Tag Archives: reading writing workshop

Making Workshop Work in 45 Minutes

Kerry wrote:

“One of the seemingly overwhelming hurdles I feel I have is to engage my students with only 45 minutes each day! Do you have any tips or tricks for me to do this?”

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Amy’s diagram of all the moving parts of workshop

So many teachers ask this question.  When one considers all of the moving parts of workshop instruction–reading, conferring, mini-lessons, booktalks, quickwrites, workshop time, choice–it’s tough to conceptualize how to fit it all in to any duration of class time.


What’s important to consider is what Penny Kittle referred to as the “currency of time”–what you spend your time on, and what will give you your biggest return for the investment of that time, is equally as important as what you DON’T spend your time on.  You can make workshop work in any time period, with or without all of these elements in one class period, if you invest your time wisely.

What’s most important for our students?  What is the most valuable use of our time?

Time to read.

Time to confer.

Time to write.

That’s it.  If I have those three elements in every single day of workshop, I feel our _Time_-_is_money_095207_.jpgtime has been well spent.  Every workshop classroom will–and should!–look a bit different.  That’s one of the most valuable things about workshop:  not only does it provide for student choice, it gives teachers autonomy, too.

Here’s what I responded to Kerry:

“What I did when I taught those shorter classes was essentially break up my typical workshop into two days, plus I had lots of activities that I always did on certain days of the week.  Fridays, for example, were free-write Fridays in writer’s notebooks, and every Monday always had a sentence study lesson to learn grammar.  We always started with 10 minutes of independent reading, then moved into EITHER a mini-lesson or a quickwrite, then had either a reading or writing workshop.  We had a long workshop every few days or so applying the previous day’s mini-lesson, which they only had a short time to practice the day before.
So, let’s say I’m teaching Macbeth:
Monday: 10 min Independent Reading, 10 min sentence study (using a mentor sentence from the text or a related thematic text like a poem), 15 min mini-lesson on some aspect of whatever part of the play we might be reading that day, 20 min of reading the text with a directed reading activity (close reading type of stuff)
Tuesday:  10 min IR, 15 min mini-lesson or quickwrite (maybe a journal prompt on the nature of evil or something), 20 min reading of the play
Wednesday:  10 min IR, 5 min reminder of yesterday and Monday’s mini-lessons, 30 min reading of the play
Thursday:  10 min IR, 15 min vocab activity, 20 min directed reading activity (discussion, etc.)
Friday:  10 min IR, 10 min free write, 25 min reading of the play
I’d do that for about 3 weeks until the unit was done. (I try not to let a unit go longer than 3 weeks.)
Let’s say I’m teaching narrative writing:
Monday:  10 min IR, 10 min sentence study (using a mentor sentence from a model narrative), 15 min mini-lesson on a writing skill, 20 min writing time (content creation day)
Tuesday:  10 min IR, 10 min mini-lesson follow up, 25 min writing time (lots of revision or tweaking here)
Wednesday:  10 min IR, 5 min reminder, 30 min writing workshop (lots of one-on-one conferring with a combo of content creation and revision)
Thursday:  10 min IR, 10 min vocab activity in notebooks, 10 min writing mini-lesson based on previous day’s workshop, 15 min tinkering workshop
Friday:  10 min IR, 10 min free write, 25 min writing time (straight content creation)
Those days were PACKED.  There was really no free time, so kids who were absent, kids who had questions beyond workshop or conference time, etc. really had to come and see me outside of class (after school, lunch, etc.).  And, there was a lot more homework…we just didn’t have time for everything during 45 minutes.”
How do you make workshop work in any duration of time?  Share with us in the comments a brief outline your daily schedule, please!!  It will be invaluable to see the variety.

7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Amy in 2015, reminds us how we might structure our days in a workshop classroom.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–what are the moves in your workshop schedule?

Quite often teachers ask me what the daily schedule looks like in my workshop classroom.

This is a hard one. I think mainly because it is not about the schedule as much as it is about the routines we start putting into place at the beginning of the school year.

I’ve had a lot of adapting to do this year. Moving to a new school and adjusting my lessons to fit 85 minute class periods where I see my students twice a week for sure and every other Friday (sometimes.) This is quite a change from 50 minute class periods where I saw my students five days a week.

Our normal routines  — and these are non-negotiables that make workshop work — consist of reading, conferring with readers, talking about books, writing in our notebooks, revising in our notebooks, sharing a bit of our writing, and learning or reinforcing a skill, then….it all depends on our workshop task. That’s why writing about my daily schedule is hard.

Here’s the best I can do without going into a long explanation.

READ — 10 to 15 minutes. This is sacred and silent reading time. Students choose books that interest them. I CONFER with my readers, most often with a specific focus, depending on my reader.

TALK about books. Sometimes I do a book talk, reading a few pages of the book, or holding


Fabian was so excited to share an insight from his book I could not get the camera to take the photo fast enough.

a book interview like Erika does. Sometimes a student does a book talk, if I’ve talked to her first and know she’s passionate about the book she’s just read. Sometimes I ask my students to just talk about the books they are reading, then ask them to write down any titles they think they might like to read next. Shana wrote about the Value of Talk, and I agree completely: “Talk is one of the most valuable tools at work in my classroom.”

WRITE in our writer’s notebooks. Everyday we need to have our students thinking on paper. When I forget, or think we do not have time to open our notebooks and write — in response to a poem, or a video, or a story, or about the books students are reading, or about whatever — I regret it.

Discussions are richer when we write first. Discoveries are more insightful when we write first. Writing is better when we write, just thinking about our ideas, first.

Then, something I learned from Penny Kittle, we always read what we wrote and REVISE. Penny modeled revising with a different color, and I ask my writers to do the same. I simply say, “Read over what you just wrote. How can you make your writing better? Maybe add a phrase or two that develops your thinking more. Maybe change a word or two that adds a punch. Maybe you can remove some words and make your thinking more concise. Where can you add figurative language or a list or an interesting style move?” (When I check writer’s notebooks, I always look for evidence of revision. We work on establishing the habit of revision, daily.)

SHARE some of our thinking. Sometimes we pair up and read our writing to a shoulder partner. Sometimes I ask for volunteers to share out their writing with the class. Sometimes I randomly call on someone (and I usually allow them to opt out at least once if they are uncomfortable reading aloud). Sharing is an important part of our community, and from the first day of school, we work on establishing a safe and respectful community where we can all grow as readers and writers.

Learn, or reinforce, a skill via MINI-LESSON. (If I introduce something totally new, like one of the AP English Language exam prompts, obviously, the mini-lesson will not be so mini. On these days, the mini-lesson time and the workshop time allotment swap places. Sometimes I need the focused direct instruction time because it saves time in the long run.)

Our routines usually take about 35 to 45 minutes. That leaves us about half the class period to hold a workshop. This might be a readers workshop if we are practicing close reading or if we are preparing for a Harkness discussion. This might be a writers workshop if we are composing a piece of writing or studying the moves of a favorite author.

Of course, if we are writing, I change my hat and confer with my writers.

I would love to know the workshop routines you establish with your readers and writers. Please share in the comments.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Our Year-In-Review

As we round out the 2014-2015 academic school year, I would like share our Year-In-Review from us here at TTT and dedicate it to all of our loyal and contributing teacher friends who share in our experiences throughout the year.  Playing with the Reading Writing Workshop model is always exhilarating and fresh and exciting and freeing and thought-provoking.  It’s always propelling us, as educators, to break through barriers and teach with our most authentic teaching souls.

So, to capture the essence of how we have all explored the model this school year; here are highlights that allow us to celebrate the risks, the questions, the stumbles, the ‘ah-ha’s, the setbacks, and of course…the successes.  As we are all still progressing through this last month of our current school year, we hope that resurfacing some of our favorite moments will ignite the fire that keeps us all educating with fierce passion, deep inquiry, and continual evolution.

The calm zen of the RWW in Texas.

The calm zen of the RWW in TX.

First up: The lovely Amy Rasmussen who never ceases to amaze all of us with her wit, wisdom, and wildly insightful thinking.  Here is a woman who has taken the RWW by storm and has not looked back; the only time she does is to pick up, dust off, and gently guide those who are trying to find their way through the process.  She is an excellent mentor and extraordinary educator who ensures that her Advanced Placement students are gifted the wonders of the RWW. Here is a collection of how Amy has guided us through the intricacies of customizing the RWW for our own learners:

A Feedback Protocol for Revision Workshop

5 Reasons Why Reading Conferences Matter — Especially in High School English

5 Ways to Enjoy the Last Month of School


A reminder of student movement and achievement.

A reminder of student movement and achievement in NH.

Next: Jackie Catcher’s name could not be more appropriate.  We know the catcher’s responsibility on the field is to guide the team to strategic success; Jackie does the same infield – in her classroom. She moves her students with her unyielding dedication through continual infused literacy by craftily customizing projects and lessons that engage students. She is a powerhouse who, through all the struggles and obstacles of a second year educator, never ceases to find innovative ways to educate and inspire.  Most importantly, she is always a learner first and shares her inquiry with others to not only think collectively, but to create success-driven solutions.  Here is some of her story:

Building My Library Around My Students

Unraveling the Mystery of Poetry

The Question That Changes My Students’ Writing


A bright and energetic learning environment in WV.

A bright and energetic learning environment in WV.

Thirdly: The always-invigorating Shana Karnes. Shana is a shining light to her students, yet her light shines brightly for the world of evolving educators as well.  She is open to sharing her passion, her innovative thinking, and the way she creatively customizes the RWW for her students in the throws of West Virginia.  Shana never loses sight of how vital piles and piles of literature are for the growth of her young readers and emerging writers.  She knows how to roll up her sleeves and do the work right beside her scholars.  It is through the sheer joy of all things literacy, that Shana explores the world of the RWW:

We Learn Facts from Fiction

Teach Readers, Not Books: A Case for Choice Reading in ALL Classes

The Value of Talk


The shelves where our identities are qualified, our ideas solidified, and our passion realized.

The shelves where our identities are qualified, our ideas solidified, and our passions realized in NY.

Rounding it out: Erika Bogdany.  Through the RWW I have challenged my students, and they in turn, have challenged me.  They push me continually with their own inquiries and want to be more fluid writers.  They challenge my writing by offering suggestions and insight that I have bestowed upon them; the gift of creating a safe community for all learners to read, write, risk, and share.  It is through the RWW that students find pride in their work, volume in their voice, crafted secrets in their writing, and beauty in themselves.  It is with passion and grace that students flutter and flop; yet learn how to fly:

All it Takes is a Tutu and Some Focus

Beyond These Four Walls

Today We Draw


We hope that our moment of reflection and celebration continues to provide you ideas and inspiration throughout the remaining time you have with your unique readers and writers this year.  We’d love to continue hearing your voices, feedback, and generous insight while we round out this school year…and look forward to the year ahead!

Everywhere You Turn

Over the last three years, our Francis Gittens Memorial Lending Library has grown literally by thousands of books.  And, it’s a beautiful sight.  One in which provides comfort, challenge, and dialogue among students and educators.  It propels interest in reading and provides options and choice; students sometimes pull up a chair and use the edge of any given shelf to rest their Writer’s Notebook while they write and find inspiration.  It’s our staple here in room 382.

But, as more and more donations come through the door, I panic: Where will they all go?!  We are currently wall-to-wall with bookshelves (many that tower over us) and the remaining space is either wall-to-wall windows or full of technology.  So, I started to utilize every open surface: our computer cart, window sills, filing cabinets, my own desk.  Now, literally everywhere you turn, your gaze lands upon books…stacks and stacks of books.

Initially I felt overwhelmed by having books everywhere; I thought it felt chaotic.  But, the perceived chaos actually provides students even more choice and an innate awareness of their surroundings. Students have started to become even more in-tune with their reading journeys and have been feeling more compelled to explore.  For more reluctant readers they have access to books without it feeling as though there is the need for any sort of grandiose gesture; trekking across the room to the wildly overwhelming library.  It’s subtle yet powerful beyond measure.  Everything is within their reach.


Books resting on technology…

Everything.  Even our mobile technology cart full of laptops. The books on top are stacked in four piles; they are our newest additions.  Because the cart find its way across the room, near different seats, and at various different spots depending on the day; it’s equivalent to an ice cream truck making its rounds – no one is to be missed.  These piles change as the new additions continue to stream through the door.  Many students, as they are accessing the cart for a computer, find themselves pausing for a moment because a book title…or cover…or piece they realized was on their next-to-read list…has caught their attention.  I love the irony that’s often captured here when a student is simply going to return their computer, hears the bell ring, and runs to their Writer’s Notebook to jot the title down; yet forgets to put the computer back!


Here is one of three window sills adorned with literature – and some added nature.  During the winter months in room 382 the heat tends to be unbearable (hence the cactus) which is quite unfortunate.  Yet fortunately, students like to get a breath of fresh air.  So, while doing so they find themselves multi-tasking – breathing in the fresh city air while perusing through the new titles that greet them at the window.  Many times, a lesson or writing workshop will be interrupted with, “Miss Bogdany, I found another book about XXX!”

Books decorating ugly steel surfaces...

Books decorating ugly steel surfaces…

Many students have just recently begun to proudly embrace their love for graphic novels. Typically,they believe that they’re for ‘young kids’ because of ‘all the pictures and stuff’.  I whole-heartedly disagree.  So, in the vein of supporting students’ interest in visual literacy, many are found atop an industrial filing cabinet adding color, texture, and accessibility.  Because this surface is also used for additional supplies, students access it often.  Every time they are wanting to find their zen (see butterfly book box on the top left) they happen upon literature that excites them.  Many times, the zen garden and a new book escorts them back to their seat.     


Exhibiting my literary interests. The left stack is comprised of pieces I want to read. The ones on the right are my absolute favorites. And, the ones in the middle are a fantastic mix of professional resources, gifts, and tools.

I know students will not produce work if they are not comfortable; both physically and in feeling safe within a community.  I create a visually stimulating space at my desk because it’s what fuels my passion for all things literacy. I also know, when a student needs their own unique space, they tend to gravitate toward wherever it is that I’ve set up shop.  It has been labeled ‘their corner office’ – and yes, they get right down to business!

There are other times when I conduct 1:1 conferences and ask a student to engage in dialogue in our bright back corner.  I watch their eyes drift from their writing to the options resting atop my wooden workspace.  Students will reach across the desk to pick up a piece they have never seen there before and while I try to get their attention refocused on our conference, sometimes the book they’ve chosen is much more convincing than whatever it is I’m trying to do.  I also think some of the intrigue is that students know that what they find there are pieces I can really talk about because I’m passionate about them.

So, as the year starts coming to an end and we start thinking strategically about how we are going to start minimizing our inventory and organizing it for our summer packing; please don’t!  Keep moving things around and keeping it fresh.  Put books in places you haven’t before – students will find them trust me.  Play around with what you have displayed in your area and invite students to engage in conversation wrapped around them.  But, most importantly, enjoy these remaining few months with our inquisitive and dedicated readers as they continue to look around our learning environments and find exactly what they didn’t even know they were looking for.

Where do you keep literature aside from your library shelves?  What successes have students found when they happen upon a book in the most unlikely of places?


Teach Readers, Not Books: A Case for Choice Reading in ALL Classes

Recently, in a pretty typical high school hallway, I overheard two very different conversations about books.

Conversation One:
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Oh my gosh, yes, I did, and I couldn’t believe the ending!!”
“I know! I cried so hard! I got makeup all over the pages!”
“Me too! But it was such a good ending, right?”
“Yeah. It had to end that way.”

Conversation Two:
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“What happened? I think we have a quiz today.”
“Well, the main character ended up…”

The first conversation was one between real readers. The second was a conversation between students just trying to pass their English class. It’s obvious that the kids who are already readers are the kids in the first conversation, while the kids who are being besieged by negative reading experiences are the kids in the second.

The day I heard those conversations, someone tweeted Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s “Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students.”  She writes powerfully about how some story mediums gave her “large and instant rewards for spending time with them,” but that reading novels and completing “deadening take-home reading comprehension questions” assigned to her did not.  I recognized myself in this post, as I had much the same experience.  It wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to read the classics, which I’d merely SparkNoted in high school.  This is me we’re talking about, who snatched the Twitter handle @litreader in 2008.  I, the kid who decided in 6th grade to read the entire public library, starting with author A and ending at Z, didn’t read what was assigned to me…simply because it had been assigned.

And then came Amy’s courageous and oh-so-right post yesterday about choice in AP and Honors level English classes.  I wish she’d written that post 12 years ago, when I was being beaten over the head with The Scarlet Letter.  Or 7 years ago, when I somehow, despite my own negative experiences, first began teaching and jumped into whole-class novels with gusto.  Thankfully, I met Amy a few years after I’d realized that that wasn’t the best way to get kids to love reading, and she’s helped me strengthen my teaching exponentially since then.  I’ve realized that it’s not the books that make kids love reading…it’s the experiences kids have with books, and it’s up to us to create conditions that foster the most positive of reading experiences.

When we value choice and focus our curriculum on authenticity and our students’ voices, we cultivate practices of lifelong reading. When we assign whole-class novels and base most of our coursework around them, we show students that we value books, not the act of reading itself.  Further, this practice values the teacher way too much–while in Penny Kittle’s words the teacher should be the best reader in the room, the teacher certainly shouldn’t be the only reader in the room.  Our students have excellent minds capable of making choices that will challenge their reading and thinking abilities.  We shouldn’t make all of those choices for them.

While you may believe that it is important for every student to be able to recognize a quote by Shakespeare at a cocktail party, you also hopefully believe in the value and power of reading. The only way to get our students to read for the rest of their lives–and become informed citizens and thinkers as a result–is to look into our classrooms and see our students as readers hungry for knowledge and wisdom, and not students who just need to know about certain books. The second doesn’t matter, at all. It’s not why we got into this profession, I hope–or at least it’s not why I got into this profession. If we want to create readers who will think and hope and dream and change the world, we have to teach those readers, not books.

A student-centered classroom that places choice and authenticity at its center is the answer.  The reading-writing workshop is a really effective format for that kind of classroom, and having it in place these last three or four years has made a world of difference in how my students and I view our time together.  Teaching has become much less a job for me, and much more a pleasurable way to pass my time.  I love talking to students about books, using my own expertise to help scaffold them up a reading ladder of text complexity.  I love reading their amazingly diverse writing and getting wonderful, authentic ideas for activities from them in writing conferences.  I love the sense of pride a kid shines with at the end of the year when he has defied an IEP and finished 18 books…but it breaks my heart when he fails senior English after a year of multiple-choice tests over Shakespeare.

And so, in the words of Natasha Vargas-Cooper, “To hell with Gatsby’s green light!”  Let them ponder it on their own time (they will; I promise you…I did).  Let’s teach readers…not books.

Before and After

Our Compass Shifts 2-1Here in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, we’ve been back to school for a little over a week.  I’ve managed to learn all of my students’ names, most of their reading interests, and a few of their writing hang-ups.  My students seem to be quickly figuring out that stubbornness or apathy are no match for the genuine obsession I have with reading and writing, and getting my students to do both well.  They sometimes look a little taken aback as they sit facing one another in my beautiful blue classroom, watching me do a booktalk or model a writing lesson with the zeal of a stage performer, but that’s okay with me.  I’ve worked hard to portray all of the passion and enthusiasm inside of me as we’ve framed our reading and writing workshop, and when I see all eyes in the classroom on mine, a book, or their own words on a page, I feel like I’m doing a good job.

But the thing is–I feel completely out of my element here.  I’ve only been teaching in this classroom for seven days.  I’ve only been in this state for two months.  And I’ve only been Mrs. Karnes since June first.  Combine that with the fact that this year, I’m giving myself over to the workshop model entirely, and everything about my life feels completely different.


You see, I had a great teaching job in Cincinnati at a small school north of the city.  I taught wonderful classes–AP English, Honors English, a reading elective–and headed excellent activities–National Honor Society, Academic Team, ACT/SAT Class.  I had a gorgeous lime green classroom, a curriculum I could plan for in my sleep, and cooperative students who answered the questions I asked correctly.  I did a lot, but my job felt easy.  I had plenty of time to plan a wedding, finish my Masters degree, and work a second job outside of school.  All was comfortable and I was content.  But then, I was swept away by love to another state–away from the family, classroom, and colleagues I had all been so familiar with.  I got married and moved here without a job lined up, and quickly realized how frantic I was to teach again.


I was fortunate enough to land a position at my new school thanks to a unique license type I had due to the Ohio-West Virginia transfer.  Here, I would be teaching general level English and one journalism class, plus advising the yearbook staff.  None of this seemed very glamorous–and my new classroom certainly wasn’t very exciting either–but hey, I was just glad to have a job.  I reasoned that the textbook series was the same, my classroom library held the same books, and I had two big crates full of sample writing prompts, essay questions, reading projects, and test-prep questions to get me through.

Then came the University of New Hampshire and its Summer Literacy Institute.  This worldview-altering learning experience completely revitalized me as a teacher.  I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from our teacher-leader, the amazing Penny Kittle (if you haven’t read her books, get with the program and READ THEM!).  After two weeks of ideas, inspiration, and insight, I decided to take the fact that I was in a new school with a flexible curriculum and use it as an opportunity to completely overhaul my teaching.  I threw most of the contents of those two big crates in the garbage and started fresh.


So here I am, workshopping it up in West Virginia.  While I’m still getting used to planning and prepping for this model, I’m happy with the way things are going.  I spend much less time “teaching” than I’m used to, but much more time conferring one-on-one with students, helping them find good books, talking about their reading lives, and working with them on their writing.  I still get a jolt hearing “Mrs. Karnes!” instead of “Miss E!”, it still feels strange to bring my teacher bag home to a small apartment instead of my old house, and I don’t have a pile of worksheets to grade or a set of chapters to assign.  But my students are reading.  They’re writing.  And they’re doing both seriously.

I’m in a different state, with a different name, teaching in a different way.  I may not feel comfortable, but I do feel right at home.

What’s in Your Teaching Soul?

Our Compass Shifts 2-1I am an idea machine. Really, it’s like Boom! This might be cool–or this–or this. How about this? It relates to that and that and that. Sounds like a pretty great machine, right?

Not even. It’s a problem.

I get so many ideas spinning that I get dizzy with possibilities, and inevitably, I get frustrated. You know what happens next. Do you hear that crashing?

So, as the days of summer disappear, and I start thinking about school starting up again and what I want to do differently with my students this year, the idea machine hums at high speed. And there is just no room on the planning calendar to do every idea that I think is a cool one. And really, why would I want to?

I do this to myself every year:  I try to do too much, so my students rarely get the chance to do some things really well. We’re in too much of a hurry to move on to the next great thing. No wonder I am a stressed out, headache prone, insomniac from August until June.

At the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute learning from Penny Kittle, she asked us at the beginning of the course and then again at the end:  What is your teaching soul?

The first day of class my answer went something like this:

I’ve lost it. That’s a lot of the reason I am here. My passion for teaching has taken a beating–a lot of it influences from outside of school, (It’s been a hard year personally)– a lot of it the choices I made within the classroom.  I’m here to get my passion back.

The last day of class, and it’s really no surprise, since, you know, I was learning from Penny Kittle, my response was something entirely different. The discussions about writing, the experiences with reading–mostly analyzing author’s craft, and my own writing practice all helped redefine who I am as an educator and as an individual.

And that is what I want for my students. I want them to know who they are and what they have to offer.

So, what is my teaching soul? What are the non-negotiables that matter, the things that will help me keep the passion and help my students define themselves as readers and writers and individuals of tremendous worth? I know in my soul the following things matter:

Community Matters. My students must trust me to establish and maintain a classroom community that allows for risk and creativity. I must encourage conversations that allow students to be their authentic selves so they can find their authentic voices in their writing. Every discussion and every activity can help us feel at ease as we grow to know and appreciate one another as developing readers and writers. Keeping writer’s notebooks, talking about books, sharing our writing–every single day–will help my students feel safe so they are willing to speak up and let me see glimpses into their lives and how they think.

Reading, Writing, and Thinking Matter–a lot. If it’s true that to develop fluency in reading and in writing, students must read and write, then it only makes sense that to develop fluency of thought, students must think. Asking students to analyze, synthesize, revise, create, etc  on a daily basis is the only way to build this fluency. I can start with asking good questions, but more importantly, I want students asking good questions. A student-centered, student-driven inquiry cycle will lead to thinking that involves and engages every learner.

Modeling and Mentoring Matter. I’ve learned the difference between showing students something I’ve written and writing something in front of them. In front of them–so they see the thinking and the struggle–works so much better. If they see me as a writer, and I talk to them as writers, our writing community helps us all grow in our craft and experience. The same holds true for reading. Students have to see me as a reader. Mentor texts that we study for craft act as professional coaches to show us the moves and stylistic devices published authors use to create meaning. My job is to ‘hire’ good coaches and make sure my students know that we can learn from them.

Authenticity matters. I’ve thought about this a lot:  How can students be their authentic selves if we never let them make choices? I read something once that compared high school to a dystopian society: wear a certain thing, eat at a certain time, respond to the bells throughout the day, come and go when they tell you, talk when they let you. All that control. I get that schools must function a certain way, but can’t we give students some control? Allowing them to choose the books they read and allowing them to select topics that interest them to write about gives students a little freedom. The more freedom we give students, the more interest they’ll have in their learning. The more interest they have, the more commitment they will have. Isn’t that what we want–students committed to their own learning? This is where blogging comes in for me, too. By encouraging students to create and post on their blogs, I learn who they are as individuals. I read about the topics that matter to them, and they find their authentic voices as they publish to a world of potential readers far beyond me as their teacher.

Dialogue matters. In a training last spring, Kylene Beers reminded me that “the smartest person in the room is the room.” I needed this reminder because I often shut down conversation when I could explode it. Rich classroom discussion can lead to intense learning. I must trust that when students engage in conversation surrounding a topic, they may learn more from one another than from me. They can learn from me in the dialogue we share during our one-on-one conferences. Talking to students about their reading lives and their writing processes is the best teaching tool I have as an educator–and the best use of my teacher voice.

As I use the last of my summer days to plan the best learning I can for the students I will serve this fall, I pledge to remember how my heart healed in July. I know the power of a student-centered workshop classroom, and I will remember to allow my students the opportunities to learn the way Penny allowed me to learn at #UNHLit13.

I met some awesome educators who will help me remember, and they will help you, too. We bonded over books, breakfasts, love for PK, and zen. In an effort to focus our teaching this year around the things we learned in NH, we devised a plan to 20130713_193936keep us connected and accountable. Once a week we’ll write about our experiences, practicing in our classrooms the things we learned this summer.

We’re calling our reflections Our Compass Shifts because it has and it does, depending on the needs of our students. From Texas to West Virginia to California to New York, we are four high school teachers with different backgrounds, teaching experience, and student demographics, who believe in the genius of our students.

Please meet my new colleagues:  Shana Karnes (WV), Emily Kim (CA), and Erika Bogdany (NY). You’ll find their bios on our About page, but I’ll let them introduce themselves and their students as they take turns posting each week. They’ve got teaching soul that makes me shiver. Oh, and see? They are walking talking FUN.

Think about what swells in the heart of your teaching. I hope you’ll share the answer: What is in your teaching soul?

Writing Instruction that Follows the North Star

writing notebookCan you remember when you learned to write? I can’t. Not really. I remember the lined paper and the fat pencils. I remember trying to have the very best penmanship because I wanted my name listed on the chart that covered the side of my teacher’s desk. I remember that writing came pretty easily. I was one of those students. My teachers loved me because I was well-behaved, listened, learned, and made all A’s.

I do not teach those students. Well, maybe a few, but most of them would be my antonym if my student-self were a word.

When I began teaching, I had no idea that my students would not be like me. I know, funny, right? I thought I could teach them comma rules, show them where the commas went, and I would see beautifully crafted commas in all the right places. (Don’t even get me started on the period.)

I had to learn to be a writing teacher.

Thank God for the North Star of Texas Writing Project. Fortunately, for me and the hundreds of students I’ve instructed since, I’ve learned how to create a community that fosters a love (or at least some days, a tolerance) of the written word.

A couple of weeks ago, the leadership team of NSTWP met and crafted the tenets of our site. We decided that community encompasses and interweaves itself throughout our work, and authenticity, inquiry, modeling, dialogue, and re-visioning make it shine.

A few of us jumped on a Google doc yesterday to craft our proposal for NCTE 2013 where we defined our points and described how we would share them at the conference. This got me thinking about my own practice:  do I walk the walk as well as I talk the talk?

Here’s a glimpse into our thinking, plus a little of my own:

Community— Trust, communication, sharing, feedback, and transparency all lead to a safe place for learning. Community is the core of a workshop classroom, so it must be a constant focus. (National Writing Project, Gomez, 2010) Read-alouds, and classroom and school-wide book clubs, among other relationship-building activities, can all help build community.

Authenticity— How do we make learning real? By allowing for real life connections and experiences. When we expose students to real-life situations and allow them choice in topics, we can engage them more effectively, stimulate more critical thinking, and get them to read more abundantly. At the end of 2011 only three young people in ten now read daily in their own time, down from five out of ten in 2005 (Secondary Annual Literacy Survey, 2011). How do we change lives? We allow students choice. Just as in reading, students must have choice in writing; teachers must allow students to choose topics that interest and intrigue them, and they must allow students to publish in mediums and to audiences that students believe matter, i.e., student created blogs, ebooks, and portfolios.

Inquiry— An inquiry stance goes beyond the use of essential questioning and places the creative thought process into the hands of students, inviting them to questions in every aspect of literacy from responding to texts, engaging in research, to broadening their horizons as writers.  An effective response protocol that fosters inquiry can be adapted and applied to a myriad of literacy experiences.

Dialogue— Authentic conversation transforms classroom community. Learners take ownership of their craft and develop a sense of agency in a student-centered approach to dialogue.  In Choice Words (2004), Peter H. Johnston explains that language “creates realities and invites identities.” Thus, dialogue in our classroom becomes an essential part of student growth.

Modeling— An integral part of literacy instruction, modeling as reader and writer is essential to an effective workshop classroom. Mentor texts that engage students and provide for in-depth study of craft allow for authentic reading and writing experiences.

Re-visioning– NSTWP invented this word to describe the complexity involved in revising our instruction and engaging students in revision of their work. Adaptive Action, “the iterative process we use to leverage unpredictable change for individuals” is crucial to making workshop work. (Adaptive Action, 2013). Conferences, written feedback, and portfolios can all be managed and used to revise our classrooms.

For more information about North Star of Texas Writing Project LIKE us on Facebook.

Want to teach a kid to write?


Want to create successful writers?  Want to raise them from seedlings, make them strong and resilient and capable of writing oak trees of essays, not saplings of deadwood?  The key has nothing to do with writing.  If a teacher wants to help their students to become successful writers, they must make their students into successful readers.  If a student isn’t a reader, they’ll never be a writer – no way, no how.  The reading should be both academic and for pleasure: students need to bask in the glow of words for fun, and struggle with a snarling sentence when needed.  They should delight in diction and syntax, but never be quite satisfied with them as-is – every student should always ask, “why this way?” and “why not like this?”.  And no, they probably don’t need to know what “diction” and “syntax” mean: we don’t need to understand the nuclear reactions of the sun or the tidal effects of the moon to enjoy a sunny day at the beach, and they don’t need to know anadiplosis or synecdoche to appreciate a well-written paragraph.  If we don’t put words in their hands and in front of their eyes, we’ll never get the words into their heads … and if we can’t get the words into their heads, they’ll never put those words onto paper.  So … want to teach a kid to write?  

Teach her to read.

~Tess Mueggenborg, Professor



Yes, You Can Do Workshop in an AP English Class

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!

Weekly Schedule

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Flex Instruction/ Writing Workshop: Timed Writing Debrief

HW: blog post due

Reading Workshop:

Multiple Choice/Critical Reading

Direct Instruction/ Reading or Writing Workshop as needed Writing Workshop: Timed Writing


HW: blog comment due

Alternate Weeks:

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.

Book Clubs

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.

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