Tag Archives: workshop essentials

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

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Q & A: What are the essentials to making Readers-Writers Workshop work? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered

It can be overwhelming. We attend training sessions and conferences, read professional books and journal articles, search online and join Facebook groups, and try to figure out this thing called Readers-Writers Workshop. I did all of that for years. I still do. I suppose that’s one of the things I love best about this blog:  I get to share all my trial-and-error-years-of-learning-and-ongoing-ideas with all of you.

If I said I’ve got it all figured out, I’d be lying.

I think that’s the beauty of this model of instruction. While the routines might be the same: independent self-selected reading, quickwrites, craft study, time to talk and write, conferring… the texts we use to meet the needs of our students and the amount of time we spend on those routines vary, depending on the individuals learning with us in our classrooms.

So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this question:  What are the essentials to making readers-writers workshop work? and while my answer might be different tomorrow or next week, here’s what I think the essentials are today:

  • We have to build and nurture a community of readers and writers who identify as such and who respect one another’s right to explore, express, and develop in their literacy skills.
  • We have to believe that it’s more important to teach readers and writers, speaking to them as such, than it is to teach books — even if they are books we love.
  • We have to push back at standardized tests that crush authenticity in reading and writing tasks — and give our students choice. Lots of choice!
  • We must be confident in our skills as literacy teachers. We need to walk our talk and continually work to grow our expertise. If we don’t know YA books and other literature our students will want to read, we need to read more. If we don’t know how to teach writers, instead of assigning writing, we need to learn what writers do to craft meaning — and model those things for our students.
  • And perhaps more than anything, we have to dedicate the precious time we have with students to the things that help them grow confident in their own literacy skills. Time to think, read, write, talk, listen, and celebrate. Everyday!

There is no one way to do all this. However, if we’ll keep these essentials in our focus, we will find the one way that works for us — and for our students.

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen loves to learn. She reads a lot and writes a lot to figure things out. She loves her husband of 34 years and adores her kids and grandkids. Amy will be teaching senior English when school starts in just a few short days. Follow her @amyrass

Keeping it Simple: Setting Up a Writer’s Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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