repertoire for “what’s hot.”  My students come in to my classroom familiar with Gemeinhart’s first book, The Honest Truth, so it’s easy to get them reading a book by an author they already know and love.   

 

This book takes a darker turn, as it takes place on a prison island for teen boy detainees.  All of the adults are conveniently killed off, and what results is a Lord of The Flies-like scenario.  Gemeinhart is not the first to write about teens surviving in a world without adults, but he’s one of the first to do it in under 250 pages.  This is the kind of book that’s perfect for a reader who wants a plot-heavy adventure, but isn’t patient enough to read through the 400+ pages of some teen books.

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How to booktalk it:

 

Jonathan has been sentenced to Slabhenge, a prison reform school for teens.  At Slabhenge, the adults get to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast while the prisoners eat oatmeal and a common punishment is kneeling on the Sinner’s Sorrow, a device that’s designed to cut into your knees.   

 

One day, at roll call, lightning strikes a puddle that all of the adults are standing in.  The adults are dead; the prisoners are alive.

 

[Read out loud from page 53 to the break on page 55]

 

Cheering and Steering Readers:

 

Some readers might find the early pages a little slow, particularly because there are a lot of character introductions.  Readers have to wait 50 pages for the adults to die off, which might be frustrating for the reader who wants to get to the “real” story right away.

 

Kids who have background knowledge in escape stories and who can visualize gloomy prison-y settings from movies and TV shows will have a much easier time reading this book than students who don’t have that kind of knowledge.  

 

Encourage students to draw out scenes from this book and to make character lists.  Some characters are important and pronounced;  others pop up only once or twice.

 

Supporting Conference Questions

 

What are some of the problems these characters are facing?  How would you like to see these problems resolved?  (Note: this is a great book for exploring conflict/resolution, as there are some very obvious problems and others that are a little more subtle.)

Do you think this book realistically shows off teen behavior?  Why or why not?

 

What lessons do you think the author wants you to take away from this book?  

 

Where to get it:

 

Scar Island is available through Scholastic Reading Club (https://clubs.scholastic.com/), so if you would like a deeply discounted classroom copy, you can purchase one here.

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher, comic book reviewer, former admissions officer, and a recipient of the NCTE/ALAN Gallo Grant.

Writing Heals. Writing Assignments Do Not

Last week I learned a valuable truth:  Even when we think they are not listening, sometimes students get it.

Let me back up.

The week before last I attended a department meeting where our district ELA coordinator shared the National Writing Project’s Case for Good Instruction, information I learned at my National Writing Project Summer Institute in ’09. It details the differences between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught. The discussion around me was interesting and peppered with excuses. I left wondering how teachers would answer these questions if they were on a quiz. How would you?

In your ELA class, do students:

  • have opportunities to create topics that matter to them?
  • understand audience and purpose for papers because they are specifically identified in assignments?
  • see you spending time teaching writing skills and strategies?
  • get writing models, assignments, and strategies to guide each of the different writing tasks?
  • reflect on significant growth — or lack of it — in specific writing skills?
  • hear words of encouragement cheering them on to revise, edit, and improve — and to correct drafts and then resubmit?
  • think about what they write through brainstorming, free writing, role-playing, discussion, or other prewriting activities?
  • celebrate what they, and you, write and make efforts to display and publish it?

I think the biggest excuse we give for leaning on assignments rather than acting on instruction is TIME.

“I can’t let students choose topics because they don’t know what to choose.”

“I can’t teach this novel if it takes so long to write a paper.”

“I can’t do my research paper if I give them time to resubmit. It already takes so long to grade the finished product.”

Maybe you are right. Maybe we have to give up things that we think are best practices for things that are better practices.

Student choice in writing topics is better practice.

Writing instruction with effective models, strategies, time to talk, and time to write are better practices.

Helping students revise, edit, and improve their writing during the writing process with a keen sense of audience and purpose are better practices.

conferringwithjulyssaOur students need time. They need our time. They need our attention and our careful consideration about the things that matter to them. We may have to let some things go in order to give our students what they need.

We learn valuable truths when we do. Last week my students performed (or presented) their poetic arguments. We spent weeks choosing topics, watching video performances, analyzing lyrics for structure and craft, thinking, drafting, talking, revising, studying models, reading each other’s writing, giving feedback, practicing mini-lessons on concrete details and using abstract language to create jaw-dropping imagery.

We were a community of writers, united in a task uniquely our own.

And that is the difference between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught.

During all that time, I didn’t think Stephanie was listening. She sat at her table, barely talking, sometimes writing, always sad. Then right before Christmas break I sat down and we talked. She showed me her draft, and it scared me. I knew she’d been depressed — her grandmother died at the beginning of the year, and the light left Stephanie’s eyes. I listened to her share her sorrow, her anxiety, the weight of her world , and I gave her my cell phone number with the promise she would call if her boots got too heavy. Thankfully, they didn’t.

Every one of my students who presented their poems sparkled with pride as they faced their classmates, even the ones whose knees knocked in fear. They wrote from their hearts about issues that matter to them personally. They wrote the most important arguments about mistaken perceptionholding grudges, self-hate and self-love, parental control and uncontrolled parents, lying and how we’re programmed to labelBlack Lives Matter and dying white privilege. They wrote about better education and the stress of getting educated, absent fathers, loving fathers, and parentless children and alcoholics who should have put down that drink at 21.

They wrote about sticking together.

And they wrote about self-destruction and depression and monsters. So many of them wore grooves in the floor with the spikes that hold them in place until the sadness drags them down under. They broke my heart.

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Writing to heal is better practice.

Please enjoy Stephanie’s poem. She calls it “Smile.”

 

Many students chose video presentations over live performances. I published several this morning on the 3TT Facebook page. Take a look.

Please share your thoughts on teaching writing. Leave a comment.

 

 

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 higher and harder than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

 

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