Tag Archives: students

To the Woods: The Importance of Stopping to Reflect While on the Journey

In a recent twitter chat for AP Literature teachers hosted by Talks with Teachers Brian Sztabnik, he opened the chat with a prompt: identify a poem befitting of the weather conditions. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Too on the nose, my husband would say. Yet for me–given weather conditions and classroom conditions–it felt natural, not as a text to teach but as a text to prompt the kind of introspection I needed. As a teacher, I am at a stopping point, a midway point in the year where I gain new students (I teach on the block schedule). I have miles to go before I sleep (#Englishteacherlife). But before I try to fulfill those promises to my new students, I need to go to the dark places, to the woods of my mind. And stop. Stop moving from one thing to the next. My teacher life desperately needs this stillness. In the woods of my mind, I can truly reflect and determine how to keep moving forward on the miles ahead, discovering the ways I can uphold my responsibilities to my students and to myself.

As I paused, visiting my own woods, I reflected and wondered yet again: do my students have enough opportunities to go their dark places, their woods? I don’t mean social-emotional dark places. Instead, I mean the darkness and woods of their learning journey as writers where they must ponder thickets and brambles and branches–the very things that trip them and rip them up as writers. No, they don’t. As a teacher who regularly pushes students to reflect because of its impact on self-regulation skills, this year I’ve gotten buried under new content and new approaches. It seems I’ve let my commitment to reflection on not just product but also process get covered up by the deep snow of other stuff. Yes, my students reflected at the end of each essay, but what were my students missing by not pausing for more profound reflection in the midst of their journeys? What chances to directly impact their writing processes did I miss?

My students’ end-of-the-term portfolios, where they presented artifacts and reflected on their writing process journey, certainly carried me deeper into the woods–theirs and mine–and I learned about what we missed.

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These are the end-of-the-term reflection questions with which we asked students to engage.

Students not only narrated how their writing processes changed and what went well with their writing but also what could have gone better and what they would do differently if they could rewind and start over. Their reflections were lovely, dark, and deep. Here are a few samples.

Student A’s reflections: 

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Student B’s reflections:

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Student C’s reflections:Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 9.59.26 PM

As I re-read their end of Term 1 reflections and then later really paused to consider their Term 2 reflections, I recognized why I need to force those pauses in the midst of the journey more often. Yes, many of my students, like Student A, pondered their processes overall and showed improvement in self-regulation. But, Students B and C are far more indicative of missed visits to the woods. I could have mentored Student B more to take calculated risks throughout the process, and both Students B and C could have benefitted from more coaching regarding peer collaboration. There are, it seems, so many more opportunities for learning if I create the conditions for true pauses during the process. Sharon Pianko’s “Reflection: A Critical Component of the Composing Process” from 1979 (when researching the relationship between composing and reflection was new) speaks to this:

It is reflection which stimulates the growth of consciousness in students about the numerous mental and linguistic strategies they command and about the many lexical, syntactical, and organizational choices they make–many of which occur simultaneously–during the act of composing. The ability to reflect on what is being written seems to be the essence of the difference between the able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward.

I have a responsibility to help my students become “able” writers. And, now I’m all too full of eagerness to move, bells of expectation ringing, full of purpose toward that responsibility.

This term my colleague and I intend to schedule deep reflection time–true pauses to reflect on process not product–on a regular basis. We must prioritize this. Sure, at first, my new students might think it strange to stop. And to stop where we do. They might even think it’s a mistake. But I know better now. I’m inviting them to the woods, empowering them first to reflect and then to find their way onward, ably, through the snow.

For resources on reflection, check out two of my recent “go-to’s”:

Angela Stockman’s Blog Post “Ten Reflective Questions to Ask at the End of Class”: I appreciate question 7: it’s all about the journey. Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors: their checkpoint questions provide a systematic approach to the kind of reflection we’re after.


Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English (senior English) and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She doesn’t mind the snow, enjoys the woods, appreciates the poetry of Robert Frost, prizes reflection, and loves her students. Follow her @kajeschke.


Conferring with Students Proves Difficult to Implement, Even for the Most Determined

My professional goal this year centered on conferring with students about their reading and writing on a more regular basis and keeping track of those conversations in order to track progress, pose questions, and offer valuable feedback. Based on a tip offered by Kelly Gallagher at the NTCTELA conference (2017), I created a notebook with a 2-page spread for each student in order to record notes from these conversations.

RWNotebookOn the left-hand side, I pasted in a notebook card that students filled out on the first day of class with information about their favorite genre(s) of books, their favorite book, their least favorite book, one writing strength, and an aspect of their writing which they wanted to improve. Below this card, I kept a record of reading conferences with the student. Here, I not only kept a list of what books students read, but I also jotted down notes during our conversations about the text.

The best method I have found for finding out how much my students actually read, understand, or like specific texts is to talk to them about their reading and ask thought-provoking follow-up questions. By recording notes about these conversations, I am better able to tailor instruction for all students – based on common observations or questions – and recommend books for future reading that I think they’ll enjoy and that will match the level of rigor they require.

On the right-hand side of the notebook, I recorded essay scores as well as some feedback about what students need to work on in their writing such as: use of passive voice, crafting a strong thesis statement, and providing evidence to support assertions. This allows me to track student progress toward improvement of writing skills. For instance, I love it when I can record additional comments such as “she successfully wrote in the literary present tense this time” or “his poetry shows insight and creativity.”

Conference and feedback notes also allow me to see when a student fails to make progress. How many times do teachers write the same feedback on successive essays, and where is the student’s incentive to change that practice unless they are one of the rare few who are intrinsically motivated? When we speak one-on-one with students and note the recurrence of these habits, they are more likely to address them.

So – I had a plan. I implemented that plan. But things did not exactly go according to plan.

I encountered several difficulties that prevented me – and more importantly, my students – from reaping all the benefits that our discussions and resulting data collection could offer. Below, I have listed some of the problems I encountered, their causes, and the potential solutions I plan to try this semester:


Though these difficulties left me feeling extremely frustrated at times, I do still deeply believe in conferring with students. Our students need, desire, and deserve the individual attention and feedback that reading and writing conversations provide.

Please comment with suggestions about how you have successfully conferred with students and tracked important ideas from that discourse. Let’s help each other find new ways to build relationships with as students as they build confidence in their writing and a real love of reading that extends beyond our classrooms.


Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

The Best Gift You Can Give Your Students

A few weeks ago, when I sat down to confer with Asia, she told me that she bought me a Christmas gift. She was really excited about it. “I’ve never bought a teacher a gift before!”

She’s a senior in high school.


My scarf from Asia

I asked her why she’d never bought a teacher a gift before. She thought for a moment. “No teacher ever gave me respect automatically, like I deserved it.”

It breaks my heart that in twelve years of public education, this girl never felt that a teacher respected and cared about her.

“How did you know I respected you?” I asked her. A few other kids sitting with us answered this question too.

“You talk to us every day, like we’re adults, about our learning, and you really care what we say.”

We confer.

“You do all our assignments with us so we know they’re not busywork.” This from Shailyn.

I write beside them.

“You always expect us to know more than we do, and you don’t take BS excuses about why our work isn’t done,” Jocelyn said.

I have high expectations.

“You know exactly what your students are capable of,” Jocelyn further explained.

I know them, well, through frequent talk about their choice reading and writing.

“You just seem to really like me, and see me,” Asia finished.

A few days later, she eagerly presented her gift to me, and waited eagerly for me to open it.  It’s a lovely seasonal scarf much like the ones I always wear–a very thoughtful gift that, when I thought about her reason behind giving it and combined that with my pregnancy hormones, made me completely bawl.  I love it, because Asia gave me much more than just this scarf–she gave me proof that my teaching is important, if only just to her.

Readers and writers workshop is about more than just nurturing literacy skills–it’s about nurturing people, their thinking and creativity and confidence.  Conferring isn’t always about teaching into a standard–it’s often about just talking with another person about what’s in your mind, helping to flesh it out through talk before writing.  Writing beside your students isn’t just valuable because it’s modeling–it’s essential to creating a true community of learners committed to growing as readers and writers and thinkers.

This holiday season, give your students the best gift possible–respect, love, value, and the equal footing that comes with shared learning and the collaborative creation of knowledge.

The Value of Talk

Talk is one of the most powerful tools at work in my classroom.  Now, I’m talking about talknot discussion, sharing, peer editing, Socratic seminars, think-pair-share, or any other structured form of communication that might occur.  The simple act of letting our students just talk is invaluable, and we must create spaces in our curriculum for it to take place.  Here are three ways I encourage talk in my classroom.

Conferences – Reading and writing conferences aren’t just about assessment.  They’re also a valuable time for teachers and students to just talk to one another, getting to know each other as the humans that we are.  Creating a space for talk breaks down the teacher-student barrier, humanizes both parties, and by and large erases discipline problems in my classroom.  I begin every conference with a simple, “How are you today?”, and after genuinely listening for the child’s answer, direct the conference from there.  Some conferences, we don’t talk about books or writing–we just talk, because the student needs to.


Students chat during the ‘Book Bistro’

Book Clubs – Not every book club meeting requires structure or an agenda to be valuable.  During this most recent unit, I simply asked students to keep the conversation going for 20 straight minutes.  They sometimes had to cast about for topics, but they always found something to discuss–mostly their books, but often text-to-text/self/world connections they’d made, which spun off into generalized, real-life conversations between kids who wouldn’t ordinarily find themselves chatting.  After finishing book clubs, Ana wrote, “I loved our book clubs because I felt like I got to know everyone better.”  She wrote other things about how she grew as a reader and writer…but she LOVED the unit because of the TALK that happened.

Root of the Writing Process – My journalism students consistently talk out their ideas at the very beginning of the writing process.  They chat in groups, usually starting with, “so what should I write about?”  It takes a few minutes, but enlightenment inevitably follows–the other day, Shay threw a few silly ideas out for Kenleigh about bathroom graffiti, but then they got serious about that as a story idea.  “You could call your piece ‘Signs from the Stalls,'” Shay said.  “AHHHH, that’s a great idea!!” Kenleigh enthused.  What kids like to talk about is often what they’d like to write about, and they need to talk to get to the heart of those topic ideas.

Talk builds community.  Talk is the tool that made my former student Emily say, “I felt like by the end of the year, everyone in the class became my best friend, including you.”

How do you see talk improving your classroom and its community?  What spaces do you create for talk in your classes?

Making Workshop Work in my AP English Class

Our Compass Shifts 2-1It wasn’t as bad as I thought.

For those of you who read my post on Thursday where I bemoaned the weak essays my students produced on their most recent mock exam, you know what IT is. My students’ lack of application–the skills I’ve taught merged with their own deep thinking.

All in all, scores, compared to those in the fall, showed improvement, especially in multiple choice. I must celebrate that.

I know that year after year it’s the students who are readers who score well on the exam. The best readers are also the best writers. That’s not surprising.

What is surprising is the arrogance of many of my students, or maybe it’s not as much arrogance as naïveté. They think they know more than they do. They think their skills are sharper than they are.

I know this because they told me.

Friday morning, I began class with the opportunity for students to reflect on their performance on the mock exam. I put a large sheet of paper on each table and asked students to have a silent conversation with their table mates.

“Write what you feel you did well? And then respond to the writing of your peers.” I gave them about two minutes and then moved the papers among the tables and had students read and think and respond again.

Then I had them turn the papers over and write again. This time: “Write what you think you need to improve on. Remember to think about all the different parts of the exam.”

This is where I learned the most about my students. They wrote things like:

  • I need to manage my time better.
  • I need help with the synthesis question (or rhetorical analysis or persuasive).
  • I need help understanding the multiple choice questions.
  • I need help organizing my essays.

And on and on and on. They all know they need help with something. This is good.

But when I asked:  “Did any of you write ‘I need to become a better reader?'”

Silence. In both class periods. Not one of my 49 AP students thought to write “I need to be a better critical reader.”

Therein lies the problem.

Students misread the prompts, and on the synthesis, the sources, as often as they lacked organization in their essays. A lot.

The AP Language and Composition exam is as much a reading test as it is a writing one. I imagine the other AP exams are as much about reading as their contents, too. Students must be critical readers to do well.

So, how does this matter when it comes to my instruction?

Simple. If I want my students to keep improving,  I need to not only continue to get them to read MORE, I must keep teaching them how to read BETTER.

We’ll study short passages, looking for connotative meanings and nuances. We’ll discuss the function of this and the organization of that. We’ll slow down and discuss more.

I heard Kylene Beers say once, “The smartest person in the room is The Room.” I know I need to allow more time for class discussions where students can learn from one another.

I know I need to more effectively model how to think as we read. I learned from Cris Tovani to teach kids to keep the little man in their heads focused on the reading at hand. Too often students do not know that they have to train the little man before he will stay focused.

Tomorrow, we get out the training net.

Tomorrow, I change the balance up a bit. I revise my instruction yet again.

The constant reflection, the feedback, the changes — all parts that make readers/writers workshop in an AP class, or any other, work.

My Pained Word-nerd, Grammar-geek Soul Demands

Guest Post by Tess Mueggenborg

In a world plastered with poor writing, it is a struggle to convince students that learning to write well is a task worthy of time and energy.  Yet I persist, in this tedious and possibly futile pursuit, because I believe it is best for my students, and crucial to the intellectual sustenance of humanity.

 Grammar 5219037_45d05ab4ebMy students are, supposedly, the best and brightest of their generation.  Contrary to what some other teachers think, this doesn’t mean they’re easy to teach.  My classroom battles begin in much the same way as every other teacher: convincing my students that what I’m teaching them is worth learning.  But I have an added challenge: worse than just being apathetic, my students are often combative, and they have the brain cells to back up their resistance to my proffered educational nuggets.  In their daily life, my students are inundated with crappy writing…written by people who are getting along just fine in life.  By and large, their parents don’t know what a comma is…much less how to use it correctly.  Their peer-to-peer dialogue is a mashed-up mixture of text-speak, generation-specific slang, and Spanglish.  And with this hybrid cut-and-paste short-cut of a “language,” they feel that they are able to communicate quite effectively.  So why should they have to pay attention to my lessons on commas and dangling modifiers, homophones and varied syntax, and the difference between a semi-colon and a dash?  (I shudder to think of their protests if I tried to differentiate between an em-dash and an en-dash…oh, the horror! the horror!)  With a nod to pragmatism, I’m forced to concede: to a large extent, they’re right.  

Many of my fellow teachers don’t know comma rules (or don’t take the time to employ them), and they certainlychair message 481733_505529322815138_2005352416_n struggle with homophones (attention: IT’S means IT IS – it’s NOT a possessive pronoun.  Oh, sorry, you don’t know what a possessive pronoun means, so that tidbit doesn’t mean anything to you).  But they’re certainly not in any danger of losing their jobs for this, or being dinged on their annual reviews for imprecise use of language…since the administrator will probably comment to them: “You’re communication is excellent – your a great teacher!”.  When I see such errors committed, a little part of my soul cries in pain: not for the stupidity and ignorance of my coworkers, but because of the example they set for my students.  My students are right to question me and push back against my lessons on grammar and usage: if everyone else is living happily in the land of grammar ignorance, and are none the worse for it, why should they bother with the mundane nuances of the English language?

 My answer to my students’ queries of “why” is simple: because you can.  Because you have the brain cells to notice and understand what are, to many people, subtle or irrelevant differences.  Because you should try to be the best person you can be, and that includes communicating.  And if that means you have to learn some new things and you’re irritated every time you see grocery store sign advertising “Banana’s for sale,” so be it.  hp jr highimagesCAT0A6BA

 In spite of ever-mounting evidence that I have litttle chance for success, my job is to convince my students that they must learn to write well, and that writing well is a worthwhile pursuit…and I will continue in this likely futile endeavor, because it is what my pained word-nerd, grammar-geek soul demands of me.



“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School.  Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature.  The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg

The Reluctant Reader

I know it’s not a contest or anything, but I bet that when I began teaching language arts I had read fewer books of any kind than any other language arts teacher in the history of public education.  I never liked reading as a kid, but I can vividly remember the first time I took my students down to our antique, two-sizes-too small library to check out books.  With the signatures on my diploma still wet, I was excited to begin working with my students on all of the great teaching strategies that I had learned in college to improve their reading skills.

Once we got to the library the students mechanically slipped into a chair at one of the tables in the room to await further instructions.  Eagerly I explained that they could pick any book they wanted to read; they didn’t have to read something just because I told them they had to.  I guess I was thinking I would get a standing ovation from the students because I had just liberated them from the reading tyrants that had enslaved their whole educational career, making them read boring and uninteresting books.  I was surprised when I received a series of moans and rolling of the eyes as students unenthusiastically got up to select a book.

As the students aimlessly roamed around the library I began to realize that they didn’t know what book they should pick.  What’s worse is I realized I did not know what to encourage them to read.  I, a non-reader myself, was a fraud. How could I recommend books when I hadn’t read any? Well, I’d read maybe 8 in junior high that I could tell them were great, or at least not half bad, but that was almost ten years ago.  Would these students actually find those books interesting? Read More 

5 Ways Students Can Learn as They Blog

American writer, editor, and teacher William Zinsser taught that “writing, and learning, and thinking are the same process.” If this is true, then the not-so-easy task of the teacher is to get students to effectively put their thoughts into words on a page. One relatively simple way to get students engaged in the process is to help them take ownership of online writing; specifically, get students to create and maintain a blog, which will allow for what Zinsser calls the four basic premises of writing: “clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.”

5 Ways Students Can Learn as They Blog

    1. Write about topics that interest them.

      Allowing students to choose topics that have personal and meaningful applications to their lives provides opportunities for better writing. Still, some students will be stumped and say, “I can’t think of anything to write about.” Consider encouraging them to scan the front page of Yahoo, Google, or any other online news source. Read some headlines, which might lead to reading some articles. Respond to news they find interesting, shocking, or outrageous. (Look, you may have students reading AND writing!)

    1. Write in response to current events or videos that make them think.

      Posting links on a teacher or class blog and asking students to read and then respond on their own blogs allows teachers more control over the selection of topics that students write about than complete self-selection. Consider linking news articles like Kelly Gallagher’sArticle of the Week” and asking students to post their reflections, or post YouTube videos that have thematic ties to the literature being discussed in class. Students can write commentary or reflections as a way to show they are learning about life outside the classroom.

    1. Write in response to questions about literature.

      Asking questions that make students think and/or justify their thinking about the books they are reading creates instant “prompts” for student blogging. Open-ended questions like “How does this story relate to _____?” or “How would you deal with _______?” or “Describe another story that deals with the same conflict” lead students to make connections with the text that may help with their reading comprehension. Of course, by adding the “use text evidence to support your answer” component, students learn how to justify their responses and maybe embed quotes and all that good stuff.

    1. Write to show technology integration by using hyperlinks, tags, digital images, videos, etc.

      Encouraging students to add links, tags, images, etc. in their posts ensures that they are exploring what it means to embrace 21C writing skills. When students model authors’ blogs that effectively lead readers to more information, they show that they understand how knowledge is linked and perhaps they will come to understand that seeking knowledge takes effort.

    1. Write in response to peer posts and comments.

      Requiring students to interact with their peers’ online writing promotes a spirit of collaboration and community beyond the classroom. Teach respect in terms of language, but also allow for disagreement, as debate is what often makes for deeper learning.

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How are you teaching online writing? If you’ve got kids blogging, any success stories?

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