Tag Archives: Revision

A Little Learning with Big Outcomes

Last week was tough. If you teach in TX, you probably know what I mean.

December means STAAR/EOC testing, and while I teach readers and writers in 11th and 12th grade English classes at a large senior high school, many of my students carry the label of “re-tester.” (It’s an ugly label; isn’t it?)

All week students who have yet to successfully pass all five exams required to graduate filed into testing rooms to try again. This meant many disruptions for students not testing.

All week the English hall, along with other rooms, became the testing center. Classes displaced. Students out of comfort zones. Just a bit of chaos.

We know how well this works for learning.

In an effort to get my students settled in, back in our classroom and back in our routine

Julian shares his haiku

Julian sharing his haiku

of workshop, we played with words.

Testing disrupted our writing project, a series of letters in a variety of forms with a variety of tones, all related to a self-selected thematic link. We needed a revision workshop, but my seniors were not having it. With just 10.5 days until winter break, plus 8.5 until the end of term, many are already playing XBox and watching Netflix in their heads. (Me, too, but at least I’m fighting it.)

Since we read our choice books at the beginning of every class period, and I work daily to hold students who have not read a book on their own throughout high school accountable, I am constantly trying something new.  Today the new turned pretty cool.

We wrote book reviews in the form of haiku.

The tremendous thinking about word choice — well, it was kind of magical. (If only students would always think about word choice with such care.) Here’s a sampling of our book review poetry:

A book can contain

many life lessons that we

can use in our lives.

~Cesar Perez

The Playbook by Kwame Alexander

Are her thoughts her own

or does the tightening coil

control her whole being?

~Maria Cruz

Turtles all the Way Down by John Green

my life was stolen

but after 18 years I

got to hug my mom

~Grace Foust

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

being arrested

for helping his ex-girlfriend

Being black is hard.

~Di’Myrius Owens

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

her eyes captured me

I lost myself in her heart

Owned me from the start

~Axel Ibarra

The Oxygen Thief by Anonymous

Looking for a path

Twisted and in need of help

How do I escape?

~Jesse Borjas

Dark Dude  by Oscar Hijuelos

Running for freedom

Garret escapes boot camp

Fear, risk run with him

~Cris Velasquez

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Black lives do matter.

Police brutality sucks.

assume all black steal

~Alondra Rosales

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

The first hand account

No excuses for mistakes

Kill Osama Bin

~McKenzie Bowie

No Easy Day by Mark Owen

This simple activity led to a complex discussion about the power of words and why we need to revise our writing in order to craft with purpose. We discussed adding figurative language, creating imagery, using complex sentences. I taught how to write appositive phrases, a grammar move my students did not know.

And as students moved into their writing groups, they talked about their plans for revision. Teaching writers does not get much better than that.

When our students take on the identify of writers, they talk like writers, and they write with purpose — choosing words and phrases and making moves like real writers do.

Side note:  Some of my students produces haikus that revealed needs in their reading lives. For example, one student wrote that Fahrenheit 451 was set in WWII, and another showed confusion in the change of point of view in All American Boys. Their book review haikus gave me an action plan for reading conferences. Bonus!

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP English Lang & Comp in North TX. She loves to get her students talking about the things that matter to them. She also loves to get them talking about the things that matter to us all:  books and words and poetry and writing and serving people everywhere. Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.


Mini-Lesson Monday: Talking Tone and a Bit More Reasoning in Our Writing

I sat at our staff Christmas party talking to a colleague about the essays my students just drafted. We read and analyzed several pieces by Leonard Pitts, Jr, talking about the effectiveness of his style, arguing over his opinion, justifying our own. The task was to write their own OpEd piece, responding to a topic in the news or a topic of their choice. Most chose interesting topics:  How the world defines beauty, Should armed guards protect our schools, Does keeping a home clean matter in the long run..

A few students wrote clearly articulated arguments that show intentional craft moves.

Many showed intentional craft moves but wrote little in the way of argument — or anything close to critical thinking about their topics. In short, some of my writers say pretty much nothing, but they say it very very well.

Therein lies the problem:  How do I get some of my students to think critically about their topics so they can write critically about their topics?

Sitting at that dinner, my friend and colleague, Mary Heffner, shared an activity she’d recently done with her students to help them understand tone. I decided that not only would it help my students understand tone (which most failed to consider when they began writing — “Do I have to remind them of every little thing?” she says with a sigh), but it could help them reason through the beliefs they have about their topic and write stronger sentences they might use when they revise.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Define the tone of your essay; Construct reasons to express why your topic should be expressed by that tone word; Create sentences and synthesize your knowledge of punctuation, syntax, and sophisticated vocabulary to express your reasons while using this tone; Revise your writing to include these well-constructed sentences.

Lesson — (Prior to reading their drafts, I asked students to identify the tone of their pieces and write it in the top right corner of their papers. I determined quite easily that many of my writers thought they felt a certain way about their topics but were having trouble expressing that tone.)

First, I ask writers to clarify their choice of tone word by putting a short list of common adjectives that describe tone on the board:  infuriated, excited, confused, sorrowful, scornful, exasperated, concerned. We quickly define what each word means. I then tell students what I noticed when I look at the tone word they wrote on their papers and when I read their essays. “Some of you have a misconnect — you think you’re taking a certain tone, but you have little or no evidence of it in your writing. (Time permitting we might revisit one of Pitt’s pieces that we read as our mentor text and analyze the tone.)

“The other thing I noticed in your writing is a lack of reasoning. Today we are going to practice getting both a clear tone and powerful reasoning into our arguments.

“Once you have your tone word, and you know this is how you feel about your topic, you will write five reasons that support your topic and demonstrate this tone. Sometimes you can even use the tone word, or a synonym of it, in your reasoning sentences.”

Then I show students my own reasons I wrote to add to my writing. My topic “longer vacation time over the holidays.” The tone “emphatic.”


  1. Two weeks vacation time hardly covers the travel time when a family must drive far distances to share just a moment with their loved ones.
  2. Teenagers thrive on rest and relaxation.
  3. If families spent more time together we may have fewer problems in our society.
  4. Teachers work too hard, sometimes even taking work home over the break, to not enjoy more one-on-one time with their families over the holidays.
  5. With a longer, more relaxing, break, students and teachers would return to school more rejuvenated and infused with energy to embrace the love of learning.

As they read through my reasons, I ask students to talk to one another about my word choice:  How do I show I emphatically care about this topic?

Follow up — Students will revisit their drafts and work on clarifying gaps in reasoning. They will add their five new sentences to make their arguments stronger and more logical.

Reflection — As we move into our next writing piece, I will be more purposeful in directing students to think about tone. We will spend more time thinking through our reasoning before we begin writing.

Sometimes I assume too much, and I end up having to take us back and start again.

Writing critically is hard for many of my students — although their style is improving. I remind myself that I must continue to give them interesting and thought-provoking things to think about — their words and many of their worlds are so limited.


Mini-Lesson Monday: Learning Concrete Details with Independent Reading

More than any other writing, I love reading my students’ narratives. We start the year with narrative for many reasons, but my favorite is that I get to know my students faster than I can get to know them during one-on-one reading conferences or during group activities and discussions.

Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned from student stories just this week:

  • several of my male students wish they had a father who showed interest in their lives
  • a few of my girls live with their fathers because of their mothers’ poor choices
  • several boys and girls journeyed long and far, walking miles through jungles, so their families could escape oppression, rape, and murder
  • many of my teenagers have experienced heartache because of love interests, friends, and family members
  • a few are still grieving the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who died from suicide
  • at least one young woman still holds anger toward her mom because of the way she handled a brother’s addiction and abuse

Personal and powerful, all of these stories matter. My goal as a writing teacher is to help my writers harness the words so emotion reigns in the heart of the reader. The problem?

Abstract language.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Show understanding of the terms abstract vs. concrete; in your independent reading books, identify concrete details and figurative language; analyze the effectiveness of the author’s language; revise your writing to include fresh concrete details and figurative language as you create a text that evokes powerful emotions.

— Before the mini-lesson, students have already drafted a few pieces, narratives or poems. I abstractconcreteusually do the mini-lesson after silent reading time, but for this lesson I begin before because I want to give students a specific purpose for reading.

First, I write on the board ABSTRACT and CONCRETE and we review what these terms mean when it comes to writing. I try to use only abstract words as they begin to discuss this with me.

“Awesome, you might get it,”

“Wonderful, I think you know what I mean,”

“Hey, that’s pretty good…”

Eventually, they will pick up on what I’m doing, and we make a list of abstract words. Then I give each table-group a word and challenge them to come up with a concrete description that shows us that abstract word. They get 1-2 minutes, and then we share out as I write the concrete details on the board. We discuss the difference in how an author can create emotion.

Next, I ask students to pay attention to the concrete details in the book they are reading, and I give them each a sticky note. “As you read today find at least one sentence where the author does something really clever with concrete details and/or figurative language,” I say.

Students read for 15 minutes, pen in hand, paying particular attention to the author’s craft. When time is up, I ask students to share their sentence in small groups and to analyze the effectiveness of the author’s word choice.

AllieTate“Think about what he’s trying to do there. Why did he mention the color of the sweater, or the smell of the breeze?” If they feel like the author’s accomplished creating emotion, they put the sticky on the board (or as in the photo here –poster).

Students need to not only recognize the details and know that they create some kind of imagery, they need to think about how effective the word choice is for what the author is doing at that moment in the story. If I can get them to start thinking about this, I can get them to begin making purposeful choices in their own writing.

Next, I ask students to search their own writing for concrete details that create images and to add a lot more. “Where can you add a phrase or line similar to what you found in the book you are reading? Is there somewhere you can add color or shape or texture?”

And we revise.

Follow-Up — When students immediately apply learning we’ve practiced using their personal reading materials, they begin to see the connections between becoming active readers and purposeful writers. This is the kind of lesson I do again and again with a different literary or grammar skills students to master. Next up:  subordinating conjunctions.

A few lines from students’ published narratives:

“Each body turned to watch as the green army, blurry, entered the gate. The ground only knew sadness and the sky transformed into a dark night, roaming like a lion.” –Tha Sung

“My first impression when I met Lucila:  petite, chunky, short red-velvet hair, wearing a sweater that covered her sins, mysterious face with a sealed silent mouth.” –Karina Rangel

“My brothers slept like angels with devilish grins.” –Geovanni Medina

7 Moves in My 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, or manners, 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 — that has to wait for my book (Penny keeps telling me that my book will never get written if I keep writing on this blog, and I know she is right. Only so much time.)

READ — 10 to 15 minutes. This is sacred and silent reading time. Students choose books that interest them. I CONFER with my readers, always 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 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. 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 book 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 partners. Sometimes I ask for volunteers to share out their writing. 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 environment 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


Please Don’t Judge Me

“So, uh, yeah this is pretty embarrassing for me.” I could feel my face flush in front of my 1st period Advanced Composition before I’d even begun. My voice shook as I stood in front of the 24 pairs of 17-year old eyes—the most vulnerable position one can be in. I had captured their attention at 7:45 in the morning, but I could feel my innards twist as I stammered through some of the usual excuses I hear from my student-writers: “I need to tell you the backstory first” and “I hope you get what I’m trying to say.”

Then I started, reading line by line the maid of honor speech I will deliver in fewer than two weeks at my best friend’s wedding. It wasn’t the first time I had shared my writing; I write with my students during quickwrites, share finalized pieces with them throughout the year, and discuss drafting pieces for this blog, but this speech was different—it was raw, personal, and untraditional. I had made some major stylistic decisions that pushed me, particularly as a writer, outside my comfort zone.

“I really need your feedback,” I said to them. And I was honest, practically on the verge of begging. “You see,” I continued, “writing happens throughout your life, and in this instance I need your help to make sure I don’t make a fool of myself in front of 200 guests.”


My Advanced Composition class, pictured here, helped to walk me through the revision process.

“You’re going to trust us?” a student asked.

“Yeah,” I responded, “Plus, at the wedding I’ll be in front of 200 people I might never see again, whereas here, I’m with you guys for the rest of the year. So, if I’m embarrassed here, it’s going to be really bad at the wedding,” they laughed and they listened to me recite the piece with a calm voice and a racing mind, a mind that begged them to chuckle at the jokes and coo at the memories. When I came to the end, I looked up, realizing again, as I have realized so many times before just how vulnerable it is to share writing. This time though, as much as it made me nervous, I knew that the only way to teach writers was through modeling. If I was asking them to expose their writing to each other, I had to be willing to expose my writing flaws as well, even if it felt like singing solo karaoke stone-cold sober.

Then the suggestions came: “I’m not sure what you were doing with that transition, maybe try to make it more specific.” “I would like to hear about when you first met her fiancé.” “I think you could add another story.” Their words were carefully chosen as not to offend but instead encourage and help. While some students doled out praise, others helped to polish the piece. Even trailing side conversations pertained to how to make the piece stronger. I typed their comments into the document, repeating what each of them would say, and then I sent them to begin a similar process of reading aloud their personal narratives within groups of three.

Next week I will arrive in class with another draft of my speech, and I will repeat the cycle. They must see me live the life of a writer if they are going to believe what I say. They must see me absorb their feedback if they are going to understand the value of peer review. And above all, they must watch me return, raw nerves and baited breath, if they are to believe that I see value in their words.

A Feedback Protocol for Revision Workshop

I didn’t mean to make them cry, but that’s what soul writing can do to a person. (Soul writing is what my students and I coined as the type of writing that rips at our guts, makes pools fall from our eyes, and leaves us lurching toward the door to “take a little break.”) We are only into the third week of school, and I tried a new protocol for feedback; something I learned at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, directed by Dawn Potter.

Giving honest and critical feedback to one another is difficult for many of my students. So afraid of offering offense, they either do not say anything, or they do the proverbial pat-on-the-back and mutter “good job.” I tell  them that when they refuse to be honest in their feedback, it’s cheating. They cheat their friends out of ideas that can help them grow. And that is what we want in a community of writers — we want everyone to experience opportunities to grow.

The tears today watered some tender little seeds. All afternoon I gushed about it to anyone who who listen.

We sat in a circle around the large table in the center of my classroom. Many students came to class without their drafts*, so I sentenced them to the outer edges and advised them to get their brains and their pens working. I told them to write silently, but they might want to keep an ear tuned to the conversations happening in the middle. If they did, they learned more than they could have from any one-on-one conference with me.

First, I explained that giving feedback can be a bit tricky. We want to be honest, but if we do not deliver that honesty well, we can cripple our writer. (I use the word cripple because that was my own experience. I’d spent months drafting a chapter for my book. I’d finally finished what I thought proved to be a powerful piece of writing. Then I asked a friend, someone I trust, for feedback. She gave it to me: honesty cloaked in sweet little daggers. When I read her comments, all my ideas crumpled, and my focus limped right out the door. I didn’t write another word for six months.)

The “I wonder ____” protocol is really very simple:

Those who offer feedback:

  • Listen carefully as a classmate reads her piece.
  • Think about ideas that might help her improve it.
  • Offer feedback that allows for the writer to “play with the possibilities” (Dawn Potter) by putting the ideas you have that might help the writer revise the piece into statements that begin with “I wonder ___”.

Those who receive feedback:

  • Read the piece loudly and with clarity. (Repeat if necessary.)
  • Listen to the “I wonder” statements made by peers and write yourself notes.
  • Try to just listen (This is hard because we tend to want to justify why we wrote certain things).
  • Play with these various possibilities while revising.


I asked for a volunteer to read her writing. Eyes darted all around the table until Jessica read her draft.

Jessica went first:

Jessica GoWorld story

Wow, right? She punched us right in the stomach, and we sat in silence. Finally, I said, “Okay, we’ve got some amazingly powerful stuff right here. How can we improve it?” and they looked at me like I had hornets on my head. I knew I better go first, or this feedback thing wasn’t going to work.

“I wonder if you need to tell us that Lori’s a woman,” I said.

Long pause.

“I wonder who ‘assigned’ her to you,” Mikaila spoke up.

“I wonder what she did that was so helpful,” Mariam said.

“I wonder how you survived,” said Daissy.

Jessica listened, answering a few questions, and taking a few notes on the comments her friends gave her.


And we were off . .


Daissy read next:

Daissy GoWorld story


“I wonder who ‘those’ are.”

“I wonder what the problem was.”

“I wonder what happens next.”

“I wonder what happened that made you change.”

And then Daissy could not remain silent any longer. She had to explain her stuttering, and how she’s worked so hard to overcome it, and how now wants to major in broadcast journalism and speak on live TV.

We forgot to preface our comments with “I wonder” when we all told her THAT is the story she needs to write.

revision corrections 2-7-12Feedback Magic happened with this “I wonder” protocol. And it happened in every class period, and so did the tears.

Students shared the honest writing from their hearts, and students gave honest feedback with tender and caring insight. Writing improved.

Even better? Imagine being in this kind of classroom with this kind of community of writers.




*Our mentor texts were VISA Go World commercials. I got this idea from an assignment I did at a class taught by Penny Kittle at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute. We watched several of the videos in class and discussed and analyzed the various structures of these very short, yet poignant, stories. Students were to watch and analyze a few more examples, transcribing the words to use as models for their own writing. Then they were to write their own, playing with word choice and syntax.

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