Tag Archives: student engagement

So You Don’t Think Workshop Works? 5 Reasons You are Wrong

It doesn’t take much to fire me up.

Last month, I sat listening to Pernille Ripp speak at the TCTELA Conference in Galveston, TX. I’d just spent an hour walking along the beach and thinking about the presentation I would give in an hour. I’d subtitled it “Reimagining Literacy Through Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.”

Pernille spoke as if our minds were fused. Her passion was my passion. Her beliefs were my beliefs. I haven’t read her books, but I quickly put them in my online cart.

She said some things I needed to remember to say, so I opened up my laptop and fell into an argument. A colleague had sent an email with a link to a neighboring high school’s online news article about my district’s new ELA curriculum, a curriculum that invites choice and challenge and allows teachers the freedom to plan instruction based on the individual needs of her students. It aligns with our state standards, which align with College and Career Readiness Standards. It does not require any specific texts be taught, but it does offer suggestions. Therein lies the rub.

While the student writers wrote a fine piece for high school journalists, they highlighted some erroneous conclusions about choice reading and the instructional rigor that it offers. They also seemed to side with those uninformed to the research and practical application of the workshop method of instruction. Those who just don’t get it.

I had a bit more moxie when I presented that day.

If you’ve heard me speak, or read this blog for any length of time, you know I’ve been on this journey a long while. Workshop instruction is not easy. And giving up control is only a slice of the hard part. But with talking, training, continual reading of research-based practices, and reflexive moves as a teacher, it works. It works to help students identify as readers and writers, and it works to prepare them for the work of college and the careers that will come after it.

In my presentation, I shared the why of workshop and needed more time to share the how. Later, it struck me:  The how can only happen when we fully understand the why, and the why only becomes clear when we are open to understanding it.

And there are probably a lot of teachers who are working hard to make choice work who need a lot more support and training to make it as successful as they know it can be.

A few days later, my colleague forwarded me her rebuttal to the students’ news article and asked for my feedback. I did not have anything to add to her remarks. They spoke to the need of fidelity to a choice model, specifically to the advantages of independent reading, and the importance of teachers being active celebrators of books and talking to students about their reading. But I did have a few thoughts related to a lot of other things regarding the subtext of the initial attack on our new curriculum. (Of course, I did.)

On SSR and Independent Reading. There is a difference, although the two are often misused synonymously. Both prove beneficial to students readers. SSR is usually choice without parameters and little accountability, except for celebrating books and teachers conferring with students about their reading lives in an attempt to get and keep them reading. Independent reading is a much more structured approach to choice. 

With independent reading, we teach using our books to study the strategies for becoming better readers and writers. We might suggest parameters like reading certain genres or books with specific themes. We might have students go into their books and find examples of characterization, how the writers move the plot forward, descriptions of setting, etc. — basically, we teach in mini-lesson format all the skills we might otherwise teach with whole class novels. Few teachers I know new to the idea of choice know this difference between SSR and the more complex approach to choice with Independent Reading. In my AP Language class, I do a combination of both.

On Research. The research is immense on the importance of experiential reading. I am sure you are familiar with Louise Rosenblatt’s work on Transactional Theory. Many other edu-researchers today build upon it, most recently Jeffrey Wilhelm, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Penny Kittle. Today few high school English teachers I meet outside this blog circle understand this research. They teach the way they were taught, and many came to be English teachers because they love literature, not because they believe their job is to teach students to become readers and writers.

If we were to ask:  What is the theory that guides your practice? They would not be able to answer. I always refer to the research of Richard Allington and often quote an article he wrote with Rachel Gabrielle, Every Child Every Day. All students need the six things they mention, yet high school teachers often discount this research claiming:  That’s only for elementary. Of course, this is not true.

On Reading. Most teachers know the majority of their students do not read the required texts, and to hold students “accountable,” they give quizzes with questions “that cannot be found in Sparknotes or other online sources.” I have heard so many teachers say this! Instead of working to include students in the decisions important to their reading lives, they use punitive methods, disguised as grades, to turn students away from reading and into cheaters. Sure, there are some students who will read assigned texts, but if teachers would be vulnerable enough to actually ask their kids, so many would tell the truth:  they do not read. So not only do teachers enable dishonest behavior, they do not move their students as readers.

The only way to become a reader is to read. The same holds true for writing. If teachers give students choice in topic, form, etc, students are less likely to plagiarize, especially if the writing is done in the classroom with the teacher present to confer and coach students through the writing process. Plus, most teachers who rely on the whole class novel do not have time for authentic writing instruction. It just takes too long to work through whole class novels. Students write analytical essays over books again and again — the form of writing they are least likely to write in their careers and even in college, unless they become English majors (and if you didn’t know, the numbers of English majors continues to fall.)

On Engagement. Research shows that when students are engaged, they are more apt to learn. Many teachers confuse engagement and compliance. Many young people, especially those in schools and in classes where grades are the focus, are compliant. And we’ve trained students to reach for the grade instead of diving deep into the learning. In my experience with these students, they want to know how to make the A. They take few risks, and they get frustrated when I intentionally keep things ambiguous so they have to struggle with the learning. I get quite a lot of push back, which of course, ties in to growth mindset, another area rich in research. The systems we’ve created with grades and sit-and-get education have stagnated curiosity and the drive to learn for the sake of learning.

On Rigor. As Penny Kittle said, “It’s not rigor if they are not reading it.” Somehow, and I am guilty of this in the past, we think that complex texts equate to rigorous instruction. This simply is not true. The rigor is in what we have students DO with the text. How they think. How they interact. How they work through the process of learning.

I recently read Jeff Wilhelm’s article on interpretive complexity. He states:  “Interpretive complexity, or what the reader is doing with the text, should be the focus of our teaching. We don’t teach texts! We teach specific human beings—our students—to engage with texts.” For any teacher who wants the control of only “teaching” required texts, I have to ask:  So how are you teaching the “specific human beings” sitting in your class? Doesn’t specific imply some level of individuality?

Most teachers I know claim to hate the system of standardized tests, yet when we make all the choices in our classrooms, we are standardizing our instruction. This reeks of hypocrisy. On the contrary, instructional methods that involve choice invite students to own their learning. We talk so much of student-centered learning, yet when we hold hard to the harness, few students ever get the chance to take the reigns. If we are confident in our content, and we identify as readers and writers ourselves, we are more able to step out of the way and facilitate deeper learning that meets the needs of each individual.

I could probably go on, but those are the main reasons my ire is up at the moment. In all honesty, I know most teachers work hard, but some just do not want to change. They want to keep doing the same thing they’ve always done because it is safer. If they stick with the classics, parents probably won’t push back, and students will go with the flow —especially if they have never experienced anything other than the way English has always been taught.

If we want to reach and teach each child sitting in our classrooms each day, isn’t it about time we take a hard look at what methods we use and ask some serious questions? Are we limiting our students’ growth or fostering more of it? Do we hang on to control or hand it to our students? Does the research support or counter our methods?

Our students deserve the best education we can give them. Why put limitations on their learning?

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language and Composition at a large senior high school in North TX. She is grateful to the North Star of TX Writing Project and Penny Kittle for showing her the benefits of choice and challenge; otherwise, she would probably still be dragging students through Dickens’ novels and pulling her hair our over plagiarized essays. Thank God she learned a better way. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk. And please join the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page if you haven’t already. Join the conversation and share the good news of your workshop classroom.

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Window, Mirrors, and Gigantic Doors: Inviting Sound into Uneasy Silences

For weeks I’ve worked on a list of books to use for book clubs in our junior English classes. I believe that students must have options that challenge, yet engage, and allow them to see themselves and/or others within the pages. It’s that whole windows and mirrors and doors analogy. Jillian Heise describes it well in this post. I’ll just quote a part that struck me:

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop originated the idea that many now reference. She talks about windows as “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” And about mirrors, “…we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” But she also talks about sliding glass doors which “readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” The thing is, it’s the third part of it, the sliding glass door that seems to often be left out, but is perhaps the most important part – it’s the part that, in my interpretation, allows us to step into those other worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book – and isn’t that the power of reading? Being able to develop empathy, understanding, new perspectives by living in someone else’s shoes for a short time. Especially for books as powerful as the ones being written about these real issues that are affecting kids in their lives today, this mirror, window, sliding door access becomes even more important for them to see they have a place in our society, no matter what perspective they may bring.”

I’d like to offer an addition, not just sliding glass doors that  “allow us to step into those 8124672460_6b6f1ef826_zother worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book,” although that interpretation is certainly vital to developing readers who love books and to gaining empathy.

What about other doors — like the kinds we have to push or pull to get through — the doors that make us work: cathedral doors, fortress doors, iron doors, or doors with scary knockers? These doors require effort. These doors may make us uncomfortable. And sometimes they require courage.

Some books can change us if we view them this way. They can change our students. And I’m not just talking about lexile levels, or complexity of ideas. I am talking about content. The content that exposes our flaws and weaknesses, the content that pushes our thinking, moves us out of our comfort zones, and makes us face, as Dr. Kim Parker puts it, “the lived experience of so many folks of color in this country.”

I am a white woman who teaches students of color. I grew up in a middle class family with conservative ideals. I go to church regularly, and I practice my religion. I had parents who were married for 55 years and taught me the value of hard work, education, and persistence. I am different from most of the students in my classroom. I enjoy a privilege in this country most of them have never experienced.

So what does this have to do with doors?

I choose the big ones.

Awhile ago I conducted a PD session with a group of teachers, mostly white women who like me teach mostly students of color. I showed some of the spoken word videos I use with my students:  “Spelling Father” by Marshall Davis-Jones and “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beatty. I shared articles about undocumented immigrants and Syrian refugees. I read an except from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi where a character’s wife is kidnapped and he desperately tries to find her, showing her picture around the streets, and finally being accosted by a policeman after he accidentally brushes into a white woman. The policeman rips up the man’s only picture of his 8-months-pregnant wife. The year:  pre-Civil War.

We viewed and read texts. We wrote quickwrites and analytical responses. We discussed author’s craft and studied the moves the writers make to create meaning. Everyone read. Everyone wrote. Everyone engaged in the learning.

Later, the conversation turned to engagement, and I asked the questions:  “What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives?”

I gave them time to talk, and I wandered the room, listening in to table discussions. I heard some valuable exchanges, but I also heard: “Oh, I don’t even go there. I’d lose control.”

Hmm.

How will we ever change as a society if we don’t ever go there? How will our students, no matter their color, ever learn to talk about tender and sizzling issues, ever learn to deal or challenge or change them, if their teachers never go there?

We cannot make excuses. We have to invite the hard topics into our classrooms. We have to provide books that are windows, mirrors, sliding doors, and gigantic wooden ones. Not only for the sake of the students we teach but for our profession.

How will we ever have more teachers of color if our students of color do not have better experiences in their English classes?

At NCTE last November, I met Dr. Kim Parker in person for the first time. She read her credo and she sealed a place in my heart with her sincere desire to do right by the students in her care. I share her credo here because it so closely echoes my own. I don’t think she’ll mind:

Ze’Voun tells me that he never knew that reading books could matter so much, could be so enjoyable. He is a young man who is Black, brilliant, and bored. He is a writer and a reader for whom schools seem to be increasingly less designed. When he disappears from my class without any explanation, I learn, a few weeks later, that he has been assigned to an out of school placement program, joining other boys who are–likely–as Black, brilliant, and bored as he.

I believe in rage, and I believe in action. I believe in a world where staying woke matters.  

My most essential work is making classrooms spaces where kids like Ze’Voun can read and write in ways that matter to them–from diss tracks; to letters to the local police department reminding them that Black Lives Matter, too, and that wearing their hoodies is not a crime; to Tweets to favorite authors thanking them for books that are just for him; to books that affirm, reflect, and extend his existence as a brilliant Black boy. Opening up spaces inside classrooms where they can speak a variety of Englishes as they explore the origins of Ebonics, where they can engage and delight with canonical and multicultural texts and write about their understandings, and where they are creators of texts that validate and stretch their identities is some of “the work my soul must have.”

Though Ze’Voun never returned, I continue to hold space in my classroom for other young people who have similar needs and desires, who are hungry for the diverse texts that reach them. I continue to hold on to a belief, and a dream, that the work I do must be as diverse as the students I teach. As escapist, as validating, as powerful as the texts they read. As whole, as free, as happy as we all wish, hope, and need to be.

This what I’ve dubbed Right Now Literacy. We have to give every student the commitment, resources, and opportunities they need to learn the reading and writing skills they need right now, to live and thrive in the world we are in right now.

Dear reader, I ask you the same questions I asked those teachers at that PD:  What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives? 

Please answer in the comments. Let’s share our best practices and best resources for pushing ourselves and our students through the doors that can change us at the core. (And next week I’ll try to remember to share my new book club lists.)

FTC guideline

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

#3TTWorkshop — Some Thinking on Feedback and How We Use It

 

Did you know there are 167 synonyms for feedback? reaction, response, answer, reply, assessment, comeback . . . criticism . . .

By definition, feedback in the business world means: Process in which the effect or output of an action is ‘returned’ (fed-back) to modify the next action.

In the mini-lesson I posted Monday, I mentioned that I’d asked my students to write for five minutes in response to this:  Think about your reading growth and improvement this year. Can you honestly say you are better now than you when you walked in the classroom in the fall?

TTT reader Leigh Anne commented:  “I love this idea. . . I do wonder though, what were some of their responses to how they grew as readers this year. I only teach 6th grade, but answering this question seems to be a struggle for them. I can’t image how junior AP students would answer it.”

So I took snapshots of four students’ writer’s notebooks and transcribed what they wrote.

notebook response

For quickwrites, I ask students to write as much as they can as fast as they can as well as they can. Then, we always read over our writing and try to revise.

Before you read (in their own quickwrite language), I’d like to suggest that while this simple writing exercise served as self-evaluation for students and set up the personal reading challenge activity, more importantly, it served as valuable feedback for me. We spend an awful lot of time self-selecting books and reading them. One way I know if the investment in time is worth it is to ask my readers. As a result, I now know how my students feel about their progress, and I have ideas on how to “modify the next action.”

“This AP English is being challenging to me. When I entered the classroom, I felt like I was about to collapse. But as I continued to take the challenge and accept it, I am now way better than the beginning of the class. I might not improve like everyone but I improve in my own way. My improvement might not reach advance level but I beat my lowest level. I used to read children’s book, fairytale with 10 pages , still it was hard for me to notice what is going on. Compare to those days, I have now understand almost all the chapter books. This class had helped me more than I could imagine, but my improvement right now isn’t enough, I still have long way to go.” ~Sui

Next action:  Sui said she now understands “almost all the chapter books.” I’ll talk to Sui and find out what she thinks might help her understand all the chapter books. She may be able to tell me where she gets confused. If she does, I will be able to offer strategies and support so she will continue to improve.

“I haven’t done all the required reading in a timely manner, however, I have grown slightly as a reader. My pace has increased with some books, but also slowed down due to difficulty of certain books. That happens to everyone, hopefully, because it could just be me. I still have a focus issue with reading, but it has improved within the time frame of this year. I’m not where I should be as a junior in high school, but it could be worse.” ~ Cerin

Next action:  I’m curious to know if Cerin truly believes she might be the only one who has to slow down when reading more complex books — and I didn’t know she has “a focus issue.” I need to talk with Cerin and find out what she means by this and determine how I might help. I know she’s abandoned several books this year. Maybe she’s one of those expert fake readers, or maybe she still hasn’t found any books she likes enough to finish.

“Honestly, I can say that my reading has improved since the beginning of the school year. I can say this because before I lacked motivation when it came to picking up a novel. It might have had something to do with lack of interest with the topic. Also, I found myself skimming through the text and not critically annotating the pages, but now looking forward this semester my book is tattooed with my thoughts, and each word read one after another.” ~Unity

Next action:  First, I must tell this girl how much I love that “tattooed” bit! I know Unity spent a lot of time reading and annotating the non-fiction book she chose for our research mentors. She shows me here how proud she is of that, and I need to recognize and celebrate her efforts. Our next one-on-one conference may turn into a discussion on the notes she made in her book and why. I need to see her critical annotations.

“I can honestly say that I got so much better at my reading in English classroom. When I enter this year I could not tell if the book is non-fiction or fiction, but after Mrs. Rasmussen talked to me one on one I can tell which one is non-fiction and fiction. I am currently reading the book that is challenge on me but I really want to catch up with my classmate on reading skill and level. I improve so much this year and like reading now. I never like reading in my freshman year or sophomore because I thought reading is useless and it take all of my time. But now I like reading fiction book because I see myself in the book and it get into my head.” ~Siang

Next action:  Siang’s challenged herself for a while now. I need to be sure she is not stuck reading a book that bogs her down too much. She’s been frustrated with reading in the past, and she finally found success with some fairly easy reads. Fluency means comprehension, and that is where the story is. By saying she likes to read fiction, Siang is really saying she likes good stories. I need to make sure she finds another one.

_________________________________________________________________

Were all student responses quite so encouraging? No. These are juniors in high school after all. I’ll say this for them though: they are usually brutally honest when I ask them for this kind of response.

One student wrote that he has not improved as a reader this year, and he does not think he needs to. He feels like he’s as good as he ever needs to be. (I wish this was satire — we are in the middle of that right now.) Alas, it is not. This young man does the bare bones minimum to show he’s learning anything — just keeps his head above passing, goes through the motions. But his response is valuable feedback, too.

“Hey, kid, we have about seven more weeks of school. I’m not done with you yet.”

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? They enter our rooms, and we give them our all. In my case, my all gets charged by the hope I have. I hope my students will grow as competent, confident, intelligent, and compassionate citizens. They can energize the world.

I believe reading more and reading well is the fast track to all of that.

Please share your ideas on getting  — and giving feedback.

Holden

Today I asked my colleague, Elaine Miskinis, if I could share her writing with the TTT community.  Elaine teaches Sophomore English, Junior English, and AP Language and Composition.  I am fortunate to pass my freshmen along to her while receiving her juniors in return. She perfectly sums up the struggles of first semester, the hope that comes with second, and the transformative power of literature. ~Jackie

Rye_catcherThe plan?  Spend the hour and a half between the end of the school day and kiddo pick up time entering my students’ midterm grades, doing some lesson planning for “Hamlet” and cleaning and organizing my room in preparation for third quarter.

The reality?  A student who is failing with a single digit average came to finish his midterm.  He mentioned, in passing, that reading Catcher in the Rye made him realize some things about himself.   Any conversation that opens with “The Catcher in the Rye made me realize…” is never going to be a short conversation.  It’s just the nature of that novel and the power it holds.

Long story short, he’s experienced some significant trauma and, like Holden, nobody has really been there to help him to process it.  He said, “You know how Holden is really smart, but he’s failing because he just can’t get out of his own head and move on from what he’s experienced?  I think that’s like me.”  Over an hour later we came up with a plan to get him someone to talk.  We also scrapped any plans of turning him into a model student this year and replaced them with the goal of helping him so that he, in his words, “Can stop pretending to be happy and actually start to feel it”.

So, now my classroom is a fire hazard of papers and books, my planning for Monday stands at “Wing It” and I have two bags of papers that have come home with me that still need to be logged into my grade book.  But, this was one of those days that will likely stand out when I think about why I teach. And, more specifically why I value teaching literature.  For every kid who whines and “Spark Notes” and skims, there might be one kid in the back of the room who looks like he’s disengaged and disconnected but who, in reality is so much in his own head at that moment, and possibly even so far in the head of a character that he’s lost in ways we can’t begin to see.

It’s easy to forget the power of novels, especially the ones we teach year after year and it’s easier still to forget the power we hold as teachers, especially when we’re consumed with midterms and grades and planning, and frankly, all of the things that really, in the end don’t amount to a whole lot.  Today was an important reminder to me of what it’s really about and why what we do really does matter.  I don’t know that we’ll be able to help this kid in any substantial way, although I certainly hope we will, but I do know that he felt comfortable broaching the topic with me this afternoon because he had Holden Caulfield there to lean on.  It makes me wonder how often these small, important moments get lost as we focus on assessments and core competencies and all of the minutia of our lives as teachers.  Sometimes it just has to be about more than that, and about more than reading check quizzes and essays.  Sometimes it has to be about letting our kids hang out with characters for a while to learn that they’re not alone.

#FridayReads: 8 Stocking Stuffers That Will Change Your Classroom

While I love the beautiful handmade gifts of my students the most, there are a couple untraditional stocking stuffers that I’m putting on my Christmas wish list this year.  These are the tried and true tools that somehow keep my classroom just a bit more sane during those hectic moments (like the days leading up to holiday break).  So in the last eight days before Christmas, here are eight stocking stuffers for a colleague, teaching friend, or even yourself!

  1. Headphones: This was the greatest gift my cooperating teacher gave me. His secret was to always keep extra sets of ear buds handy.  To this day, I stock up on cheap headphones from Marshalls (and alcohol wipes to clean them) at the beginning of the school year. Oftentimes it helps some of my antsier students tune out their surroundings and dial into their writing.
  1. Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty: Amy bought this for me this past candy-cane-9summer, and it is a miracle worker.  I initially brought it in for a student who has severe ADHD.  He was oftentimes overstimulated by his peers.  Playing with the thinking putty changed his behavior drastically.  What I love most is the thicker viscosity of the putty keeps students more engaged…and it comes in holiday colors, including white christmas, gelt, and candy cane.
  1. Conferring Chair: I wrote about my conferring chair here, but I cannot stress enough what an impact having this chair has had on accessing my students within the classroom. Last year I spent time kneeling next to students or awkwardly standing over them as they sat at their desks. Purchasing a conferring chair that was lightweight, foldable, and small allowed me to discreetly enter conversations, conference with students, and set up mini workshop areas throughout the classroom.
  1. Awesome Citations: I love giving my students small pick-me-ups, 12098_Awesome_1which include these quirky “awesome citations” I found at a novelty shop. I enjoy filling them out, leaving a small note at the bottom, and either tucking them into writer’s notebooks or dropping them off at unexpected times.
  1. Writing Prompt Books: As the advisor of Writer’s Club, I can’t get enough of writing prompt books like The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination by Jason Rekulak, 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief. Not only do I pull them out during club meetings, but I use them as inspiration for class quick-writes, or to begin brainstorming for independent writing pieces.
  1. Magnets: Magnets might not be on the top of your wish list, but they are exceptionally convenient when it comes to students’ presentations of writing, artwork, or posters. Odd, yes, but I love when my students can present hands-free without the awkwardness of holding large posters or pictures for other group members.
  1. Coloring Meditation Books: I love keeping photocopied pages from coloring meditation books on hand for spare moments. Not only are they calming for many students, particularly those with anxiety, but 51N8TdfrZ6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_they are also great for extra time during club meetings and advisory or homeroom periods…or, as one of my students said, “My mom loves doing those when she drinks wine.” That is always an option for tired teachers too.
  1. My True Love Gave to Me: High school English teachers (and their students) will love this anthology of Christmas stories from top YA authors including some of my favorites, Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan, and Matt De La Pena!

 

What is on your teaching wish list or gift list this season?

 

 

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: The Power of “I”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

An Authentic Connection: Literacy and Citizenship

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Room 369: The New Home of the Francis Gittens Lending Library

It is finally time for educators across the state of New York to head back to school. Here in the city, we have one day to organize, get our rooms situated, be professionally developed, catch up on the summer on-goings of our colleagues, and be ready to open our doors and welcome our new students full with promise – tomorrow.

So, as I let this ruminate; I find myself referring back to an article I was sent this summer to keep my mind whirling and my thinking on the edge.  Why are students falling off track?  According to this piece from Education Week the gap that separates students from achieving academic success is staggering.  This is not news.

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A moment of calm amongst the disorganization…

However, as I have had to arduously undergo this move of 3,000 books and their accompanied bookshelves (the entire Francis Gittens Lending Library) from room 382 to room 369; much has come to light.  I’m no stranger to believing that literacy is the key to access, opportunity, and self-worth; or that the Readers Writers Workshop is the venue in which to do so. Yet, this experience — this move, has taught me even more.

Literacy needs to be passed on.  It cannot remain only within our classrooms or the classrooms down the hall.  It must be infiltrated into the homes in which our students live; brought with them on public transportation where book covers are viewed by others; shared with siblings.  It must continually be invited and welcomed into places it does not often find an invitation.  That’s our job as educators.

I’ve been reflecting on this past year, and years prior, to recollect what I believe to be some of the most vital components of the educating that occurs within the Readers Writers Workshop – and I always come back to the same two elements: creating a love and thirst for knowledge through literature and fostering the creation of students’ voices through writing.  This was solidified when Daphtho (pictured above) matter-of-factly stated, “Ms. Bogdany, you don’t have to thank me for helping with the move.  It’s my way of thanking you for helping me receive my diploma.”

So when Daphtho and George (two recent graduates) offered to spend their time among the heat, lifting and moving and organizing and undoing and reorganizing and waiting (for me to make aesthetic decisions); they quietly schooled me.

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A moment’s pause amidst the move…

Through their actions they showed me that when we are relentless in supporting their thinking and ideas, when we foster them as individuals (not just students) they innately become the young men and women they are destined to become. They are willing to give back to their community (even if they are no longer going to be physically present). They understand what it means to feel safe to take risks, comfortable to allow vulnerability to surface, and the power of giving back.  And, are eager to pass it forward.

During the many hours of this move, there were quiet (if not silent) moments of understanding.  Albeit the towering stacks of boxes that needed unpacking, these young men stopped in their tracks as they found literature that spoke to them – and found themselves comfortable spaces in which to explore. Daphtho will be bringing literature home for his brother entering sixth grade as he works side-by-side with him on his literacy skills (knowing the importance of a strong foundation) and George decided on two pieces that were donated by a friend of mine from high school – ponderings and questions about taking the next steps in our lives.

So no, my urgency for, “Time is ticking” did not kick in.  But what did kick in was, “This is exactly what this time needs to be.  Us. Books.  Connection.  They are ready for their next steps.  How grateful I am to have borne witness to their growth and how wildly fortunate I am to know them as the citizens they have become.”    

What elements of the Readers Writers Workshop do you believe propels your students in becoming robust citizens?

 

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