Tag Archives: Structures and Non-Negotiables

Survival Strategy: Return to Structure

The Google calendar that the Three Teachers share has us on a rotating schedule. Fixed days with suggested ideas around types of posts and the three of us cycle through clock_stockeach week. Today, my friends, the suggestion is “strategy,” and boy do I need one.

After this lovely break from school, my daughter’s sleep schedule is a mess, I think I’ve put on five-ish pounds of cookie related belly weight, and the house is an unmitigated disaster zone of new toys without homes, student papers I’m placing around the house in an effort to combat “out of sight, out of mind,” and the organized chaos that comes with putting away all the holiday decorations while my daughter yells, “But we CAN’T put the tree outside! It will be lonely!”

So, what I guess I’m suggesting with all of that is that, although it has been legitimately lovely, I need to return to some structure or I’m going to lose it. I can’t watch The Grinch one more time, or I might pop Cindy Lou Woo in her tiny little nose. Bah! Humbug!

Was it really only a little over a week ago that I sprinkled unbridled joy across the blog in my Holiday Poem? My…how the Merry has fallen.

handsPlease don’t get me wrong. I’ve had an amazing break from work. Many aren’t able to share in the blessing of having such a richly restorative holiday from their employment, and I am grateful. I spent time watching my three-year-old revel in the magic of the holidays. We shared time with family and friends, laughing, toasting, and just generally enjoying one another’s company. I stayed up late reading. I rediscovered the thrill of flying down a sledding hill, shrieking like a teenager and giggling with my daughter. I even had one day where everyone was out of the house. I napped. On my own couch. Without having to block out Dory telling me to “just keep swimming” for the six millionth time.

However, while summer affords one the opportunity to release from the stresses of work and still find plenty of time to get on a schedule of chosen activities, winter break is a whirlwind, from which, many feel they need a vacation.

So, here is my strategy. A strategy to shake off the crazies and get back to some workshop non negotiables to send us back to school with a renewed enthusiasm around structure:

Step 1. Get back to school. Easier said than done, I’m sure. That alarm is going to go off tomorrow at 5:15 a.m. and I am not going to be happy, but this past week has reminded me that without consistency, I start to lose it. I need more purpose than Netflix programming selection. Much like workshop, I need consistent components of purpose in my everyday. They give me a roadmap to achieve goals. Goal one, get out of bed for work tomorrow.

Step 2. Read with my kids and then talk with them about what they read over break. I’m guilty of getting away from reading/conferring with my kids in the past few weeks. In the flurry of planning, preparing for exams when we return, fifty meetings after school, PD time to plan for, and countless other distractions, I started to let the few precious minutes at the start of class slip back to menial task time. Check email, organize papers, finalize workshop activity, etc. Our first day back, I’m going to read with my students at the start of each class (Warning! Shameless plug for #3TTBookClub to follow: Perhaps I’ll choose East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Between the World and Me by Tah-Nehisi Coates, or  Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers: Putting the Analytic Writing Continuum to Work in Your Classroom by Mary Ann Smith and Sherry Seale Swain. All fantastic choices for the month of January). The next class period, and those that follow, I need to talk with my kids at the beginning of the hour. Their only homework was to read over break. I want to hear about it.

Step 3. Set reading rate goals with my kids (another practice I slipped away from over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break…talk about a need for resolutions. If the past paragraph didn’t indicate my own failings at upholding a major tenant of workshop, this one sure will. I never slip on giving my kids time to read. We have 82,793 things to work through in a class period, but I don’t take their reading time. It’s just that important. However, holding them accountable for their reading outside of class? That’s a never ending battle. I’m going to get back to students setting goals in their notebooks, then I’m going to employ my newly favorite technique: Have students snap a picture of the page and email it to me. Stacks and stacks of notebooks are occasionally necessary, but they also give me hives. An inbox full of messages is somehow a challenge, as opposed to a stack of notebooks which is somewhat of a burden, meaning I end up collecting them far less than I would really like to.

Step 4. Get back to writing. We religiously write in class each day. Over the weekend, I wrote thank-you cards and last Wednesday, I wrote down my Jimmy John’s order for a friend. On the drive home from my in-laws tonight, I looked out at the last of the Christmas lights on passing houses and smiled at the memory of the big, old fashioned lights on the bushes outside the house where I grew up. The memory was quickly followed by an ache to write about it. I miss writing when I let myself feel “too busy” to do it, so I need to take William Wordsworth’s advice: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” Tomorrow, we will write about what makes us ache.

Step 5. Reconnect with kids. In one of the many moments I allowed myself to be distracted from work today, I saw a Tweet from literacy specialist Shawna Coppola, who said, “Relationships with students are more important than any curriculum.” Please see step 2 above and repeat that daily during workshop, drafting, small group work, experimentation, last 30 seconds of class, time.

——————–

The New Year is a time to move forward with renewed vigor. My final exams this semester will ask students to reflect on their growth as thinkers over the course of the first half of the school year and discuss specific takeaways from our work. They will then be asked to make suggestions as to how they will apply that learning during second semester.

In much the same way, I’m reflecting on how a lack of structure makes me more tired than teaching, parenting, and living combined. I was certainly ready for a break, but I’m also ready to get back at it.

The strategy is simple: Get back into workshop WITH your kids, and refresh that commitment to do what works each and every day.

Happy New Year, All. Welcome back!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though loathe to discuss herself in the third person, she does delight in hearing her daughter ask for ‘just one more chapter,’ dreaming about European vacations ala Rick Steves, and sitting in the snugs of authentic Irish pubs. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels.
Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

disclosure

Keeping Workshop Values at the Heart of Our Teaching

I have written before about what awesome students I had this semester.  It was my first attempt at college teaching, and I was nervous about how to approach everything–my courses, my students, my grading.

I was so close to falling into the trap that I fell into when I first began teaching, and simply reverting to doing what I’d seen done.  The first week assignments were due, when a few kids’ were missing, I almost got mad, and gave them zeroes, and had a serious meeting with them.  You just can’t not turn in work in college!

But, instead of deducting points or getting mad…I asked myself:  what the heck would that achieve?  Do I want these students doing that to their future students?  What is the point!?

So, I just talked to them.  I tried to understand why their work wasn’t done, and I tried to help them understand why deadlines matter in our course.  I gave them the first second chance they’d gotten in college.  And when they turned in their work, I was so glad–it was amazingly high quality.

There were other ways I modified our course, too.  Although according to the course design, all of the students’ long-term assignments–writer’s notebooks, lesson plans, major projects–were slated to come in at the end of the semester, for one bombshell grade, I asked that they turn them in in chunks so I could give them frequent, ungraded feedback.  I didn’t want to wait 16 weeks to discover they’d been way off track the whole semester.  The students were grateful for some of the only formative feedback they’d received while in college.

I asked them to make their notebooks more authentic, their responses to our assigned books and articles more honest, and their research and data analysis more realistic.  I gave a lot of positive, specific feedback in return for their risk-taking, asked them lots of questions to keep them thinking, and in turn, I saw them begin to take more risks in their thinking and writing and teaching.  We built a community of teachers who questioned the status quo, and I could see their growth.

img_6197-1

I’m so thankful that I kept my workshop values in place when I began teaching preservice teachers.

I asked for authenticity, honesty, and dialogue when we engaged in our study of books and articles and our students.  In return, I gave specific, frequent feedback, the opportunity for revision of thinking and writing, and time for students to talk with one another and with me.  Keeping these non-negotiables in place has helped me craft a classroom and a course that I’ve enjoyed teaching and that has allowed my students to grow (although I already have lots of ideas for improving the course next semester!).

We ended our course with a final class period of presentations of the students’ semester-long projects.  Students gave one another feedback, and I wrote beside them, writing in note cards as I’d seen Penny Kittle do in our summer course at UNH.

This note from a student in her writer’s notebook proves to me that all students, no matter their age–from kindergarteners to the 21-year-olds I teach–crave the time and attention and care and respect of their teachers.  We should keep that at the heart of our teaching, always.

img_6198-1

I know, like many of you, that I’ll be using winter break to rethink and re-vision my teaching for 2017.  I hope that we’ll all create goals and routines that keep workshop values at the core of our teaching–values of risk-taking, time for talk, revision, reflection, authenticity, dialogue, honesty, and all else that encourages our students’ growth in the most important of ways.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!  How will you be spending your time away from school?  Please share in the comments.

What is Your Teaching Everest?

I’m standing on my desk.

It’s dangerous, but exhilarating, and I probably look like a loon, but I don’t care. (Please see my post where I embrace my dorkdom in an effort to really get to know my students and move on happily with passionate living and teaching.)

oh-captain

High heels kicked off, channeling the spirit of Mr. John Keating and brazen pigeons everywhere, I’m perched on the edge of my desk during prep, looking around the room to try and gain gain a different perspective.

Oh, Captain, my Captain…Somebody call security. She’s lost it.

No, no. I’m all right. (Well, you know – Relatively speaking. Dear colleagues, if you hear a thud, please investigate.)

So, what caused this poetic exploration of my abandoned classroom? I was thinking about a quote I heard at NCTE 2016:

What is your Everest this year as a teacher?

No, my desk isn’t my Everest. I’m not that far gone. But, per Shana’s inspiration to start with a question, I was thinking about what needs my attention the most right now. With 86 minutes to plan, grade, create, and locate necessary motivation to do all of the roomaforementioned tasks, what should I start with?

There’s certainly a lot to chose from: stacks of papers, countless books to read, share, and sort, a department in need of collaborative time to plan, students flying under the radar.

Everything in front of me is important. I need to grade the narratives my sophomores wrote, to put some ending punctuation on that adventure. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is calling to me too. That book is Hester Prynne meets Offred meets futuristic criminal justice system that injects offenders with a skin altering virus based on their crimes – I need several extra hours in the day to read. Truth be told, I should have started this post sooner too. Procrastination and exhaustion mix into a delightful little cocktail called Crippled Motivation. Bartender, I’ll take another when you have a minute.  

In all seriousness though, I return to my question (Yes, I’m off my desk, Mom), because answering it means I can get something done. I’m weird that way. Could I pick up a stack of papers and just start? Of course. But I have to mentally work up to it, know my plan, have a reward of some sort (read five papers, read When She Woke for five minutes). This time, the question, the task, the implication is much bigger.

What’s most important right now? When I could do a thousand things, what needs to be done right now because it will mean the most?  I know the answer. And not only because I was just standing on my desk :

My Everest this year is feedback.

Consistent, responsive, quick feedback that first encourages, and then focuses in on promoting growth. Remember the old saying about catching more flies with honey than vinegar? That’s the stuff right there.

I want to move my students forward. We all do. But now, more than ever,  I believe the way to do it is through sincere investment in the original thoughts and explorations of my students. Personal connections that, yes, take some time, but build relationships that have helped me to better recommend texts, suggest style moves students may need to make in their more formal writing, and encourage additional critical thinking beyond the classroom.

I used to stress about “finding something good” to include in my comments to my students. And I hate to say this, but it’s downright hard in some instances, isn’t it?

I really like what you did with the title there. 
Interesting transitional choice. 
Wow. So many words in that sentence.
Nice…font selection.

But now,  I’m thinking about feedback in new ways and delivering it in new ways too. To reach my Everest, I’m going to have to get creative and intentional. So, here’s what I did this afternoon:

  • Read through a section of one pager submissions from my AP students. Check them in with the quick rubric for a formative score, and email five students per class with reactions. Not corrections, but reactions. Students are encouraged to explore in these writings and the best means of moving them forward in this case is to share additional insights, question, and encourage. I highlighted the students’ names in my gradebook to know I’ve contacted them and I’ll do the same with several more students next week. Writing feedback…check.

fran

  • I made a plan for conferring during reading later this week. Without a plan, it’s feeling random and I’m not doing it enough (the thousand things on my desk keep capturing my attention). So, I have a list. I know who I want to talk with based on quick writes students did today. They reflected on their progress toward their weekly reading goals and some students are struggling. Just by having them take a quick photo with their phones and email me the page, I got a literal snapshot of how each and every one of my students is doing with their independent reading, and I didn’t have to collect notebooks. Now, I’ve emailed a few students congratulations and made this plan. In the picture below, Alexis refers to her current read as “a beautiful romance of adventure.” Love! Reading feedback…check. 

    img_1012

  • Students will self-assess their latest practice AP argument essays. Feedback does not need to come from me to be beneficial. Using the AP rubric to help justify scores, students will take a sheet of paper, put a score and justification on the top, fold it over and hand it to the person next to them. Scoring will proceed in the same way around the table until everyone has his/her paper back. The table will then need to calibrate/norm and agree on a score. Self assessment and peer assessment…check
  • I am going to question and listen more. Long ago, I gave up on the idea that my imparting knowledge on others was the best way for them to learn. Everyone learns best when the are motivated to do so through personal connection to the work, interest in the material, and an understanding of how to improve. Workshop sets this up in a classroom, it’s now my job to remember to listen more and jump in less. During conferences, during book clubs, during discussion. Listen first, respond, encourage, and redirect/suggest later. This certainly doesn’t mean my presence in the room diminishes. It means I remember that my presence in the room is to guide my students, not steamroll them.

Gaining a new perspective feels like hitting the reset button to me. It provides clarity of mind and purpose. Skill development is my professional responsibility. Human development is my personal responsibility. They work hand in and hand and they are the Everest I will climb all year, every year, as I talk with, respond to, and gain insights alongside my students.

What is your teaching Everest this year? We’d love to hear from you! Please add your insights to the comments below! 

Workshop Routines and Some Leopard Print Pajamas

Amy and Shana posted earlier this week about our upcoming presentation with Jackie Catcher at the NCTE Annual Convention in Atlanta. ncte

Amy is going to discuss perspective and assessment, Shana will share insights on unit
planning
, Jackie is focusing on mini lessons, and I’m going to try not to pass out from sheer terror/excitement/nerves/exhaustion/adrenaline.

If I can meet Penny Kittle without
incoherently mumbling some nonsense (Oh my goodness. I love Book Love. I mean love. Did I say love already ?), I’ll consider that a win too.

Or, perhaps most importantly, I’ll be speaking about workshop routines.

Establishing routines to support the non-negotiable components of workshop was one of the first considerations of my district when the high school ELA team started our move to workshop last year. We run on an A/B block schedule with 86 minute classes, and structure
is key to make sure all workshop components get their due time.

I was thinking about it tonight when I was putting my three year old daughter Ellie to bed (which, by the way has been going on now for over an hour because she’s needed several “one more” hugs). Every night, without fail, my husband and I work Ellie through the process of pajamas, books, teeth brushing, more books, several kisses (for Ellie and all nearby stuffed animals), one last story, several more kisses, and a hug.

I’d be lying if I said it went perfectly each night.

Case in point, Ellie just came out and asked what I was doing. I seized the opportunity and asked if she had a message for you all.

She’d like you to know that she is wearing leopard pajamas.

So…how to segue past that one?
I give up. That kid’s good. Yes, I gave her another hug too. Anyway…

Workshop routine. What’s its purpose?

In my opinion, it’s to provide comfort, consistency, and (hopefully) somewhat predictable outcomes.

When Nick and I take Ellie through her bedtime routine each night, she knows what’s coming. She knows we’ll be there with her, whether she’s cooperative or…spirited. She knows that each component of the routine has a purpose, because we make them clear. She knows, or at least experiences, the consistency that leads to that predictable outcome which is a warm bed and sweet dreams.

Yes, she fights it sometimes. Yes, she enjoys some parts more than others. Yes, it’s occasionally exhausting. But we know the net benefit. Our darling daughter is sent to dreamland with a positive experience, consistent expectations, and security.

Workshop routines are established for and run with the same outcomes in mind.

Students need daily practices, without fail, that strive to build capacity for critical thinking, community with peers, and rapport with instructors. They need a classroom structure that promotes a gradual release of responsibility so they can study craft in order to emulate that craft. They need time to practice. Time to explore. Time to be in control of their own learning. Time to be readers and writers.

In our district, that’s a pretty structured 86 minute class period, per Penny Kittle’s suggested breakdown of daily activities:

  • 10 minutes silent reading/conferring
  • 5 minutes attendance/agenda/book talk
  • 15 minute quick write
  • 15 minute skills based mini lesson
  • 38 minutes workshop time
  • 3 minute wrap up/sharing/homework

In my opinion, it’s the components that matter. The timing, especially in an even shorter class period (See Amy’s post on workshop in a 45 minute class period or Shana’s post with her ideas for workshop in a short class– it CAN be done!), are necessarily brief to allow for work in all areas, provide time for students to put into practice what they are learning, and maintain momentum around specific skills by linking components in a class period. For IMG_0684example, have students look for specific craft moves in their independent reading, write about them in a quick write, see them reflected in the mini lesson, and work to incorporate them into their own writing during workshop time. I’m even organized enough sometimes to tie my book talk directly to the craft move we’re discussing. Sometimes.

My students know what to expect each day. They know they can count on time to read, make choices in their learning, have guided instruction on college and career readiness skills, and workshop time to put those skills into practice.

Well, I know they have those things. Their perception of the class structure is often described as “fast.” As in, “Wow. That class period really went fast.” And it does. There’s always a lot to do. There’s always a lot to talk about, write about, read about, think about.

There’s, of course, always room to grow too.

Routines to add around writing fluency (weekly one pagers), mini lesson variety (demonstration, explanation/example, guided practice, etc.), use of writer’s notebooks, conferring, providing formative feedback, and the list goes on.

Workshop aims to empower students, teachers, and entire learning communities through a shared love of reading and writing to promote literacy.

Leopard pajamas or no, the routine of workshop provides a consistent safe place for all stakeholders to learn and grow. Sweet dreams.

I’ll be sharing more about moving to the workshop model and workshop routines in more depth on Sunday afternoon, from 1:30-2:45, in room B211.

Will you be at NCTE?  Please let us know in the comments.  We would love to meet you!

If you can’t make it to Atlanta, you won’t be missing out–tune in to Twitter using the hashtag #NCTE16 during our session times to join the conversation.

photo2

 

Designing a Unit in Workshop: Just Try It

The NCTE Annual Convention begins this week, and as always, its onset has prompted me to try and synthesize a year’s worth of thinking around one pressing topic.  What I’ve been considering this year is the value of units of study within a workshop classroom–the hows and whys and what ifs of planning for complex, themed units.

So, we know that teachers who engage in a workshop classroom often have many of the same routines in their schedules:  time to read, time to write, time to talk.  They often have many of the same components:  mini-lessons, booktalks, mentor texts, conferring.

These are all good things.

They are all engaging practices on their own, but to take on real power, they need to be strung together, applied again and again, over the course of units of study and throughout the year.

When I work with teachers who are diving into the workshop model for the first time, I model as many of these components as I can.  Teachers are engaged–they write, they read, they look at the craft of poetry, they analyze articles.  They are energized and enthused to try these strategies with their students.

But every time, I see one smart teacher, her brow furrowed, her face concerned, in the back of the room.  She tells me, either in person or on her evaluation card:  I don’t see the rigor in this model.

And she is right.  In one day’s work, students are only advancing incrementally.  If we just have fun every day playing with words in our notebooks, listening to podcasts to study their craft, or doing book passes ’til the cows come home, our students are not growing by leaps and bounds as readers or writers.

And that’s where designing strong units of instruction comes in.

Whether it’s reading or writing instruction, harnessing the daily moves of a workshop routine to build toward an authentic product is where rigor lives.

I like Kelly Gallagher’s words to sum up the idea of starting at the end when designing a unit:

Screen Shot 2016-11-14 at 9.53.49 AM.png

Begin by thinking about what you’d like your students to achieve.  Did you just hear an amazing commentary on NPR?  Wow, what a great writer that guy is–I want my students writing like that.

Start with your vision.  That’s where you begin.  Then you ask yourself:  what do my students need to know in order to write like that?

That’s where the workshop routines come in:  booktalk examples of strong nonfiction writing.  Teach mini-lessons that get at the craft of strong commentary writing.  Flood your students with mentor texts, both published pieces and each other’s work, so they can see both the process and the product.  Let them experiment with drafts in their writer’s notebooks–lots of ungraded, low-stakes practice should live there.

At the end of the unit, don’t destroy all of your hard work by trying to “grade” everything objectively with a rubric.  Our beautiful mentor Penny Kittle sums that up nicely:

Screen Shot 2016-11-14 at 10.06.44 AM.png

When best drafts land on your desk, ask:  how do I know students achieved what I wanted them to?  Utilize self-assessments, celebrate the writing, respond authentically.  Consider how each student advanced individually.

Our students deserve high quality instruction that offers them choice, volume, and authenticity.  They deserve units that will allow them to continue to build on their constantly-increasing mastery of their reading and writing skills.

I’ll be sharing more about planning units in an Ignite Session on Saturday morning, from 9:30-10:45, in room A412.  

And I’ll discuss how and why to build rigor into your workshop units in more depth on Sunday afternoon, from 1:30-2:45, in room B211.

Will you be at NCTE?  Please let us know in the comments.  We would love to meet you!

If you can’t make it to Atlanta, you won’t be missing out–tune in to Twitter using the hashtag #NCTE16 during our session times to join the conversation.

 

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?”

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 7.52.17 AM.png

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.

Keeping it Simple: Setting Up a Writer’s Notebook

Teresa wrote:  “I have a few questions about how your students setup their writing notebooks. What are the sections in the notebook, and how many pages do you have them section off for each? Also, does one composition book usually last all year, or do they have to get another one at semester?”

I met Teresa at a workshop training I conducted this summer. She’s getting ready for her school year to start, and I am glad she sparked my thinking about how I will have my students set up their notebooks this year. This is it:

First of all, and you probably already know this:  it’s hugely important to have students personalize their notebooks.  So during that first week of school, my kids will be using scrapbook paper, wrapping paper, and whatever to make their notebooks into something that represents their life or their personality in some way.

I’m thinking of having students email me three photos from their phones, and I’ll get those printed (since I doubt many would do that on their own), and they can use those photos to decorate inside and outside the covers of their notebooks. It’s also a way for me to build a contact list of all my students. Doubling up on purpose there.

Last year I skipped this important step of personalization, and it was a mistake. Students must take some time to make the writer’s notebook their own — it can make all the difference as to the care they take regarding ideas and writing they put into that notebook.

Now, to get to your question –the notebook set up:  For years I’ve made it complicated — so this year I am simplifying. Thanks to some discussion I’ve had with Shana about our writer’s notebooks, I finally have a plan for this year.

Since the focus of my instruction is to advance all readers and writers, I need to make sure my students know that their writers’ notebooks will be the tool we use to measure their movement. So on the very first page, I ask students to write big and bold at the top:  My Reading Goal for my Junior Year. Then I ask them to draw a square in the center about the size of a standard sticky note.

“Write your goal in the center,” I tell them, “How many books will you read this year?”

Most students write a goal of 4, 5, or 6. They don’t think in big book numbers yet — they are used to reading (sometimes) the assigned texts in their English classes. They don’t know about reading volume or choice or the engaging titles in my classroom library — yet.

I model and write my reading goal in the center of my square on the first page of my notebook:  37. My students gasp.

Then, I show them the list I’ve kept of the books I read this summer — and the stack of books I pull from under the table. “I read all of these just this summer,” I say and watch their eyes grow real wide.

“My goal for you is that you will read many more books than you think is possible this year. Let’s set those goals a little higher.”

Sometimes during the same class period, sometimes a day or two later, we read our choice books for ten minutes and then calculate our reading rate. (# of pages read in 10 minutes times six equals how many pages you can read in an hour for that book. Multiply that number by three (the amount of reading I expect my students to do each week) and that equals your individual reading goal for the week) We draw little charts of the Reading Rate formula at the bottom of our goal page right there in the front of our writer’s notebooks.

After we calculate reading rates, we often have to return to goal setting. Students realize that if they plan to meet the expectations I have for them, they will read many more than the four-book-goal they originally set for themselves. This discussion often leads into important discussions about reading volume and how it leads to fluency, vocabulary development, more background knowledge on a variety of topics, and improved writing skills. This is where I start the mantra that I repeat over and over throughout the year:

The only way to become a better reader is to read. 

Next, in our writer’s notebooks we move into our plan as to how we will reach our reading goal. First, we have to have a plan. Readers have a plan. They listen in on conversations about books. They become familiar with book titles. They come to know topics and genres they like to explore. A big part of helping students come to love reading is helping them identify themselves as readers. So many of my students do not know how to do that.

An easy way to start identifying as a reader is to walk the walk of one. We make a plan, and our plan looks like a “What am I going to read next? List.

We make this list on the back of our goals sheet. This is where we write down the titles and the authors of books we learn about through book talks, talking with peers, exploring the bookshelves, etc — all books we think we might like to read throughout the year.

This list serves as an accountability piece. If students’ lists grow, I have one way to measure their involvement in our reading community.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 11.18.56 PM

I like the idea of having students include genre and start/finish or abandoned dates. I can learn more about a reader at a glance.

We also need a “What am I Currently Reading List.” We keep this list on the next page — right across from our TRN (to read next) list. This way students see how to transfer a “hope to read” into a “now I’m reading.”

Students record the title of the book, the author, the genre, the date they started the book, and the date they finished it or abandoned it. If they abandoned the book, which is absolutely fine — there are too many awesome books to suffer through too many we do not enjoy — I want short notes about why the book is being abandoned. I model statements that may work here. “It was boring” is not one of them.

“The narrator annoyed me because he seemed like a whiner,” or “I thought this book would be an engaging story, but it’s really a non-fiction book about information I don’t really care about” are both appropriate “I-am-abandoning-this-book notes.”

This list serves as an accountability piece. As students lists grow, I can see at a glance the titles and genres they are reading. I can see the start and finish dates to gage if their reading rate goals match with the dates recorded on this list. I can see where I might need to confer with a specific student about abandoning book after book after book — just from a scan of their CRL (currently reading list)

We need a space in our notebook for Response. We skip a page after our CRL and label this section of the notebook for what it is. This is where we will write our thinking. We will respond to a variety of texts: videos, news reports, poems, articles, stories, etc.

This is where we will deposit our initial reaction to and thinking about provocative things. This is a place for our quickwrites, our thinking on the page. We need a lot of space here, so in a composition notebook of 100 pages, we will reserve at least 20 for this section. (And we may need another notebook all together in the second semester.)

This serves as an accountability piece:  are students engaged in the writer’s community? Are they giving a ‘best effort’ at capturing their thinking on the page? Are they showing revision moves in their quickwrites? Are they playing with language like I’ve suggested as they develop their thinking and writing abilities?

Now, to really keep the set-up of the writer’s notebook simple, we just need three more sections:  reading, vocabulary, and writing.

Reading. In this section, we will record notes from reading mini-lessons, academic words

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 11.10.17 PM

Low-stakes student writing about her reading life. We can learn a lot about a student’s reading and writing this way.

that live in those lessons (and highlight them), tips on reading strategies, and our writing about our reading that we will complete on occasion.

This serves as an accountability piece:  Are students engaged in the reading community? Are they doing their part to advance their reading abilities? Are they competently writing about their reading?

Personal Dictionary. I used to give lists of vocab words for kids to student and then take a quiz over. Little authentic learning took place around those word lists. A much more authentic and useful way for students to learn vocabulary is for them to generate their own lists. Ask them what they do when they encounter words they do not know as they read. They’ll tell you: They skip them. No more.

We capture words we do not know in our choice reading books, and we record them in our own personal dictionaries. I ask students to record five words a week. They list the date of the week, then the title of their book (even if it’s the same book a few weeks in a row). Then they make a list of the five words they found in their reading that week, define them in context of how the author uses the word, and write down the sentence in which the word is used. We do this week after week, collecting words throughout the school year.

This serves an accountability piece:  If students are not reading, they will not have any words to record. If students are not reading a complex enough book for them, they will not have any words to record. I can help students determine if they are reading a book suitable for their comprehension abilities if I take frequent looks at their personal dictionaries.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 11.17.32 PM

What started as a brainstorming activity to think about topics, lead to opportunities for discussion with this student I would not have had otherwise. Students reveal their lives to us in low-stakes writer’s notebook writing.

Writing. This is consistently the greatest chunk of our writer’s notebook. In the writing section, we craft a variety of writing territories. We take notes on writerly moves that we learn in mini-lessons and from mentor texts. We practice imitating the craft of our favorite writers. We take notes on grammar and mechanics. We practice sentence structures and the moves of writers we study as a class and in small groups. We build a tool set here of craft moves we can experiment with in our own writing. And we brainstorm and draft in this section of our notebooks.

This serves as an accountability piece:  Are students engaged in the writing process? Are they giving their ‘best effort’ attempts to create a toolbox of tools to use in their writing? Are they understanding the writing mini-lessons and practicing the application of those skills? In their drafts, is their thinking evident? Do they have strong ideas that will carry a piece before they every work on revision and craft?

And that’s it. Our writer’s notebooks are set up — with sections labeled and homemade sticky-note tabs to separate each section. These notebooks become gold. They are precious to the learning that takes place in my workshop classroom. Not only do students have one central place to keep notes and ideas. They have a personal place to practice their craft and write.

The writer’s notebook– and all these accountability pieces– mean relatively easy, though sometimes time-consuming, formative assessment for me:  I can choose to check the whole of student notebooks say every three weeks, or I can choose to check a section (I usually choose this option.) Either works to see if students are engaged in the workshop classroom and advancing readers and writers, which is my ultimate goal for all students all year long.

See more on writer’s notebooks by searching the TTT categories.

Please share your ideas for the set up for writer’s notebooks. I’d love to know if you think I’m missing something important that will further advance my students’ learning. And I wrote this post without having access of photos of each step. I hope the description will be enough.

Heinemann

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

English's Education

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

Literacy & NCTE

The official blog of the National Council of Teachers of English

kelly's blog - Kelly Gallagher

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

Moving Writers

Move the writing. Move the writer.

Blog | The Educator Collaborative Community

Voices of Educators Making a Difference

The Paper Graders

Teachers thinking about teaching, education, technology and anything else that bugs us.

Ethical ELA

conversations on the ethics of teaching English

%d bloggers like this: