Tag Archives: readers/writers workshop

Mini-Lesson Monday: The Power of “I”

Recently, Jackie humorously infused pickup lines and leads into her lesson to engage students in narrative writing.  It got me thinking.  While I am not nearly as funny as she is, I still needed to find a way to minimize the angst with starting a written piece.  Students deserve an opportunity to look at opening lines so they are innately thinking like writers.  Providing them the opportunity to authentically explore various ways to open their stories is key.  So, we gave it a whirl.

Objectives:  Students will recall moments in their lives that have shaped who they are today.  Drawing from their own life experiences students will distinguish what moments they are willing to chronicle in their personal narratives.  Students will construct meaning about their personal experiences by creating a written piece that utilizes author’s craft that has been studied and analyzed.

Lesson:  Let me say that I typically do not focus on opening lines, hooks, what have you until after students have written their pieces.  I find that students are able to more easily and comfortably play with their opening once they know where they’re going…or have gone… with their narratives.  Yet, I was curious to see how this would pan out.

 As we started to jog our memories for those defining moments that have occurred in our lives, we started thinking about questions that would help us dig deep into our own thinking.  A few included:

What do I believe?  (About life, the world, society, family, education, etc.)

What moment has occurred in my life that I am (still) confused by?

What is the most life changing experience I’ve encountered?  What decisions have I made during this situation that have shaped who I am today?

Who is important to me?  Who has made a tremendous impact on me (positive, negative)?  Do I find conflict in this?

What simple pleasures do I relish in when times get tough/stressful?

These questions, among many others, started getting our process underway.  Students had choice and freedom in picking what they wanted to write about – as we know personal narratives are sometimes brutal to compose: sometimes we want to forget what we’ve been through.  Yet, in order to foster the writers in room 369, these questions were written in the first person.  When we write questions for our writers in the second person (What simple pleasure do you relish in when times get tough and stressful?) we are providing them an opportunity to take a step back; to be a bit removed.  When we shift our curiosities to “I” “Me” “My”, it becomes personal.


Then, we played with various different ways we could open our stories.  Each student played with concepts, moments, memories, and experiences after seeing how the authors of our independent reading books played with theirs.  Having heard about fifteen authors’ opening lines, students were willing to really dive in and try different ways to start: sounds, quotes, internal thinking, advice they’d been given, visuals, third person…

This visual represents our thinking at the very beginning of this school year.  Students are playing with this deep level of thinking and crafting for the very first time.  There is still some apprehension and hesitation, but for the most part students are willing to try…and play…and craft…and find their inner brave.


Follow Up:  Once students have created numerous ways to start their piece, they will narrow it down to two.  From there, students will start their narratives.  Yet, they are being asked to start their narratives using two different openings…

As writers we know that it takes much patience and practice to feel satisfied with our writing; specifically our opening lines.  Asking students to try writing their pieces from two different starting points allows us to see where our writing goes.  Maybe one start is stronger, prompts more thinking while the other falls flat.  Maybe they both prompt great confidence in continuing to see how they develop.  Maybe the best draft ends up being an infusion of both.

Regardless of where our personal narratives go, starting the process with options both in craft and experience, the pressure of writing is minimized and students feel more at home reliving some of the moments that would have never made it to the paper prior.

How do you foster the willingness to write when fear or apprehension stand in the way of our writers?  What techniques do you use as a writer that you channel to your student writers?


Landscape of Workshop: We have arrived!

Nine years in. I know what certain murmuring really means. We all do. The murmuring of students when they are conferring about their writing. The kind that surfaces when boredom is creeping into our classrooms. The murmuring of confusion and frustration. The one that starts to get louder and louder as passion starts taking shape. Today, is that kind of murmuring day.

Christian: Why? No, really. Why? Why is it that all we do is read and write in here allllll day, Ms. Bogdany? Ev-er-y-day. (Yes, with that level of emphasis.)

Swallowing my smirk, I calmly start explaining the reasons, rationales, and importance again to Christian. Yes, we’ve had this conversation many–a-time. And clearly others’ patience with this subject has become depleted.

Norris: Man, why are you even asking that? We’re in English! It’s what we do!

Christian: No, but I mean seriously. It’s all we do. In my previous high school we used to watch movies and relax. This is crazy.

Norris: That’s why you’re not there anymore! You chose to be educated here. We’re at a transfer school. Here it’s more focused and we’re learning.

Deja: Oh, listen to you, Norris. Telling Christian all about what’s right…you always think you’re better than everyone!  We breathe the same air you breathe!

Hakeem: Norris, you haven’t walked in my shoes! You don’t know! Last period, you were the one that lied and got caught! Now you’re acting like Christian’s father.

Here, in my Writer's Notebook, I capture voices speaking their truth.

Here, in my Writer’s Notebook, I capture voices speaking their truth.

Here is where I sit back and start listening; very intently. I am becoming quieter and quieter as the room gets more and more animated. (I was hoping to become invisible, truth be told.) Because, this is what happens when students are invested. They challenge each other. They hold each other accountable. They start discussing their level of comfort or lack there of.   They express their inner feelings. They question motives. And yes, sometimes their word choices can be a bit crass, but isn’t that authenticity at its best?

They give me exactly what I need as their educator.

I need to understand who they are, what fuels their fire, how they feel about injustice. How safe are they feeling in our learning community? Well, I can’t always answer all of the questions swirling around in my mind, but today I was able to answer this one confidently: students are feeling wildly comfortable in our shared space. Because when students are brave enough to confront their peers (those that are their roughest critics) I know we’ve arrived. We’ve arrived as an evolving community of learners; as a team not willing to silence our voices when they need to be heard; and we are most definitely letting our guards down as we are emerging ourselves even more deeply in the work of the Reading Writing Workshop (RWW).

I also know that while Christian is literally shifting around in his seat, stretching all of his 5 feet 9 inches; he is moving – physically and as a writer. He doesn’t necessarily see or appreciate it just yet, but it’s there. I see it. I know. And, just like the murmuring that propelled this dialogue in room 382, Christian is pushing boundaries and uncomfortable. Yet, I believe Christian is more resilient than he even recognizes. And that resiliency pushes me to continually find ways to engage Christian in this work. Even, if it means having the same conversation again — because it will resurface.

As I head down to the nation’s capitol to be reunited with my PLN – my nationwide pedagogical lifeline – I take this experience with me. Regardless of how much traffic I may encounter on the trip from Brooklyn, this tipping point (as Malcolm Gladwell would argue) is buckled tightly in my back seat and promising to remind me what I am bringing with me to #NCTE14 – the moments that the RWW affords us when we listen to our learners, their needs, and previously dormant desires.

I cannot wait to further this conversation on Saturday at J.44 starting at 2:45pm. I hope you join us for an hour full of deep thinking, classroom anecdotals, and the energy that attendees from across the country bring to the conversation. See you there!


The beginning of each school year is always chaotic.  Sometimes it’s the overwhelming chaos that can feel debilitating.  Other times it’s that quiet chaos that only you know ensues.  At times it creeps up on us in silence, yet we know it’s found its way into our spiraling minds.  But always, it lives within our being because, quite simply, we are so wildly passionate about upping the ante with each and every group of students that crosses our threshold.  This year, I welcome the chaos.

I have complete and utter belief that the Reading Writing Workshop (RWW) is exactly what my students need.  Better yet, I know in my soul, that it’s exactly what they deserve for their lives; both inside and outside of room 382.

Both inside and outside room 382 students are starting their journeys through the RWW.

Students are starting to journey through the RWW: Inside and outside of room 382.

We have a promising year ahead full with mentor texts, writer’s craft, brilliant student generated ideas, ‘aha’ moments, and all of the unknown that we are willingly going to dive into – together.  But, I would be remiss if I pretended that chaos and uncertainty were not eagerly awaiting our arrival.

Between rolling out the RWW in its entirety last year, more summer classes at the lovely campus of UNH’s Literacy Institute, and a month in the Bronx writing with the NYC National Writing Project; I have been planning.  Incessantly.  Yet, I very quickly realized that all of my planning may be better utilized at some other time, in some far off distance, or at the very least, later in the year.

My plans are fantastic.  I feel it in my gut.

Yet I know they will be utilized and enjoyed when the time is…right.

You see, the beauty within the RWW is that the authentic and natural flow is magical.  Straight up, hands down – magic.  The luxurious task of choosing which piece of literature to start with when oh-so-many are enticing.  The creation of one’s Writer’s Notebook.  The roller coaster writing that sheds light on our own movement and development as writers.  The organic inquiry that surfaces.  All of it.  Every piece is essential.

So you can imagine that after rounding day three of educating, fully engulfed by a feeling of unease, I knew that all of my planning was by no means an effort to be mourned but most definitely an effort that needed reshaping.  As to not let the chaos (starting its crawl toward my vulnerability) completely immobilize me, I made a decision right then and there.  I was by no means going to shift my expectations.  Instead, I had decided to rework all ideas I had about what my students would find engaging.  Because the reality is, my new students are not the same students as last year.

Students creating their Writer's Notebooks in ways that feel most authentic.

Students creating their Writer’s Notebooks in ways that feel most authentic.

Mystery books have flown off the shelves – for the first time ever!  Color is most often preferred when expressing themselves vs. the written word.  There is an untapped intellectual power among every young adult occupying each individual seat that is awaiting its own explosion.  Their passions have yet to be discovered within the context of our learning community.  And, not unlike years worth of previous students, they are incredibly focused and hardworking.

When students are not meshing with the material; when the sparkle does not twinkle in the corner of their eyes as they try to explore new found interests; or they have absolutely no questions…something’s wrong.  Very, very wrong.

I am responsible for guiding students through the beauty of the RWW to foster their own strength, perseverance, and dedication toward the development and growth that is inevitable to happen.  I feel the promise and hope.  I am no longer vulnerable nor am I even remotely entertaining the potentially consuming chaos.  Instead I am enjoying the exploration of new mentor texts while listening intently to the views and beliefs of my wildly intelligent learners.

Here’s to an invigorating year full of unforeseeable experiences, ideas reworked, and chaos debunked.


Mentor Texts Are Everywhere!

This time last year I was amidst a mad dash – a mad dash in seeking out, organizing, asking about, researching, contemplating, and gathering the ‘best of the best’ of mentor texts.  I had just learned what a mentor text was (text that, well, mentors!) and wanted to make sure I had a plethora to kick off the school year.  And, I did.  I had gathered so many I wasn’t even sure when, and in what context, I would be using them.  But, they were ready and I felt confident that I was too.

This year, it’s a bit of a different story.  After implementing the Reading Writing Workshop model in my urban oasis for the first time this past school year, I realized there is no longer a need to be dashing about.  Mentor texts are everywhere!  Literally.  They are in the morning’s newspaper.  They reside in the autobiographies I always find myself engaging in (and of course, loving).  Articles promulgating the Twitter circuit for the purposes of dissecting content and craft.  Classics, more modern, and everything in between became focal points of inquiry and investigation.  Students’ independent reading books shed light on crafty moves authors strategically choose to utilize.  On occasion, an excerpt from professional development texts deserved a public viewing (sometimes with scrutiny, sometimes not).  Nothing is off limits.

So, it is no wonder that as I have been reading a vast array of literature this summer; I have new mentor texts lined up for this coming school year that I am thrilled to explore with my students.  So, grab your Writer’s Notebook and flip to your Next-To-Read list.   I hope you not only fall in love with these pieces, just as I have, but they inspire you to think about what you’re reading and how you’d like to share them with the brilliant and inquisitive minds occupying your learning community.

Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays by Louise Rosenblatt was first introduced to me in this summer’s UNH Literacy Institute via Penny Kittle’s Book Love course.  This piece sent a buzz all throughout the campus as we were asked to read it for homework and come prepared to discuss it the next day.  Before the night was through, classmates were chronicling their amazement and joy with Twitter posts such as:  “Reading Louise Rosenblatt for homework and keep saying “Amen, sistah!” in my head. #unhlit14″.  So, you can only imagine how this Reading Theorist evoked an awakening in us all.


It was when I came to this paragraph that I realized I had just stumbled upon an incredible mentor text; not only for myself as an educator, but for students as well.  What better way to expose students to the questioning and thinking behind our reading and writing than by sharing the source with them?  These questions are going to guide us through our reading (and writing) journeys this year.  We are going to study these questions, make sense of them, put them into practice; but, we are also going to really delve into why Rosenblatt has chosen these questions to guide us.  See, that’s where exploring craft and an author’s intention becomes our focal point.



battle 1

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mae Barnett is a clever and witty piece that is sure to get students charged up about editing and revising.  How could it not?  This entire piece chronicles the the narrator’s (yes, the bunny) stylistic and creative writing journey.  The entire story is marked up, crossed out, reworded, and illustrated to show the power of the writing process.  It’s beautiful.

While I educate students ages 16-21, and this piece (I’m sure) was not intended for that audience, I believe this mentor text will be a lighthearted way to quell some of the fears that override their writers’ anxiety.  We know, many students are uncomfortable and afraid to revise, rework, or allow their time-intensive writing pieces to become ‘messy’.  Yet, that’s what produces the most profound writing.

battleI know this may be a risky move in my classroom.  Yet, I’m going to take a chance.  I anticipate shared laughter as we navigate this piece together.  I also plan to explore the bunny’s intentions and make it relevant for our work as writers:  Why did he feel the need to rewrite the story?  Do the illustrations add to the message he is portraying?  Do any of his original thoughts (verse his revisions) feel more powerful to you?  What intentional moves did he make in re-creating this story?  And on and on.


Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi is a piece I have not been without this entire summer.  And, although I’m finished reading it, I find myself flipping through the pictures over and over; it’s that profound. Massaquoi is a mentor of life, overcoming adversity, obtaining the (perceived) impossible, and what it truly means to be human.

Journalist by trade, Massaquoi takes such grace in his every word, sentence, and strategic ‘move’ that’s crafted.  This book encapsulates 443 pages of sheer brilliance and I want students to be exposed to this kind of writing because they too, have the ability to craft such beauty.

I also want them to catch a glimpse into my journey while reading this piece (note post-its) because I want to share what I found fascinating.  I want to explore some of the word choices (see my unknown word list) IMG_20140812_121513and talk strategy.  I want to use some of these words within my own vernacular and challenge students to do the same.  Most importantly, I want to show them that reading is a process; not one to shy away from.  And yes, sometimes it takes work, but overtime it becomes natural…and wildly fulfilling.

I can’t help but think, above and beyond the work I plan to do with this text, that the historical context won’t propel students in their study of history as well.  World War II and the Holocaust have rarely been depicted from the racial standpoint in which Massaquoi portrays.  This just may be a piece that peaks enough intrigue among students that they too will add it to their Next-To-Read list.  That’s my goal.



IMG_20140812_124058You are a Baddass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero has found its way into my Survival Book Kit and I love it!  I’m just past the first thirty pages, yet I have not stopped laughing.  Yes, out loud.

Sincero most definitely has a way with words.  She is edgy and a straight shooter for sure.  Yet, she is able to talk about really serious life-changing ideas in a way that feels ‘light’.  Not your typical self-improvement piece.

I want students to see how infusing humor among the serious can be oh-so-powerful.  Utilizing analogies to talk about the conscious and subconscious mind provides readers visuals…imagery.  A way to process this vitally important information that can shape their lives.  In only the most positive of ways.

I plan to choose the excerpts from this text skillfully.  I want students to have access to the content and the craft…as always.  I do foresee really rich one-on-one reading conferences with those that decide it’s time to make a change in their lives, or at the very least are up for a great laugh, and decide to take this piece on independently.

I hope my four have inspired you.  I really do.  I hope it will do the same for my students.  I encourage you to also share your favorites, here on this site.  As we all gear up for an incredible year to come, and we are swiftly shifting into our ‘going back to school’ mode, this is a wonderful time to start thinking about what we’re reading in a way that lends itself to the idea of being a mentor text.  Articles, books, poetry, graphic novels…all are welcome.




Making the Most of Summer

If you’re anything like me, based on the fact that August is just around the corner, your computer screen probably looks something like this:

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 6.38.24 AM

Those 10 or so tabs contain articles, blogs, book recommendations, and more for me to mine for ideas.  Once I’m done perusing those, I’ll return to my very full writer’s notebook to sift through the myriad of quotes, lessons, and resources I’ve jotted down while attending various classes this summer.  After that, it all comes down to remembering what I learned and actually applying it in my freshly-waxed classroom.

Honestly, that’s always been somewhat of a struggle for me–managing to sift through those summer lessons and remember all of them well enough to apply them.  So, in order to make the most of this summer, I’ve decided to boil down the biggest takeaways of my three workshops here.

Takeaway from UNH Literacy Institute – “I am the sum of my mentors.”

For two years now, I’ve learned most of my daily classroom practices from Penny Kittle.  However, what I’ve really begun to pay attention to is that by reading Penny’s writings and taking her classes, I’m not just learning from her.  I’m learning from Don Murray, Don Graves, Kelly Gallagher, Louise Rosenblatt, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Romano, Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, Alfie Kohn, Nancie Atwell, and many more.  Penny has expertly absorbed the ideas of all of those other teacher-writers, and seamlessly integrated them into her own philosophy and craft.  That is my goal–not to mimic Penny or any of those other teaching geniuses, but to meld all of their research findings into my own practice; to become the sum of my mentors, as Meenoo Rami says.  Of course, that’s easier said than done, but definitely worth the attempt–and the hefty credit card bill that comes after a Heinemann ordering spree.


With that being said, there is one idea of Penny’s I’d really like to integrate into my classes this year–storyboarding.  This visual way to process a story’s plot is a gateway into analysis and evaluation.  If talk is rehearsal for writing, then to Penny, so is storyboarding–sketching out little comic-strip squares of events.  This was something that I couldn’t really wrap my mind around how to execute after just reading Book Love, but now that I’ve seen Penny do it, it makes perfect sense, and I can’t wait to try it out.

Another lesson for me came from the fact that I couldn’t grasp the concept of storyboarding without seeing it modeled.  That was another weighty reminder of the importance of my serving as a writing mentor, modeling process for my students.  If I am the sum of my mentors, so are my students–and I am perhaps their only mentor when it comes to being a good reader and writer.  This big responsibility reinforces the importance of staying informed on current research–without great mentors, I can never be a great teacher.  I need those teacher-writers to help me help my students.

Takeaway from Balfour Yearbook Advisers Workshop – “There are two kinds of writers–good writers and quitters.”

In addition to teaching English, I also teach Journalism and Yearbook.  I traveled to Dallas this summer for what I thought would be a boring jaunt through yearbook software and technology, but I was pleasantly surprised by being surrounded by amazing teacher mentors to learn from.  Lori Oglesbee, a Texas teacher and our keynote speaker, spoke about the fact that great journalism comes from strong writing.  She preached that all students, no matter what, can be great writers if we lead them to it.  Lori then proceeded to show us many examples of award-winning yearbook writing, and I grinned–here were mentor texts again!  I really saw the relevance of mentor texts across all disciplines.

Takeaway from ASNE-Reynolds Journalism Institute – “Good writing comes by studying good writing–period.”


This lesson came in the form of an irreverent lecture by the delightful journalist and author of Radical WriteBobby Hawthorne.  An advocate of “writing for the reader, not the rubric,” Bobby spoke to us about the general lack of quality in student journalism writing.  School newspapers across the land are plagued with crappy writing, he preached!  (I learned that journalism, until very recently, was still laboring under pre-Graves and pre-Murray delusions about writing–no I, no emotion, no personality, no rule-breaking.)  Bobby advocated for throwing out all of our old notions about how to teach journalistic writing and just getting our students to find a story hidden in an event and tell it.  He felt strongly about the power of the narrative form, reminding me of more of Penny’s ideas from Write Beside Them.  And in fact, she agreed with him:

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 7.52.11 AM

Bobby wasn’t the only speaker at the two-week Institute to urge we teachers of journalism to simply teach our students to find and tell stories.  I heard that message over and over again, from photographers to journalists to writers to teachers.  The power is in the story, they urged.  Find it, and good writing will come naturally.

So, I’ll approach this year with those takeaways in mind.  I’m excited to try the workshop model out on my journalism students, who will be starting a newspaper this year.  I’m curious about how my teaching of the reading and writing workshop will change in its second year.  And, I’m optimistic about having so many new mentors to act as the sum of my teaching.  I hope I’ll make the most of my summer and transform my teaching, as I do every year, by putting my writing and reflecting to work.

Sharing What We Know and Do

I’d like to introduce you to my friends who have validated my thinking and taught me how to think more clearly. They are my zen when I need support or encouragement or recommendations for books. They are classmates from the past two courses I’ve taken from Penny Kittle at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute. We bonded again this year over Book Love.

How often do we feel like we are an island? Not just on an island but the island itself? We understand what it means to be a workshop teacher, to allow and encourage students to choose what they read and what they write about, to build classroom libraries that rival the ones down the hall, to spent our own money on books because “It might be the right one for (boy/girl name) this time.”

Often we are alone. Alone on our campus, in our grade-level teams, during our planning time. Alone because while we admire many of our colleagues, they just don’t get it.

#UNHLIT14 Book Love

Erika, Samantha, Shana, Amy, Jackie, Penny

Shana Karnes, Erika Bogdany, and Jackie Catcher get it, and Heather and I invite them to be regular contributors to our blog. They each have unique stories of how they run their workshop classrooms and how this pedagogy works with their students. While Shana and Erika contributed last year, like me, they know that the learning to ‘get it right’ never ends.

Workshop takes practice, and it take patience. Having friends to share with, and blogging about what we learn, is a way we’ve found to be the reflective, thoughtful, writers we hope to inspire our students to be. (See the About page for more on our bios.)

Thanks for reading.

Oh, and if you’ve been following along for a while and would like to be a guest blogger, send me a message. We’d like to read about how workshop works for you and your students.

Why Workshop? It’s All Very Simple

Attending the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute for the past two summers has been one of the best blessings in my teaching career. I’ve remembered what it means to be a student, replete with pages and pages of reading assignments, almost nightly research papers, and the expectation that I will participate in class.

Sure, I earned graduate credit, but more importantly, I sat as a student. I remembered what it feels like to have a teacher present a task, encourage a discussion, require I read something. I remembered what it means to be the pupil. And I wanted to learn.

I think all students want to learn. I also think that many of them do not know how.

Last week I met with my new friend Holly. We shared ideas about our plans for August and how we will more fully implement readers/writers workshop in our classrooms. We discussed what it means to struggle as a student in an English class where English is not our first language, and reading books is a new idea, and the lack of food in our home is just one component of the lack of security we feel every single day. We talked about what it must feel like to these children to fail state tests year after year. Because they do. Holly will be teaching 10th grade for the first time, and her ESL background will benefit her students immensely. I will be teaching AP English Language, and all my students will be in the AVID program. I am convinced the AVID philosophy is one every teacher should embrace:

Hold students accountable to the highest standards,
    provide academic and social support,
 and they will rise to the challenge.

It’s a philosophy every good teacher I know applies in his classroom. It’s also why so many of us choose the pedagogy of Readers and Writers Workshop. Our high standards might be the same for all students, but the support we must give them to help them rise to the various challenges with reading and writing must be individualized. Their needs are different; therefore, we must differentiate. One-on-one reading and writing conferences become daily events. We encourage, and nudge, and teach the skills that a student needs at that moment, during that task. This is authentic instruction. And it invites authentic learning.

As I think about this new school year on a new campus in a new district with new colleagues, new administrators, and new schedules (block days versus the traditional eight period days), I want to remember what it feels like from the student perspective.

“I need you to notice me, support me, show me how to learn.”

I had a colleague ask me recently, “Which is harder to plan:  teaching the traditional way with teachers making choices, or your way with students making the choices?” I should have said, “Is that really the right question?” which would have been a better response than the one I gave him.

It is hard work being a teacher in a workshop classroom. I have to know my students. I have to talk with them and know what they do with their time outside of school, who their friends are, what their dreams are for after high school. I have to be a reader, and I often have to read books I’d never read except to try to match the right book with a student who hates reading. I have to allow choice in topics, and get used to feeling uncomfortable. I have to give up control, and let teens be real in an environment that invites their opinions, and sometimes their scorn. I have to write in front of them and show my vulnerability. They have to see me struggle because all writers do. I have to love moving students as readers and writers because ultimately, if I am their English teacher, and I am not moving readers and writers, I am not doing my job.

Is it hard? Absolutely.

But here’s the thing: It’s really not a have to as much as it’s a get to.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”  ~Steve Jobs

“It’s all very simple. But maybe because it’s so simple, it’s also hard.” ~Natuski Takay

My AP Scores are Down, Now What???

The comment on my post said: “I have been book talking, conferring, doing mini lessons, and incorporated the workshop approach, yet my AP Literature scores went down dramatically. Now what???”

My initial response sounded something very Donalyn Miller-like when she said to me a few years ago:  “It’s not all about the test, is it?” At the time, I thought it was, and her remark stung.

Now, I know better.

The letter below is how I responded to this very dedicated teacher who is doing her best to help her students be successful, not just on an exam, but in life. I can feel her earnest desires in first this comment and then in an email message. Chin up, my new friend, you are doing right by students because you are taking them beyond test prep and into adult learning. I applaud you.

I feel your pain. I thought my students would do much better than they did, but then again — I think that every year.
Right after exam scores were released, I got a message from my colleague:  “My AP Lit scores are the worst they have ever been.” Although she is a good teacher, and I trust her ability to educate teenagers, she is not a workshop teacher. She allows little choice, and students only do the kind of writing in her class that they will do on the AP exam. My advice to her:  Choice Reading.
Now, I hear from you, and you say your scores plummeted. You have been doing elements of workshop, and my advice is the same but more:  More choice reading.
While I guess my voice is emerging as ‘an expert’ — probably because I post and talk about this so much, I must tell you:  I cannot base my expertise with readers/writers workshop in advanced classes on qualifying exam scores. I can only base it on my research on reading and on the personal experiences I’ve had with moving my students as readers and writers and preparing them for the kinds of reading and writing they will have to do in college. My evidence is the growth of my students, and that cannot always be measure by an exam — it rarely can.
I am used to teaching at a high poverty school that embraces the College Board’s Open Enrollment with no prerequisites. Pretty much any student who says she wants to take an AP class can — and does. I agree that every child should have the opportunity to take advanced classes, but I also think we do them a disservice by allowing them to attend a class when they do not have either 1) the reading and writing skills to engage in the learning, or 2) they do not have the work ethic to push themselves into engaging in the learning. Skill and will sit on that scale so precariously.
I know you know this already:  the AP exam represents one day of the student learning journey for that whole year. Students might be hot or cold or sitting in a luke-warm bath on exam day. I know that the majority of my students enter that room and take that exam as confident writers because I’ve seen them move from sometimes a -1 to a 5, or even a 6, on the writing rubric. But I cannot get non-readers to read the complex texts they must in order to get at least 50% correct on the multiple choice part of that exam. Of course, I cannot be certain because the score report does not show the break down between the essays and the multiple choice, but I know in my gut (and from what I’ve seen on mock tests), that my students who do poorly on the exam do so because they bomb the reading portion.
That is the basis of where I am coming from when I share with you what I think. It’s hard not to compare my scores with my colleagues’, but I have to remember:  it’s the luck of the draw which students end up in which sections with which teacher. It is rarely a fair balance of students’ abilities prior to them ever walking in my door.
Please know that I trust you are a fine educator. If you were not, you would not be seeking help to improve. And I will be honest, you have more years experience teaching AP English than I do.
I am going into my sixth year teaching AP, but I can tell you, I had disengaged kids, and I never moved more than a few readers and writers in those first couple of years. I made the choices, and most of them faked their way through the classic texts I selected. I just re-read the journal article “Not Reading: the 800-pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” by William J. Broz, and I wonder why I allowed those students to pass my English class. Broz says, “Not reading should mean that those students fail the course because they have no assignments to turn in.” I get that now.
Like you, I am a fan of Penny Kittle. For the past two years I have gone to the University of New Hampshire and taken a graduate course that she’s taught. This year she had us study reading theory. It was hard. But I am even more confident that allowing students choice in what they read and what they write is more important that the scores on the AP exam. That thinking takes a little getting used to, especially if you are used to getting high scores. We have to remember that the change in students’ lives, primarily because of their use of technology, has changed their willingness to engage with a book, and often their willingness to even attempt deep thinking, homework, and the like. Mark Prensky and Alan November’s work supports this. Prensky even asserts that students brains may be wired differently. I think I might believe that.
If you have not read the essays of Louis Rosenblatt, especially one titled “The Acid Test for Literature Teaching,” it will reinforce why you’ve tried to model Penny’s pedagogy to begin with — because you ‘get it’. At the end of her essay Rosenblatt asks these questions (the acid test):
Does this practice or approach hinder or foster a sense that literature exists as a form of personally meaningful experience?
Is the pupil’s interaction with the literary work itself the center from which all else radiates?
Is the student being being helped to grow into a relationship of integrity to language and literature?
Is he building a lifetime habit of significant reading?
I say that if we can answer with an honest yes to these questions — how much do our exam scores really matter?
The pedagogy of a readers/writers workshop classroom is in constant motion, continually fluctuating, because we plan and teach and move around the needs of our students. It is hard work because it is differentiation at mach speed. In her class Penny reminded me of a several things that I need to do better. I went through my notebook and made this list. Maybe this will help you, too (in no specific order of importance):
1. The pedagogy in a workshop classroom is 1/3 teacher talk and 2/3 student talk. Am I talking too much, or am I creating opportunities for students to think and debate and discover meaning with one another?
2. “Process is as important, or more important, than our product.” –the theory of Don Graves & Don Murray, UNH. How can I focus more on the process that students undergo to become writers than the writing itself? Do I talk with them as writers, or do I talk with them about their writing?
3. Have students think and analyze their process. “My process changes with genre.” Penny Kittle. If hers does, and mine does, then my students’ should. How do I help them understand why thinking about their process will lead to more accomplished writing?
4. One effective strategy when students say they “do not know”: Define yourself by what you are not. (This is a form of argument, taking on the counterargument from the get-go.)
5. “The hardest part of the writing process is figuring out what to say — when we give kids prompts we take away the hardest part.” Penny Kittle. How can I create a better balance of exposing students to AP essay prompts and free writing and quick writes that generates thinking for essays about topics students want to write about?
6. “Vocabulary from SAT word lists is a waste of time. The SAT draws from a bank of over 5, 000 words, even 25 words a week that you make kids memorize will never get them there.” PK. How can I help students create their own dictionaries, based on the ‘hard words’ they discover in their choice reading books? PK has her students find four a week.
7. Richard Allington’s research says that volume matters for struggling readers. He suggests that they should be reading at least 25 books a year. If that is true for struggling readers, how many books should college-bound students be reading?
8. Multi-tasking has been proven to be a myth. At least 10 minutes of silent reading time per day stills the silence, and a. helps students learn to focus, b. shows students that reading can become a habit.
9. Workshop classrooms are grounded in “Transactional Experience” theory. How do we invite students to have an aesthetic experience with a text?
10. “The success of our teaching is the willingness of kids to engage when we aren’t with them.” PK. How can I set up the learning expectations better so students know the end-goals more clearly? If colleges require 200-600 pages of independent reading a week, and most of my students will go to college, how can I help them engage in the practices that will help them do that now? [This year a group of students practically rebelled. They actually accused me of wasting their time because I refused to do test prep every day.]
11. “No amount of explicit skill instruction can replace the experiences of hearing, reading, learning, and living in a great number of stories.” Ariel Sacks. How can I helps students read like writers so they discover the explicit skills writers use on their own or in small groups? More talk.
12. “Independent reading should deepen thinking for writing.” PK This is where I fell short this year:  I didn’t have my students write about their reading. I didn’t make the learning connected enough. I need to have students write informal responses to their reading occasionally in their notebooks, and then they may choose one response to write into a more formal paper. What specific skills can I model as students write their formal responses? Remember Pk’s strategy with quotes across the board and how as students we made connections and then wrote about them. This was synthesis.
13. Mentor texts matter. What additional mentor texts can I have students study prior to major writing tasks? Need maybe 3-5 per genre– or more.
14. With each writing task, students must know the ‘end game.’ The end game is for them to demonstrate their learning. It’s about growth, so even the best writers must show growth, even those who come in my door as A-student readers and writers. How can I score more on process rather than product?
15. There are three types of conferences:  1. monitor the student’s reading life, 2. teach reading strategies, 3. challenge/increase complexity. I do #1 well. How can I improve the other two? If I can focus more on #3, I believe I can move readers into becoming the kind of thinkers they must be on the AP exam.
16. To analyze a text, we must read like writers. How can I teach over comprehension and get students to read as writers regularly? I must model what this means more clearly. This is where regular text studies with short passages matter.
17. “Students should talk regularly about their thinking both before and after writing. They will hear the thinking of others and this will help them extend their own.” PK.  How can I work more time for this talk into my daily lesson plans? Scripted questions?
18. “Model your writing. Let students see your struggles.” PK. I need to do this more. Idea from Penny:  project two run-on sentences from famous books on the board, i.e. The Goldfinch & ?. Ask:  These authors knew better. What was their intent in writing these run-on sentences? This will inspire thinking and talk, then students may write about their thinking. Better than writing “run-on” on their side of their papers.
19. Storyboards can be used to map a chapter, to read it rhetorically, not just for planning a narrative. How can I use storyboards to help students deconstruct a chapter? Then assessment is only looking for evidence of rhetorical reading (how &why).
20. “Put structures in their heads, so they read like writers.” PK. I just need to talk about this a lot more!
21. Ask:  “What have you learned about living from this book?” Leads students into reader’s response. This will tie into the human condition and the work as a whole that is needed for the AP exam.
22. Writing conferences. Writers control the conference; they say what they want help with. How can I get students to take ownership of this time to talk with me about their craft? “If you don’t leave a conference wanting to write more, there’s a problem with the feedback.” Don Murray
I hope you find these thoughts and questions helpful. Like you, I am always looking to improve. Every year I hope to open that webpage with exam scores and see all 3, 4, and 5’s. So far, those are a bit spotty, but I admit I am pretty proud of my 2’s. They’ve grown as readers and writers, and I’m okay with having some of my students just College Ready.

I am Not Assigning Books

Our Compass Shifts 2-1I love @professornana, the Goddess of YA Literature, and I learn a lot from reading her posts. This one got me thinking, and I opened and read every link she embedded in it.

This whole exile thing is crazy. Like Teri suggests, go take this little lexile quiz yourself. Then read the article she references, Teachers are Supposed to Assign Harder Books, but They Aren’t Doing it Yet. You’ll see what I mean.


The article got me (and not in a good way) at the title with the word “assign.”

My students are reading more than they ever have before because I am talking books, and suggesting books, and showing off books more than I ever have before.

I am not assigning them.

Choice works. Allowing students to read what they want, high or low lexile, works.

Do I sometimes steer students into genres, or most recently into Prize winners? Do I meet with kids and challenge them into more difficult books? Yes, but I’ve learned to always include some element of choice.

The past several days I’ve spent conferring with students during the first 10 minutes of class. Ten minutes that we devote to independent reading. I’ve met with 2/3 of my 145 students so far. Every student but two has read more this year than they did last. Most have exceeded the goal they set during our first reading conferences at the beginning of the year.

That kind of data speaks louder than any kind of lexile level. (I need to just say that my auto-correct changes lexile to exile every single time. Do you think that’s telling?)

Recently, a colleague visited my classroom. He watched my students engage with literature while I sat at a back table and listened. Later he asked how I conduct my readers/writers workshops. I told him “You saw it.”

My task is to get students reading and to teach them to talk about a texts:  books, stories, articles, passages, poems. Once I do that, students can do most everything else when it comes to reading on their own.

There’s freedom here. Freedom for me and freedom for them.

Funny how my students learn more from each other than they do from me anyway. I wonder why it took me so long to realize that.

I’m reminded of a post Donalyn Miller wrote almost a year ago, and I echo her title:

Let My People Read.


P.S. Are you thinking about Summer Reading yet? It’s about to be a hot topic on my campus. To allow kids to choose or not to choose, that is the question.

P.S.S. I have to figure out how to allow student choice in AP Literature, which I am most likely teaching next year. Every experienced AP Lit teacher I’ve talked to “assigns” specific books. Still trying to think through this. Any suggestions?

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Panic by Lauren Oliver

ReelReading2Many of my female students love her Delirium series, and I am happy to say that maybe even some of my guys will take on Panic, Lauren Oliver’s newest title.

The topic is FEAR.

I haven’t read very far, but I have read enough to know I like this narrative voice. I especially like that I can share it with my students by using this video where Lauren Oliver reads them the first chapter.

Cannot get any cooler than that.

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