Tag Archives: Writers Workshop

Getting Uncomfortable and ‘Writing Beside Them’

When we were starting our Transcendentalist unit this year, we did a “nature walk” to try to get our students to experience some of the tenets of the concept. We were inspired by this teacher’s blog. My whole team took our students outside (and told online students to set a timer for about 15 minutes and sit outside as well). We left all electronics in the classroom and simply took in the nature outside of our school with all five of our senses. It wasn’t perfect since we were right by a traffic-filled main road and the students really wanted to talk instead of being quiet, but a lot of students got the hang of it by the end. One student reflected that they had not spent any quiet time outside to just take it in in years, if ever. Many were inspired to write like I am at the beach- more on that later.

The 2020-2021 school year has been one of tremendous growth for us all, whether we wanted to grow or not. I spent my year learning how to be even more flexible than ever before, becoming more clear on what is a priority and what can be left for later, and finding myself in a team leadership position when I was the only certified teacher present on my team for over two weeks. However, I do not feel I have grown in my teaching practice as much as I have in my character growth. For that reason, I am seeking situations to put myself in where I am uncomfortable to grow in that area; becoming a contributing writer on this blog is one of them. I am terrified!

Through my four years of teaching, I have mostly mastered the art of independent reading in class and using that to help students master/demonstrate mastery on most essential standards. I have become a pro at book talks and first chapter Fridays and reading conferences and recommending books. Now that I feel like I have my feet firmly planted underneath me with reading, it is time to become a better writing teacher. Writing is not usually a practice I partake in myself outside of school as I do reading. To be honest, it scares me! Will I have interesting things to say? Am I using a diverse enough vocabulary? Am I creative enough? I prefer my comfortable, familiar cocoon of reading, but I am forcing myself to Write Beside Them like Penny Kittle encourages. I will be re-reading that book over the summer as I make that the focus of my growth for the year.

Two people on the beach watching stars above the sea | Flickr

When thinking about improving the writing part of my teaching practice, I reflected on where I felt most inspired to write. Without a doubt, it is when I am in nature like my students above. My friends will tell you that I wax poetic and create all sorts of metaphors when we are at the beach. For example, there is nothing like staring up at a starry sky while laying in the cooling sand of the beach and hearing the salty water lapping up. The more you look up at the sky, the longer you take it all in, the more stars appear. It gets more beautiful, more bright the longer you take the time to look at it. That always stands as a metaphor for many things in life for me. When we slow down and just stay present, the more beauty we see. 

Taking both my experiences in nature and my students’ experiences, I have made a commitment to spend my summer outdoors with my notebook and pen in hand as much as possible to just be present and write as I feel led. How will you get uncomfortable this summer/next school year to grow?

Rebecca Riggs is a reluctant writer like many of her students, but she is working on it. She is in her 4th year of teaching at Klein Cain High School. She is looking forward to a summer of snoballs and walks at her favorite park. She is currently reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys and highly recommends it! You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs or on Instagram @riggsreaders


Poetic Rhetoric — Spoken Word Poems in AP Lang

For a long while now, I’ve wanted to write spoken word poems with my students.

I use Sarah Kay’s “Hands” at the beginning of the year to start students thinking about their lives and the important moments that shape them. We draw hands in our notebooks and fill them with words that represent our memories. Like many of you, I first did this myself with Penny Kittle, and now I draw a hand in every notebook as one of the first pieces I write in it.

I use Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day” and ask students to write a response to it. Sometimes they tell me things that break my heart. Like the fall on the first day of school when two different girls in two different classes wrote about the abuse they experienced from their fathers at home.

These and other poems students find interesting and inspiring, and while they’ve always worked as never-fail quick writes, I wanted to challenge students to use all the skills we’ve focused on this year to write their own poetry. My student teacher, Zach, and I finally figured out how.

And students wrote some powerful poems with some perfectly poetic language.

We called the assignment:  Poetic Rhetoric. what-matters-most-in-life-are-quotes-and-stuff-that-tell-you-what-life-is-really-about_motto

The initial task read like this:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digital.

Every day for a week we shared a different spoken word poem. Sometimes we wrote responses as a way to mine for our own ideas for topics. Sometimes we studied the lyrics, closely reading and analyzing structure, tone, and literary devices. We encouraged students to use the work of these poets as their mentors:  “Remember, we learn to write when we study good writing.”

We listened to “Paper People” by Harry Baker, and we talked about theme and sentences that hold the most weight, ones that might be his position statement.

We listened to “Education” by Aadil Malik, and we talked about evidence and examples that support the main idea.

We listened to “Touchscreen” by Marshall Davis Jones, and we talked about repetition, puns, and other literary devices that make language clever and meaningful.

We analyzed the structure of “To This Day,” and we talked about how Koyczan moves from self, to another, to another, to everyone as a way to finally get to his moving plea “to get a better mirror.”

Zach taught mini-lessons, reminding students how to use personification, puns, allusions, and fresh figurative language. We gave students time to write in class, and time to talk with one another, and time to talk with us about their process and their product.

We provided resources on how to write performance poetry like this and this and this.

And students wrote beautiful and meaningful arguments.

Most students performed their poems live in class. (I did allow for a teleprompter since I am the worst at memorizing myself.) We have a slam poetry night coming up on our campus in April. I hope many of my student will perform their poetry again there.

Here are the lyrics to some of the ones I personally enjoyed. I wish I had video of the performances. You’ll have to trust me — they were awesome.

Nefertiti Franklin:  WelcomeToStereotypesAA

Jennifer Melendez:  Find Your Charge, which includes an evaluation of her writing process

Kennedy Jenkins: Use Your Mind

Fabian Gutierrez: ADPoem

And here is an example of one of the poems published digitally. I love her language.

Jessica Ortiz:  People Love to Talk

Reminders to self for when I do this writing unit another year:

A. Take more time with topic selection. As with any writing, if students choose topics that are too broad, or they do not know enough about, the writing is harder to revise.

B. Meet with students more often. Conferring is essential to helping students find what they want to say. Too many students procrastinate and then think they can produce quality writing at the last minute. I must remember to confer at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the writing process. Schedule time for this.

C. Allow time for students to provide one another more targeted feedback. Although they met in small groups and talked about their writing, they did not use their time as effectively as they could have. If I will be more purposeful in modeling what a helpful feedback group looks like, students will be able to help one another more.

I love teaching students to write. I’m not sure there’s a better gift than reading their published work and seeing that they understand the power of their voices. Sometimes they blow my socks off with the force of their wisdom. I love it when they get it.

Have you used spoken word poetry in your writing class? How? What are your favorite poems?

Applying Essential Questions in Workshop by Cyndi Faircloth

guest post iconAfter almost twenty years of teaching, I’m starting to think I might be getting the hang of it. I’ve used essential questions over the past few years, but they weren’t producing the deep discussion and analysis that I’d hoped for. It wasn’t enough to use the EQ to help us approach whatever we were reading together. I needed to do more with it.

This past year, after reading “Text Dependent Questions” by Fisher and Frey, and What’s the Big Idea by Jim Burke, something clicked. Now, the EQ has driven pretty much everything in my planning –my selection of informative texts, some of the prompts for their Writer’s Notebook, even some of the vocabulary that I select. (Though I am also having a lot of success with student choice in vocabulary, thanks to a November post on 3TT!) Now, my students are leaving class and discussing the essential question and issues from our text in other classes. A colleague mentioned (complained?) last month that he had trouble starting his class, after students leaving my class were continuing our class discussion into his room.

They are struggling with real-world questions and topics and thinking about how they really want to approach them.

Here is what that looks like in my current English class:

Kite_runnerWe are reading The Kite Runner together. Our EQ has been “When is forgiveness important?” Their final assignment will be writing about their own answer to that question.

Along the way, we are reading news articles about Afghanistan, which include the idea of someone being wronged. Students respond to guiding questions (and generate their own questions) about the articles, and they struggle with those questions in their Writer’s notebooks. We’ve read about forgiveness from people betrayed by their families, by the government, and by strangers. [To find these, I used my subscriptions to the NY Times and Washington Post and searched “forgiveness” and “family”. Sadly, a wealth of resources came up…]

One really rich pair of stories I found for them to consider centers around the shootings in South Carolina in 2015. One article highlights the teenaged children of one of the victims having expressed forgiveness toward the shooter. The other is an opinion piece that says the children forgave too quickly because “the almost reflexive demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole.” The author points out that there has been no rush to forgive after any of the ISIL beheadings or 9/11. Students really dug into that idea and explored it.

In their Writer’s Notebooks, students have been responding to the idea of betrayal and forgiveness in a number of ways. They chose a quote from a list and responded to it. They reread parts of the book and considered how ‘betrayal’ or ‘forgiveness’ played a role (Thank you Fisher and Frey). They used words from their vocabulary list and wrote a poem about betrayal.

While they haven’t written their final products yet, I expect the students will have differing answers to the essential question. I believe that their writing will express the wrestling match they’ve had with the ideas. Thank goodness Burke’s book helped me see how I can use more aspects of my class to help students explore a “big idea”, and give them examples and smaller pieces of writing that they can draw from in writing an answer to the essential question. I believe my students are developing the skills to wrestle with the big questions that life has thrown (and will continue to throw) at them. They will look for more than one point-of-view, consider the source, and question the message so that they can form their own opinion based on more than something they read on Facebook.

Cyndi Faircloth teaches English, Social Studies, Art, and Journalism at Paradise Creek Regional High School in Moscow, Idaho. The school is small – with only two full-time teachers – so it’s easier to say that she teaches everything that isn’t math and science. As an interdisciplinary teacher, she works to incorporate writing in all of her classes and is learning to incorporate the writing workshop into her classes. Cyndi is a National Board Certified Teacher in English Language Arts – Adolescence and Young Adulthood.

#3TT Workshop: Assessing Writer’s Notebooks and Sparking Engagement

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Recently Three Teachers Talk received an inquiry regarding our use of Writer’s Notebooks.  Naturally, this question got us talking–what do notebooks look like between New Hampshire and Texas, Freshman English and AP Language and Composition?

We all agree that Writer’s Notebooks are one of the essential tools to a successful classroom, but integrating and sustaining them can prove challenging.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Amy seeks to explore some of the ins and outs of writer’s notebooks by discussing what we, as teachers, consciously choose to include in our students’ notebooks and what we decide to leave out.

Make sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the comments!

As the year progresses, how do you keep students engaged in their writer’s notebooks?  How do you help students to recognize their inherent value?

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.34.55 PMAmy:  Well, we do use our notebooks every day. Of course, this helps with keeping students invested in their use. This year I wish I had taken more time to have students decorate their notebooks, really take ownership of them. I love how Jackie setup collage stations and took the time for this with her students. Students care more about their notebooks when they have taken the time to personalize them.

My students also come to value their notebooks more during our conferences. For example, today I met with a student to talk about her reading life. I asked her how she felt she was progressing. She told me that she was stumped because “I keep abandoning books. I’ve started 10 this year, but I’ve only completed four.” I asked to see her Currently Reading List in her writer’s notebook. She did not have it updated. First, we took some time to write all her titles down, and then we marked ‘finished’ or ‘abandoned’ like I’d hoped she would do all along (my fault for not checking notebooks with more fidelity.) Once we had a complete list of the books this students had tried, I was able to talk her through why she might have needed to let them go. We zeroed in on the narrators. The books she has finished have unique narrators:  a dog, a voice in verse, an 11 year old boy, an autistic 16-year-old. We then talked about the narrators of the other books — all third person omniscient, which she did not know, so I taught her the term in a mini mini-lesson. Together we learned that when the narrator “goes off into some other character’s part of the story, I get confused.” This was a powerful learning experience for my student, and a great reminder to me. There is power in the IMG_0163writer’s notebook. It can be our primary teaching resource.

Jackie: Sustaining interest in writer’s notebooks throughout the year can be a difficult task; students must be invested in and committed to their notebooks to understand their full value.  I believe sustained investment comes with consistent use.  As Amy mentioned, the collages at the beginning of the year helped students connect to their notebooks.  Even now I have students adding to their collages or entirely recovering their notebooks.  

Using notebooks everyday also reinforces the value of these tools.  I talk about them constantly, conduct notebook checks throughout the year, and ask to see them during reading conferences.  I display example pages in a giant writer’s notebook, and I typically ask students to write their drafts by hand.

How (and how often) do you assess writer’s notebooks?

Jackie: Writer’s Notebooks provide a safe space for play within the writing process.  To become confident and secure writers, students must have a low stakes area to both visualize and enjoy the process of putting pencil to paper.  That being said, notebooks are also valuable because they provide me with insight into a student’s thought process, progress, and personal exploration.  


Students’ notebook pages are displayed in a giant writer’s notebook.

My grading process is relatively simple.  I keep a list of notebook contents on a board in my classroom, adding to the board every day.  Notebook checks take place every two-to-three weeks depend on the class content and units.  A week before we have a notebook check, I provide students with a checklist, with which they self-grade and return upon notebook submission.  On notebook check day, students use mini-sticky notes to mark two pages, one page they want me to respond to, and another page they want to display for their peers in our class’ giant writer’s notebook.  This process reinforces that students are writing for a wider audience than myself, while also embracing the messiness and imperfection that comes with writing.  I value the scribbled drafts full of doodles for the sole reason that they model the realness of writing, the fact that these pieces, while fun and entertaining still require molding and modeling to become a polished final piece.

While my grading is low stakes, I file writer’s notebooks under summative assessments for a few different reasons: it helps me assess student’s executive functioning skills, which is particularly important for my freshmen and struggling learners.  In my school, it allows students to “retake” the assessment, requiring them to revisit, revise, and refashion.  The more they return to the contents of their notebook and develop its structure, the more invested they become in the final product.  Finally, notebooks align with the common core, which is essential in my competency-based grading school.  They help “students develop and strengthen writing” (W.9-10.5), “write routinely over extended…and shorter time frames” (W.9-10.10), and “determine the meaning of words and phrases [in their dictionary section]” (RL.9-10.4).

Amy:  I’ve tried scoring the whole of the notebook. I even have a glue in for how I would if I did. I am not disciplined enough. I find short chunks much easier to manage, and I can zip around the room and look at everyone’s personal dictionary to see if it is up-to-date in the first 15 minutes of class while students are reading. Or I can collect notebooks and look at just the skill we practiced that day. These always equate to completion grades. Sometimes I’ll pass out sticky notes and ask students to mark whatever writing they’d like me to read. I learn important information about my students this way. When students share their hearts with me, I value it in a way that is so much more important than a grade. How would I ever grade that anyway?

How do you keep your students excited about their writer’s notebooks throughout the year?  How do you assess notebooks without stifling creativity?


#3TT Workshop: The Ins and Outs of Writer’s Notebooks

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Recently Three Teachers Talk received an inquiry regarding our use of Writer’s Notebooks.  Naturally, this question got us talking–what do notebooks look like between New Hampshire and Texas, Freshman English and AP Language and Composition?

We all agree that writer’s notebooks are one of the essential tools to a successful classroom, but integrating and sustaining them can prove challenging.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Amy seeks to explore some of the ins and outs of writer’s notebooks by discussing what we, as teachers, consciously choose to include in our students’ notebooks and what we decide to leave out.

Please join the conversation in the comments and check back for the second installment tomorrow!

Why are writer’s notebooks important in your classroom?  What value do they hold?

IMG_1485Jackie: Notebooks are the lifeblood of my writing curriculum.  My students need a safe space to practice low stakes writing.  Too often they’ve been forced to write formally, slogging through rough and final drafts of disconnected, five-paragraph essays.  The formality of it all removes the artistry, pleasure, and process of writing.  

I enjoy the controlled messiness of notebooks and the voices I rarely heard as a first year teacher.  Honestly, writing brings me closer to my students.  It connects my classes, makes students recognize their peers are indeed human, and at the end of the day, gives many of my kids, as Ralph Fletcher says, “A room of [their] own.”

Amy:  I am all about organization. Often, my students have a difficult time keeping up with everything they need to practice, track, monitor, and evaluate their reading and writing lives. Our writer’s notebooks make all of this easier. The value of a daily writer’s notebook rises with each use of it.

How do you integrate writer’s notebooks into your classroom? How are they set up?

Jackie: We start using our Writer’s Notebooks the second day of school, when I help students establish the various sections in their composition books.  

My sections, which are all pulled from Linda Rief’s Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook, include the following: 1. Books Read (a log of the books they read throughout the year), 2. Inspiration Page (where students keep story ideas, photos, images, etc), 3. Graffiti Wall (For beautifully crafted sentences from their independent reading or inspiring quotes), 4. Notes and Entries (the bulk of the notebook), 5. Wondrous Words Dictionary (where they keep their vocabulary from their independent reading), and 6. Books to Read (a list of books they want to read).  

Our notebooks are our single most important tool within the classroom, which means that this is where we store all of our quick writes, writing, rough drafts, notes, minilessons, mentor texts, and thinking.  

When we aren’t writing in class, students independently write three pages outside of class per week.  This independent writing allows them to develop quick writes, explore various writing prompts, or jot down potential ideas.  As author Janet Burroway says, “The best place for permission is a private place, and for that reason a writer’s journal is an essential, likely to be the source of originality, ideas, experimentation, and growth.”  The act of writing helps students not only develop their voice, but it also serves as a safe space to explore various writing styles.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.33.19 PM (1)Amy:  My students and I set up notebooks with similarities to Jackie’s. Ours look like this:  We’ve got our main reading goal written right smack dab on the front page. Then we’ve got the “currently reading list” on the next. We’ve got a “to read next list” on the very back page, so as I do book talks — or students talk about books with each other, they are able to keep a running list of titles that sound interesting. (This is a time saver in helping students who just finished a book find another one to read relatively quickly.) In the very middle of our notebooks, we’ve got our “personal dictionaries.” These are the words students find and define from their independent reading (five words a week). We also have a poetry section where we respond to poetry, or glue in poems and write around them. There’s a “write my life” section where students write an entry a week about anything they please. And we have a “reader’s response” section that we write our thinking about our books, articles, etc — pretty much any other kind of text other than poems.

I did something new this year and created notebook glue-ins. I thought this would be helpful to remind students of what went where and the expectations for learning and growth I have for each section. Honestly, I do a poor job of checking notebooks with any kind of regularity — although I do check parts of them at least every other week — so I don’t know if the glue-ins are valuable yet or not.

Jackie: I agree about the glue-ins, Amy.  While I haven’t gone that far, I have students trim down mentor examples, checklists, and typed rough drafts and tape them into their notebooks.  It keeps them better organized and makes it easy to return to previous craft lessons.

Why do you value writer’s notebooks, and how do you integrate them into your classrooms?  What successes have you had with your notebooks this year? What challenges might you still face?  

Sharing Student Work — Making a Pledge to Do More

For some time now I’ve thought I needed to do more. I ask my students to write a lot. I ask them to take ownership of their process, practice their craft, take risks. I hope they will care about their audience, but unless it’s a post on their blogs (and sometimes even then) I don’t think they consider much about their readers.

My colleagues here at Three Teachers Talk and I had the idea a few years ago to publish student work on this site regularly. We planned it all out. We’d hope for student volunteers that might want to produce something like a mini-Nerdy Book Club but with student readers and student writers. Then I did a little research:

I found sites like Young Writers SocietyTeen Ink, Figment, Teen Lit, and of course, NaNoWriMo that publish the work of young writers and allow them to join online writing communities and learn about competitions, awards, scholarship, and more. This list of 40 of the Best Sites for Young Writers has even more resources.

I still want to do more, but what I need to do is introduce my writers to site like these and extend the invitation that they explore, discover, and get involved. I know a few will. Maybe many will.

In the meantime, here’s a sampling of the writing I’ve read this week. Not because I like the topic — it horrifies me on many levels — but because this writer shows heart, I want to share her work.  Read it. You’ll see why I know I need to do more to help my students write for audiences that will appreciate their craft.

Bruised-Knees by Alexia Alexander

It was a breaking point.

By the time my spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl, my face was wet with tears. I was sick, in part from eating, and in part from everything else. I had to cry quietly; I suffered silently in order to avoid questions, sometimes, even hidden behind smiles and laughter. The chocolate and caramel ice cream weighed my stomach down. I felt 200 lbs of milk, sugar, grief, loneliness, depression, cocoa, corn syrup, and artificial flavors. My entire 500 caloric intake itched in my throat. I felt heavy now. I felt worthless now. I felt defeated now. I ran as quickly up the stairs as I could, but voices, almost as loud as the screaming downstairs, followed me.

Why’d you eat that ice cream? You’ve already had enough. You’re just going to GAIN weight if you eat something like that. You can’t you even starve yourself right,” I told myself.

Staying up late reading about it, I prepared myself for chaos. Although I laid under two blankets and behind a locked door, I found little comfort. In fact, I hadn’t even kept the monsters out; they began to creep inside of my head. I spent the nights crying, reading pro-anamia blogs, drowning my ears out in Maria Mena, and looking up the most fabulous ways to destroy myself, self-esteem first.

Now getting a chance to test my research, I rushed to the bathroom, still crying. I looked at myself in the mirror; I cried even more. I was sobbing and choking, sounding like that one kid in elementary that always forgot his inhaler on mile-day. I dropped to my knees, as if I were about to pray, but I couldn’t remember what people were supposed to say to a divinity.I gripped the sides of bleach-white seats, as if my faith would be found there, and hung over the porcelain throne, like a sea-sick passenger. The bathroom became dizzy in my eyes, and the pink walls were a blur mixed in the leopard print bathroom curtain. The white tiles painted my knees black and blue and staring at them made the wave of sickness more intense. In the reflection of the toilet-bowl-water, I even looked green and sickly, but I can’t say my self-perception was quite accurate in those days.

I had screenshotted instructions on my cracked iPod screen on how to do it. I looked up everything. I needed all the how-to’s before I went through with anything. I knew I could use a toothbrush or two fingers. I knew I could make markers in my stomach. I knew how many seconds it would take. I knew that it would sting. I knew the long-term damage the acid could do to my teeth. I knew how deadly it was. I knew how sick I was.

But I continued, another event to add to my list of “First-Times.”

Slowly shoving a finger in between my lips, I danced it around trying to find the spot. I felt the tickling as I touched the dangling piece of skin. I added a finger, this time gagging slightly, but knowing no matter hard I cried, I couldn’t take my hand out. I gagged again,  bringing up the bile taste in my throat. I couldn’t choke. I had to keep going. I gagged another time, body split over the toilet as I heaved.

I had found the food that comes up almost as easily as it goes down. The ice cream coated my throat, for a second time, and it still felt cold. It masked the normal taste of vomit, gladly, and I finally felt lighter;I equated that to feeling better and didn’t think twice about why I was still crying.

Maybe you can be lovely now. See, you’re already feeling better,”  said the demons in my head, who told me things like this frequently. I tried to ignore them, but sometimes my own silent voice felt like a scream between my ears. I cried myself to sleep that night, still trying to convince myself I had done well.

I wish I had known then what I really was trying to rid myself of. I wish somewhere on that ground I really had some holy revelation, but wisdom like self-love and perseverance can only be taught from low moments like those. It took years to find what really weighed me down, more than food or fat. It took years to love myself and my body. It took years to get over the urge to skip a meal, and the shame after eating. It took years to face the demons and shut them up. But each moment that buckled me to my knees gave me strength, and brought me closer to where I am now. Moments I’d rather forget, have to remain real, so  I always remember my growth, and never repeat the past.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Mini-Lesson Monday: This lesson stinks, literally.  Teaching Sensory Details in Narrative Writing.

FullSizeRender-1I, like many of my students, am a kinesthetic learner.  Not only do I learn by doing, but for many tasks, I require a hands-on approach to fully grasp the complexity of a concept.  Yet as a teacher, applying kinesthetic techniques to English concepts can be somewhat challenging.  While we write and read and physically play with words, I try to create simulations and activities that allow my students to experiment with writing in unique ways.  This activity, which is one of my favorites of the year, uses students’ olfactory sense to stimulate sensory detail writing within their personal narratives.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will identify personal memories associated with unidentified scents.  Recalling prior and newly acquired knowledge, they will translate their observations into descriptive writing by constructing sentences that rely on sensory details.  Finally, students will apply their understanding of descriptive writing to their own personal narratives.

Lesson:  This mini-lesson takes preparation, but students’ responses are worth the extra time.  First, collect the following supplies: Plastic cups (I use blue Solo cups), a permanent marker, tinfoil, a toothpick, rubber bands (optional), and a variety of objects that have a scent.  This year I used lime juice, perfume, scented wax blocks from Walmart, BBQ sauce, apple cider vinegar, garlic, mint extract, crayons, and Play-Doh.  Every year is different though and I typically rely on what I have around my home.

I put the scented sauces, liquids, and objects in each of the cups, cover the cups with tin-foil, and wrap a rubber band around the top to secure the foil.  I label each cup with a number and poke holes in the tin-foil with a toothpick.  Next I place the cups around the room. After taking some notes on the concept of “show don’t tell,” students walk around the room smelling the contents of each cup.  They must not peek (believe me they will try)!


My students were convinced I had a tiny Abercrombie and Fitch model in this cup. In reality, it was a block of scented wax from Walmart.

I provide each student with a grid in which they fill in the cup number, adjectives to describe the scent, and personal memories the scent conjures.  They must then write a two-to-three-line story or scenario in which they describe the scent without identifying what the scent is.  By the end of the activity, when we come back together as a group, students excitedly volunteer to read their sentences in order to reveal the contents of the cup.

Follow Up:  Following this activity, we identify sensory details within our independent reading books and take turns discussing these details within our groups.  Finally, during workshop time, students add sensory details to their personal narrative rough drafts, in turn “showing” images rather than “telling” them.  The process of digging into their narratives and writing in the margins reinforces the messy, step-by-step process of revision that many of my students struggle to grasp.  If time allows, students partake in a whip share in which we each share one line from our narratives that includes sensory details.

What are some untraditional writing activities you use? How do you get your students moving around the classroom?

Cliché College Essays and Why I Hate the “Three Ds”

IMG_0040On the Monday their essay was due, I handed out a rubric. “I cannot and will not grade you on this essay,” I said to my AP Literature class.

In all honesty, I don’t care what they get for a grade on this piece. After days, weeks, and months of toil, a number cannot and will not determine the actual value of this paper: the college essay.

I have a love-hate relationship with the college essay. I love that students have the opportunity to express themselves through writing and that they are encouraged to provide personal stories. I especially love the emphasis on creativity that draws them away from the rigidity and structure of standardized tests and check-box-surveys. What I hate is the overwhelming weight that accompanies telling “your story,” the crowning piece of one’s 17 years of life.

My first year of teaching, I fretted over college essay advice. I told students to steer clear of the three Ds—death, disease, and divorce—and to instead explore a wider variety of ideas that included mundane moments. I wanted them to beware the standard cliché essays of human suffering.

What I found was in restricting these three topics, I also restricted the very stories that shaped these students’ identities. After all, our students are still teenagers; they have many more stories to live and we mustn’t undermine those stories of death, disease, and divorce that have framed their present reality.

Sarah’s essay on her father’s death and her inability to hold his hand during his last moments tears at my heart every time I read it, and I have been working with Sarah on this piece for a year. She writes:

It is nearly two years after my father has passed, and my inability to hold my father’s hand on his deathbed still haunts my dreams and consumes my thoughts. I am sixteen years old, I have done regretful things in my life, but the singular moment I regret most in my life is not holding my dad’s hand during the one time he needed it to be held by me.

Sammie’s poetic piece on coping with her best friend’s severe eating disorder and eventual hospitalization and rehabilitation has a place in Sammie’s college folder. Maddie’s experience meeting her mother’s boyfriend for the first time after the shock of her parents’ divorce belongs filed alongside her SAT scores.

Instead of limiting their stories or categorizing them as cliche, we, as teachers, must help our students explore these experiences through expert narration and craft. After all, doesn’t the beauty in literature rest in its familiarity? Its common story? Its trumpeting of empathy, underdogs, and resilience?

How do you approach college essays, and how do you help students who are struggling with essay topics?

Studying Vocabulary Through Choice Reading

IMG_2886“Reading increases one’s vocabulary,” I tell incoming freshmen every fall. But up until now, I have had little evidence to support this claim. It is true that reading exposes students to new words, but I never went out of my way to help students sort through these new words.

Instead, as a junior English teacher, I regularly taught SAT vocabulary as part of my Advanced Composition curriculum. Students completed chapters from the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop books and took quizzes every other week. While some students relished the challenge, many saw little relevance to their own lives, retaining few words by the end of the year.

In turn, this year I have turned from my well-worn Sadlier Oxford books and have instead had students reference their independent reading books for new words. Students develop their own lists of eight words every other week. My goal in doing this is not only to have students slow down their reading, but to also expose them to diction and complexity within their independent books. Once again, like many of the mini-lessons within the workshop classroom, this practice also turns into a lesson on craft and intention within a writer’s work.

Too often students skim over large words, failing to activate context clues and prior knowledge to help them draw out meaning. By creating vocabulary lists, students must practice these skills while also recording definitions, synonyms, passages, and parts of speech.

The benefit is twofold: students have a say in their vocabulary and immediately see both the relevance and payoff of understanding a new word. At the same time, having independent vocabulary lists eliminates cheating and encourages independence. Instead of worrying about students’ wandering eyes during quizzes, I spend time helping students understand the words they have picked. In addition, independent vocabulary lists provide insight into students’ reading levels and comprehension. I have learned more about my students’ reading lives simply by becoming aware of the words they find challenging.

Every other week, students complete a summative assessment that helps gauge their understanding of their eight vocabulary words. Two weeks ago I had students complete “Rock and Roll Vocabulary,” an activity that requires students to roll dice and answer questions about their vocabulary corresponding to specific numbers. This week students will complete a grid about various words.

While I am still new to this vocabulary approach, I feel confident in my students’ choices. Oftentimes I have seen the typical “SAT words” pop up in multiple lists, reinforcing that students will indeed choose challenging vocabulary. The process is far from perfect, and my students and I are still ironing out some of the flaws. Some students intentionally pick easy words, but the next assessment will require them to rank the difficulty of their words. In addition, I allow retakes of vocabulary summative assessments considering students made a “good faith effort” according to our school’s retake policy. Finally, not all independent books offer complex language, which can be a struggle for students who love the content yet can’t seem to find their eight or so words. In those instances, students may pull from in-class readings, articles, and textbooks. If they still struggle, I have books of SAT vocabulary they may choose from instead.

While this method of teaching is somewhat nontraditional, it provides students with continued say in their education. Not only are they empowered by their newfound words, but also by the end, I hope my students will see that reading truly does increase one’s vocabulary.

Mini-lesson Monday: Exploring a Page’s White Space in the Writer’s Workshop

PrintCircling the room, I hand out books in preparation for book speed dating. I place Ellen Hopkins’ Crank on a student’s desk.

“There’s no way I’m reading this,” she mutters to her friend. “This thing is huge.”

“Open it up.” I turn towards her, waiting for her to crack the book. She flips to a page and realizes the entire book is in verse. She flips again and again, every page has a minimalist feel, the text spread out, placing emphasis on each word within the sea of white. The sheer length of the book disappears and she is sucked into Hopkins’ narrative.

The more time I spend with teenagers, the more I value the use of that essential “white space.” I love book talking Patricia McCormick’s Sold or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; despite their complex and emotional content, the books are instantly more accessible simply because of their unique structure.

This is why when we discuss paragraph breaks in writing and aesthetics and structure in reading, we also discuss the glory of giving the reader’s eye a break.

Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize the use of white space within a piece of writing. They will make observations about the author’s use of this tactic, assessing the writer’s effectiveness in employing the use of white space. Finally, use choice reading and whole class examples as mentor texts, they will practice using white space within their own writing by formulating paragraphs at various lengths, revising these paragraphs through peer conferencing, and applying this craft in future writing assignments.

Lesson: Divide students into groups of three or four and have them open up their independent reading books to any page. Ask them to brainstorm what they see based on the page—tell them not to look at content, but instead the structure of the page—the text, paragraph breaks, and length. Have them compare their pages to each other, noting the similarities and differences. Once they have completed this, bring them back together into a whole class discussion. While they discuss their observations, compile a list on the board of what they noticed.

I love to breathe life into authors and remind students that a writer consciously makes decisions on the craft of their pieces. In turn, I have them to return to the structure of their page, focusing mostly on the line breaks, white space, and the spacing and formatting of the text in general. They reflect on this in their writer’s notebook, asking themselves: why do you think the author made this decision? What did they want the reader to think and/or experience?

IMG_2906Following their reflection, we return to discuss their individual pages as a class. Students volunteer to share why their author might have made the stylistic or structural decisions they did, which in turn, inspires other students to reflect further on their own page choices.

We discuss “one sentence paragraphs” and how they stand out surrounded by the white space of heavier paragraphs. They explore how white space can frame longer paragraphs and why exactly writers might use longer paragraphs to convey their point or tell a denser story. We notice how the white space of line breaks can show the passing of time and why it is important for readers to visually have a moment to internalize this time lapse. And finally, as readers, we share how we respond to cramped passages versus double spaced books.

The process of using choice books paired with class discussion helps students recognize the value of their role as a reader as well as how they can utilize these methods within their own writing.

Following our discussion, I take a few minutes to reinforce the points we’ve made either on the white board or through a prepared PowerPoint. These slides provide visual examples from books I am currently reading as well as some tips for applying this knowledge to our own writing.

Follow-Up: At the beginning of the year, students complete a snapshot narrative followed by a longer personal narrative. Using the mentor examples as well as the examples from our choice reading, we look at how we can integrate white space into our own pieces either through line breaks, diverse paragraph lengths, or one-sentence paragraphs. Based on this mini-lesson, they can also trade narratives and provide peer feedback to one another.

What are some mini-lessons you use to help students analyzing the structure of books? How do you help them integrate these observations into their own writing?

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