I sat listening to Donalyn Miller the author of The Book Whisperer talk about how she gets her students to read an average of 60 books a year. She talked about student choice in selecting books. She talked about reading herself in order to match books with kids. She talked about creating readers and not just teaching reading. I thought: “Cool, but how do I do that with MY students?”
I’d just been assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition the next fall, and I was trying to get my thoughts aligned with the expectations from the College Board. At the same time I was in the middle of my three weeks National Writing Project summer institute, and I kept hearing that I must give students time, and more time, to read and write. My head swam.
At one point, I asked Donalyn: “This is all great, but how does student choice and all this reading work in an AP English class when the focus is on students passing the exam?” Honestly, I was put off by her response: “It’s not all about the test. Is it?” Yes. Yes it is.
Or so I thought at the time.
It took me three years to figure out how to use Workshop in my AP English class, but I have. Mostly.
My Definition of Reading Writing Workshop: Students do more work than me!
|Flex Instruction/ Writing Workshop: Timed Writing Debrief
HW: blog post due
Multiple Choice/Critical Reading
|Direct Instruction/ Reading or Writing Workshop as needed
||Writing Workshop: Timed Writing
HW: blog comment due
Topic & Theme Flood/Vocab & Current Events
The table shows a typical week in my AP workshop classroom. Of course, there are always interruptions to my well-planned schedule.
Blogs: Student Own and Class
One of the best instructional practices I have is mandating that my students create and post to blogs. Some kids truly take ownership and write more than I assign; some do the absolute minimum. Some refuse to blog at all. Those are the kids who miss out on the practice it takes to become an effective writer, and most of those do not get qualifying scores on the AP exam. My class blog is Citizen Scholars. You can see how I post prompts that students respond to either in the comments or on their own blogs. To see student sample blogs scroll down my blogroll and click on a few. Some are better than others: Joseph, Sarosh, and Simina’s are quite good. When I give students choice about what they write on their own blogs, I consistently get better writing.
In the fall of this past year, I had students find and read current events of their choice. On their blogs they had to write a response to something within the article they read. I scored their writing based on whatever skill we worked on in class that week, using a generic version of the AP writing rubric. Spring semester I tried something new: students were to move through the modes of writing. They got to choose their topics; one week they were to write a description, another week a compare/contrast, etc.
My students write more than I can ever grade. I might grade one in three blog posts, but the more feedback I give, the better the writing. Using Google Reader and the Flipboard app on my iPad is a simple way to read student blogs. I give feedback on sticky notes. Or, if you get your students using Twitter, they can tweet their blog urls every time they post. Again, using my iPad, I can read their blogs and leave feedback quickly via my own tweets and re-tweets of student blog posts.
Multiple Choice Practice/ Critical Reading
Historically, the part of the AP exam that my students do the worst is on the multiple choice section. As a result, I’ve tried to include more targeted practice with critical reading. My goal is for students to complete 30 multiple choice practices per year. This is difficult (I think I got through 24 last year) but is proving to be worth it as students’ scores improve. Some variations on multiple choice practice (all can be done in small groups or with partners) include:
- Students read and discuss the passage, finding rhetorical devices and explaining the effect they have on the piece
- Students use question stems to write their own questions and/or answers for the passage
- Students receive the multiple choice questions without the answer choices and must answer the questions in short essay format
- Students receive only the answer choices and must compose the questions that go with them
When students engage in the “work” of reading, they are absorbed in what I called Workshop. The challenge for me was learning to trust that my students would find everything important within a passage. They surprise me every single time!
Direct Instruction/ Reading or Writing Workshop
I learned from Penny Kittle the value of using professional authors like Leonard Pitts, Jr. and Rick Reilly as mentors. Craig Wilson, USA Today columnist, and Mitch Albom are also favorites. These authors write about high interest, contemporary topics, and their writing is chalk full of the rhetorical devices I want my students to include in their own writing. Some weeks we read like readers–reading articles as we focus on content and comprehension. Some weeks we read like writers–analyzing articles as we identify and discuss the effects of the language the authors use to create their messages. Like Kittle, with students I create anchor charts that hang in the room, which detail the different techniques authors use in the majority of their pieces. In years past I’ve had students write process papers on topics of their choice, modeling the writing of one of our mentors. These are often students’ favorite pieces of writing.
Since time is so limited, students write their drafts outside of class. (Of course, I have to teach them the difference between a draft that they are ready to get feedback on from peers and their pre-writing that they quickly sketch during the period prior to mine. Drives me crazy.) In class, students read, evaluate, and give feedback on one another’s writing as I wander the room and conference with as many students as possible.
Conferencing is the key to creating better writers.
During my larger classes, it is difficult to conference with each student. I often post a sign up sheet with time slots for before or after school. Students may choose to meet with me for a more in-depth discussion about their writing. Depending on the student’s needs, I might make this additional conference time mandatory.
Since I want my students to become lifelong readers, I try to introduce them to books that they will be compelled to read. The AP English Language exam, unlike the Literature exam, does not require students to be well-versed in any specific pieces of literature. It would be easy to delete full-length books from my syllabus, but in my heart I am still a literature teacher, so I want my students to read good books. I also agree with Penny Kittle: students must be prepared for the rigorous reading they will have to do in college. If I can get students to spend time reading books they enjoy, perhaps they will be better prepared for the time demand of college reading.
I got the idea of student book clubs from a colleague in a neighboring district. She introduced me to the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer (before the movie) and told me that once I read that book and felt the need to talk about it–because I would, I would understand how Book Clubs could work with my students. She was right. When students read something that is interesting and requires discussion, they will read (instead of Spark Note), and they will be more likely to read more.
My students read a minimum of four books outside of class (not enough, I know.) They choose titles from my short list. While this does not allow for complete student choice, it does allow for a little. I try to select books that have complex themes or subject matter yet are engaging enough that teenagers will find them interesting. Students meet in Book Clubs during class once a week for about three weeks to discuss their books. Then, our focus changes from reading to writing. Students continue to meet with their Book Clubs, but now the clubs become writing groups. Once the books are read, students must write process papers in which they address some aspect of the book they read and write an argument about it, using evidence from the books as their support. Many students find these essays difficult; they are very college-like in that students must “read the book and write a paper about it.”
I conduct many mini-lessons while students are writing these essays, i.e., structure of an essay, semi-colon and/or colon use, periodic sentences, embedding quotes, etc. Students know if I teach a mini-lesson, I expect to see evidence of mastery of that skill within their essays.
Topic & Theme Flood/ Vocab & Current Events
The topic & theme flood is something my team is going to try this year. We got the idea from a trainer from AP Strategies we’ve been working with for the past year. She suggested that since most students know so little about the world in which they live, we need to bring the world inside our classrooms more. Every other Friday students will engage in a discussion about a specific topic, e.g., integrity, belief, power, success. They will read a short passage that focuses on the topic, identify the theme, and then have to “hunt” via the web for current events that relate to that topic and/or theme. Then they will engage in some kind of activity wherein they share the articles that they find. We hope this will help build student background knowledge for the variety of passages that might appear on the exam, and build their knowledge of the events happening in the world around them. We plan to include vocabulary instruction that corresponds to our topics, but that is still a work in progress. Most recently we used a vocabulary list of SAT words, but we feel that focusing on words that would describe tone might be more beneficial–not sure how that will look yet.
While I do not have Workshop at an AP level all figured out yet, I love the challenge of trying. I know that students like to think, and they like to be busy in class in a way that forces them to figure things out. Workshop is the best avenue I have found for getting there. The best comment I heard all year came from Daniel, a genius of a kid with a knack for cutting up and getting under my skin. He said, “Mrs. Rasmussen, this is so hard. You make us think so much.”
Yep. Something is working.