Tag Archives: student talk

On Slow Stylists and Teaching Writers

My hair and North Texas humidity are not friends. I can fix my hair in the morning, take one tiny step outside, and floop — it’s like the photo next to the word frizz in a picture dictionary.

I need help with my hair.

Not long ago, I had to find a new stylist. I’d seen my hair pro for going on 20 years — through short and kinda long and short again and kids’ friends and schools and graduations. I didn’t even know I had attachment issues until I called to make an appointment and learned Vivian had moved to another salon. They would not tell me where.

You may know how hard it is to find a new stylist. Overwhelming and risky come to mind. I just couldn’t deal with it — so I went cheap. I saw a random ad on line for “models” and took a chance on a “stylist-in-training”.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And it was good.

Well, it got good. First, I waited 35 minutes just to get in the chair. I learned why as Emily tentatively combed and cut in tiny snips. She was S.L.O.W. but cheerful, eager, and excited to put the skills she learned through lecture and video into hands-on real-hair practice. Emily’s “expert mentor” stood to the side, giving tips and clarifying process the whole time. Then, when Emily thought she was done with my cut, the mentor picked up the comb and scissors, checked each section for wayward hairs, and reviewed the moves Emily had just made to create my style.

Of course, this all reminded me of teaching writers.

Awhile back I wrote about slowing down and planning time for students to think and talk and question before we demand they get to drafting. I think planning time applies to other aspects of teaching writers as well.

Here’s three things I’m wondering–

  1. How can we plan time for more talk? Writers write well when they have a solid base of information from which to build their ideas. Purposeful talk can help our writers grow in knowledge, recognize bias, and engage in conversation that pushes thinking. Listening and speaking often receive short shrift in ELA classes. We can change that. We can help students get their hands and heads into real-life practice as they talk about issues, news, and attitudes that fuel their writing.
  2. How can we plan time for more questions? When writing, questions often lead to answers. I teach asking questions as a revision strategy:  Students read their peers’ writing and can only respond with questions that prompt the writer to add more detail, include examples, develop thoughts more fully, etc. This takes practice, but it’s the best approach I’ve found so far in helping students question their own writing. (See Start with a Question for more on how questions aid writers.) We can give tips and clarify process — and help students work together to improve their writing — when we spend a little time helping them ask good questions.
  3. How can we plan time for more conferring? A few years ago, I asked my students how best they wanted me to help them improve as writers. These high school juniors overwhelmingly asked for more one-on-one. I was kind of surprised: Teens wanted to talk to me moreSeriously, they did. These writers understood they were all at different places with their language skills and writing abilities, and they knew the value of our conferences. Undivided attention, sometimes just noticing, even for a brief few moments, can make a world of difference to a writer. Sometimes we instruct. Sometimes review. Most often we just listen.

I left the salon that day 2.5 hours later — the longest I’ve ever spent in a salon. Time didn’t matter to Emily. She wanted to do well, truly practice her new skills, and create a cut she’d be proud of. I know we feel rushed and crushed in our English classes, but there’s a lesson here:  How can we slow down in order to maximize the time our students need to grow as writers?

In case you’re wondering, I like my cut, but I’m still battling Texas weather.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves working with student writers and their teachers. She thanks her family and friends for their time: generating ideas, reading drafts, proofing, editing, encouraging. And she thanks you for all you do for readers and writers everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

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What’s the right way to book club?

I belong to a lot of book clubs.  Probably too many, if I’m being perfectly honest.  This book club habit, though, allows me view a range of activities that can be considered “book club” and has opened up the way I teach book clubs in my classroom.

Book clubs are valuable experiences in and of themselves and there is no one right way to “book club.”   Book clubs enrich the lives of readers and allow students to see a thought about a book go somewhere new with a friend.

We’ve all had those moments where we think, “Sure, I could run this unit as a book club, but how do I know the students are really reading?”  As much as it pains me to write … we know the students aren’t reading regularly and consistently anyway.  Penny Kittle’s Book Love gives a detailed account of the various deceptions and misdirections that high school students regularly go through when they “fake read” assigned classics for English class.  The concern is most certainly worth raising, but we also shouldn’t assume we already have a perfect solution.

And book clubs are not a perfect solution, either.  They are messy, they take time, and sometimes the teaching we do in a book club unit is more the teaching of life and human relationships than of actual content and reading strategies.  But to hear students arguing the role of fate in one’s life?  To see a gaggle of girls attempt to stymie me with a version of The Trolley Problem that they developed based on a book club conversation?  To see students become obsessed with the Berlin Wall because of a book club?  To listen in on how students work out interpersonal conflicts when they think an adult isn’t listening?

I’m telling you, it’s all worth it.

While there are no right ways to book club, here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Give generous choice in partner selection.  I maintain final say over groups, but I encourage students to indicate the classmates they want to work with on a survey.  A colleague encouraged me to add a space for students to include a student that they haven’t worked with yet but would like to work with in order to encourage students to branch away from just indicating friends.  If students look forward to talking to their conversation partners, I find they are more likely to read and more likely to have better conversations about the book.
  • Steer students towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  One of the hidden beauties of book clubs is that I can steer groups towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  Groups of students are more likely to branch out of genre or try an author they hadn’t heard of before if they have a group to do it with.  I use this opportunity to introduce racially diverse authors and authors whose works are set in other countries.  It delights me to overhear students discuss the role of Choctaw culture in the magical realist tale How I Became a Ghost or mull over the levels of privilege in Piecing Me Together.
  • Provide activities to get conversation going and flowing.  One of my favorite activities from this past unit was having each student write down five significant events from the story, one event on each index card.  Then, in book club groups, students sorted their cards into piles and labeled their piles.  If you look at this picture, you’ll see that some of the piles from this student group are about setting (“orphanage”), others are about themes (“bravery,” “hope,” and “family”) and another is an observation about craft. This activity allows students to notice their noticings and realize they are not alone in their thoughts.
AmEOnceimage

Once by Morris Gleitzman is the first of an incredible series. Bonus to a book club choice!

If your school has a traditional canon-based curriculum in place, there are areas where I would see book clubs falling flat.  I would not assign Hamlet or Macbeth in book clubs.  (I might, however, think about assigning excerpts to small groups after some whole class teaching.)  I might instead start book clubs in a lower-stakes medium.  Maybe your book club reads poetry.  Maybe your club members are obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys and each member finds an article on the Cowboys to bring to the meeting.  Or maybe your book club loves superhero comics, and you read the new Superman comics together.

Wherever you are and whatever grade you teach, I encourage you to give book clubs a go.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book club rules and routines? Or what are your book club roadblocks?

 

Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher in New York and is a halfway decent trivia team member.  She collects her book and graphic novel reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

 

 

5 Lists of Books and More Space for Talk

I am a collector. I collect bookmarks I don’t use and tweets with headlines I think I’ll read later. I collect cute little pots I think I’ll eventually make home to plants, and notebooks I’m afraid to mess up with a pen (from my pen collection, of course.)

I also collect lists. Doesn’t everyone?

I collect lists of books thinking this will keep me from buying more books. Sometimes it works. Not often.

We’ve shared several lists of books on this blog:  Coach Moore’s list of books he read this summer, Shana’s Summer Reads to Stay Up Late With, Amy E’s Refresh the Recommended Reading List, and Lisa’s Going Broke List just to name a few.

I like reading lists about books. This helps me stay current on what my students might find interesting or useful. Often, I find titles that help me find the just right book for that one students who confuses “reading is boring” with “I don’t read well,” or “I don’t know what I like to read.”

With one heartbreaking event after another in our country lately, I keep thinking about the importance of reading to help our young people grow into compassionate citizens who more easily understand their world. Did you see the results of yet another study? Reading makes you feel more empathy for others, researchers discover.

Of course, we don’t need another study to tell us this. Many of us see it in our students.

I see it in my students. My students who enjoy reading also enjoy talking about their

Bookclubdiscussion

My students chose from nine different books for their book clubs. Once they chose, we had five different book clubs happening in one class. At the end of our second discussion day, I had students combine groups and talk with one another about the major themes, make connections, and share a bit about their author’s style.

reading. They relate to one another more naturally as they talk about their books, the characters, the connections. They welcome conversations that allow them to express their opinions, likes and dislikes. They learn much more than reading skills through these conversations.

My AP Language students recently finished their first book club books. I left them largely without a structured approach to talking about their reading. My only challenge on their first discussion day was to stay on topic:  keep the conversation about the book for 30 minutes. They did. I wandered the room, listening in as I checked the reading progress of each student.

On the final discussion day (three total), I reviewed question types and used ideas from Margaret Lopez’ guest post Saying Something, Not Just Anything, and asked students to write two of each question types:  factual, inductive, analytical prior to their book club discussions. This led to even richer conversations around their reading.

I remember reading a long while ago about how conversations about poetry could invite opportunities for solving big problems. I don’t know if this is the article I read, but the poet interviewed in this article asserts it, too:

I think we know the world needs changing. Things are going awry left and right. I firmly believe that in our very practical, technological, and scientific age, the values of all the arts, but of poetry in particular, are necessary for moving the world forward. I’m talking about things like compassion, empathy, permeability, interconnection, and the recognition of how important it is to allow uncertainty in our lives.

. . .Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. They’re about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.

When we invite our students to read, and then open spaces for them to talk about their

bookclubdiscussion2

This group had hearty discussions around Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It’s Western Days. They don’t always wear hats and plaid and boots, even in Texas.

reading, we provide the same opportunities that discussions around poetry do. Maybe not on the micro scale of ambiguity and nuance, but most certainly on the macro scale of possibilities. Our students are social creatures, and we must give them spaces to talk.

So I collect lists of books I think my students may like to read, with the hope of engaging them in conversations — with me and with one another — around books. (A couple of years ago, Shana and I had students create book lists as part of their midterm.)

Here’s five of the book lists I’ve read lately. Maybe you will find them useful as you curate your classroom libraries and work to find the right books for the right students, so they can have the conversations that help them grow in the empathy and understanding we need in our future leaders, right or left.

6 YA Books that are Great for Adults

50 Books from the Past 50 Years Everyone Should Read at Least Once

The Bluford Series — Audiobooks

20 Books for Older Teen Reluctant Readers

43 Books to Read Before They are Movies

Oh, and if you haven’t read Lisa’s 10 Things Worth Sharing Right Now post in a while, now, that’s an awesome list!!

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, watch movies with her husband, and tickle her five grandchildren. She’s in the market for a lake house and likes to shop thrift stores for books and bargain furniture. Someday she’ll be disciplined enough to write a book about teaching. For now, she teaches senior English and AP Lang and Comp at her favorite high school in North TX. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass, and, please, go ahead and follow this blog.

Thinking Differently to Do More Thinking

I think most teachers would agree, no matter our content, our number one goal is to help students develop as critical thinkers. And in a world where technology rules much of their lives, impatience governs their actions, and emotions overcrowd the adolescent brain, this can be daunting.

We must keep trying.

Every day we see see headlines spouting fake news, and more and more we see headlines shouting “This news is fake.” We see sites on how to spot fake news, and analyze fake news. We have access to lessons on fake news — Google “lessons on fake news, and you’ll find 5,250,000 resources. We even see the hashtag #fakenews (a fabulous lesson on paradox btw).

A few months ago I read this article at Forbes. Then clicked through and read this one at BuzzFeed. I shared them with my students. We had an interesting discussion, but one comment left me thinking:  “So, basically, everyone’s making stuff up. How are we supposed to believe anything?”

If we are not helping our students find answers to this question, we are doing a disservice to our students — and by extension a disservice to ourselves. What kind of world will we grow old in if we do not help the students in our classrooms today, determine fact from fiction, identify bias, value diversity of thought, be open to new ideas, support their opinions, and seek to understand before passing judgment?

First, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and seek to understand other perspectives. (If you haven’t seen Outside Your Bubble, it’s an interesting starting place.)

Plato

Next, we must school ourselves on rhetoric. And then, we must weave it more overtly into all aspects of our instruction.

As English teachers, we have a prime opportunity:  let go of the nine weeks novel study where we focus on characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Bring in speeches and essays and news articles that invite discussion about the use of language. At the very least balance the study of both.

A few weeks ago a group of teachers from a neighboring district visited my classroom. They observed as my students and I read two blog posts about the Fearless Girl and the Raging Bull statues: Seriously, the guy has a point, and an opposing view, No, the Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn’t Have a Point. The discussion was rich. The thinking was richer.

At the end of the class, I chatted with these teachers. We talked about the routines in my workshop classroom, the book talks I conducted, the way I transitioned from one thing to the next. Then, the conversation turned to novels. One teacher asked how long I spend on novels. I don’t. I responded. My students read novels in book clubs where they facilitate the discussion. They talk of plot and themes and author’s craft. They bring meaning to the text, based on their experiences reading the books. (I am not opposed to novels. I am opposed to spending too much time on them.)

I hesitate to challenge anyone on what they do in their classrooms. I do not know their students. I do not know their routines or their motivations, the goals they hope to accomplish as they instruct their students, or the limitations put on them by mandated curriculum.

I do challenge the idea that studying a novel for “a long time” like this teacher told me, is a valuable use of the limited time we have with our students. Our students’ need to navigate the language of their world is too great to spend week after week with a book “they really like” that “I read to them.” We must put the focus on the needs of the reader and not the book.

What our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of texts. We need a focus on how language works to persuade and to manipulate and to cause outrage. Really, that’s our best, and maybe, our only hope.

As we go into summer (I’ve got three days left), I hope we will think about how we might shift our thinking about the needs of our learners. As we read by the pool, vacation with family, attend conferences and trainings, work our part-time jobs, I hope we will think about language and how it can either make or break the communication that is so vital to a society, a society that will thrive on diversity, respect individuality, and foster empathy and productivity.

Teacher friends, that is our job. And I think it’s our duty.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy keeps her focused on her own learning. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

8 Ways Listening Leads to Learning

not-listeningWe teachers often talk too much. Research on listening suggests that adults spend an average of 70% of their time engaged in some sort of communication; of this average, 45% is spent listening compared to 30% speaking, 16% reading and 9% writing. I would argue that this data does not represent teachers in the classroom. We tend to talk more than we listen.

I wonder how many of us have thought of teaching as communication.

Think about this definition of communication: “Two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants not only exchange information, news, and ideas and feelings but also create and share meaning. In general, communication is a means of connecting people or places.”

Now, think about how much richer our classroom environments could be if we planned, prepared, and presented our lessons through this lens of communication — with the goal of reaching mutual understanding, exchanging information, ideas and feelings, and creating and sharing meaning. To do so, we must listen more than we speak.

What about the time, we may ask, what about the content knowledge we must impart?

When we exchange our need to talk with our students’ vital need to have us listen, we

  1. transform our teaching by looking for ways to invite students into conversations
  2. better utilize the time we have with our students, meeting their needs in one-on-one and small group discussions
  3. deliver information in new ways, other than students listening to lectures or taking notes from slide presentations, or completing worksheets
  4. break down walls many adolescents have built against school and against authority — they know we see them as the unique individuals they are, and they respond
  5. provide opportunities for students to learn from one another so we may listen as they share with one another
  6. help students discover and take ownership of their needs, both personally and academically — talk often works as a lead into deeper thinking
  7. facilitate communication that leads students to take on the characteristics and behaviors of readers and writers — or in a biology class as scientists, or in a history class as historians.

Fostering room for more listening is the first move into creating a culture of conferring.

Does it make us vulnerable? Yes! and facing our vulnerability is where our growth as teachers takes root, taps into strategies that nurture our learners, and eventually blossoms into the instruction and learning experiences we want for all students.

How do you make room for listening in your classroom? Please share in the comments.

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.

Mini-lesson Monday: Student Writing as Our Mentors for Sentences

I read Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray this summer, and I finally understand the importance of using student writing as the main text in my writing class. While I’ve believed students can learn from

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

reading one another’s work, and I’ve often asked them to read and give feedback — on drafts and published pieces — I’ve never thought to actually use the text to teach a concept. I don’t know why. I supposed I’ve always relied on mentor texts by The Pros for that.

I am changing my tune. Here’s a bit of a lesson that worked better than I could have imagined.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will write about their lives, and share their writing. They will recognize a wide variety of sentence structures. They will identify patterns, devices, and/or figurative language and discuss its effectiveness in creating meaning. They will revise their writing, formulate their own sentences, and apply their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson: Project the image, and ask students to write in their writer’s notebooks one sentence that answers the question. Remind them about what they know about various sentence structures and how punctuation works within a sentence.

“We can pack a sentence with a lot of information if we punctuate it correctly. Pay attention and see how you do. You can write any sentence, but try to not write a simple one.”

Give students about five minutes to write.

Next, ask for a couple of volunteers who are willing to write their sentences on the board. Be sure they understand that there is no judgment.

“We just want to talk about sentences.”

While two or three students write their sentences on the board, ask the other students in the class to read their sentences to each other.

one sentence

One at a time, read the student sentences on the board. Ask:  “What do you notice?”

Ethan sentenceTalk through the various comments students make, noting parallels, punctuation, clauses, word choice, etc.

Watch for teaching points. Ethan’s sentence on the left gave us a lot to talk about:  parallelism, use of semi-colons, colons, …

Next, ask students to return to their notebooks. “How can you make your sentence better?”

Allow time for revision (and time permitting, more sharing.)

Why this lesson works, especially for a writing lesson at the beginning of the year:  It’s just a sentence!

And sometimes we get a bonus gift like this one my class got from Edward:Edward C sentence

“I am the guy who picks people up when I, myself, am down; I am the guy who cares so much over things so little; I am the missing piece to a puzzle that has been forgotten; I am now by a sad and quiet shell of my former self; I am Edward Campos.”

The class hushed. All eyes turned to Edward.

“Wow,” I said, “Thank you for sharing this writing today. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, and we value that.

“First of all, we need to know that you are okay. Will you explain a little more what you mean here?”

Edward explained that he used to be fun and outgoing. He felt strong and powerful. Then at the end of last year and over the summer he learned his friends weren’t really his friends so much. Now, he feels alone and like he’s not the person he used to be.

“Hey, everyone, how many of you have ever felt like Edward?

“Look around, my friend, do you see all those hands? Everyone here has been where you are. We understand. You have new friends here.”

Two girls at Edward’s table leaned forward and touched his arm. “We’ll be your friends,” they said smiling.

And he smiled back.

Of course, because I am me — and I never leave a teaching moment untapped — we talked about the structure of Edward’s sentence. And we talked about the word choice:  “Why ‘forgotten’ instead of ‘lost’?”

When we watch for teaching moments in student writing, we will find them. Every single time.

Follow up:  In class the next day we did some free-writing in our notebooks in response to the spoken word poem “Hands” by Sarah Kay. Before we wrote I reminded students to pay attention to their sentences. Then instead of sharing the whole of what we wrote with the class, we only shared our favorite sentence. I consider this valuable formative assessment.

Now, I will hold students accountable for crafting their sentences with care in their upcoming writing assignment.

“The words of the world want to make sentences,” said Gaston Bachelard. I say, “We have to help them.”

Please share your best tips on getting students to pay attention to their sentences.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

 

Talking about the First Day of School

I keep changing my mind. Students begin next Monday, and I cannot decide what we should do first.

In years past, I copied the syllabus and various other “need-to-knows,” and students sat with blank stares and asked a few meager questions as we read through them together.

“Let them know on day one how difficult AP English is,” a colleague advised me several years ago. “That’s what I do. I let them know what they are in for.”

Before I knew better, I thought that was a good idea. Be firm. Be serious. Let them know that an advanced English class would take a lot out of them. Leave ’em shaking in their Converse.

How dumb. Imagine attending a professional development session where the instructor put on this show. We’d laugh — or leave — wouldn’t we? (I would. My friends already know how difficult a time I have sitting still.)

Shouldn’t our first day of school be inviting?

Think about elementary school, how kind the teachers were, how much they wanted us to feel welcome and special, beginning on Day One. I remember Mrs. McBee (1st grade), Mrs. Nelson (2nd), Mrs. Smallwood (3rd), Miss Dallas (4th), Mrs. Holland (5th) — every one of them smiled and laughed and made me feel important on the first day of school. They set a precedent for every day to come.

I want to be that kind of warm.

One year I thought I had less chill. I prepared my room by piling high-interest books on each table, and after a brief introduction, I told students my plan to help them love reading. I explained my expectations for their reading lives. They chose a book and read for two minutes, chose another and read, chose another and read. They did this reading carousel for several rounds, and I asked them to choose their first independent reading book. They did. I thought Day One a success because 7/8 of students left with a book that day.

They also thought I was crazy. Distant. Cold. Unapproachable. They told me this much later.

I realized my mistake. If you look at that paragraph above, you’ll see it:  all those “I’s” and “they’s”. Everything my students did on the first day of school had to do with what I wanted for them. I did not invite them to think, to explore, to discover, to talk to me about how they learned, or how they need to be taught.

Shana refers to “the language of control prevalent in teaching narratives” in her post Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy.

I eat the language of control for breakfast, and rely on it for power all the way to dinner time. How dumb.

If I want my students to feel welcome, invited, inspired, to want to engage in the complex learning in our classroom, I must create the atmosphere and culture that welcomes, invites, inspires, and engages the moment they walk in the door. And I think it starts with conversation.

The first day of school — I think we are just going to talk. conversation bubbles various

We’ll probably read a poem, or two, and talk.

In the introduction to Dawn Potter’s new book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, she reminds us of the value of talk:

“[Conversation] combines so many different kinds of reactions — wonder, worry, curiosity, opinion, delight, memory — and all work to expand confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement.”

Isn’t that the kind of community we want for our students this year — one that builds and sustains confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement?

I do.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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