Tag Archives: Writers Workshop

Window Shopping and Writer’s Notebooks

IMG_2848While thumbing through a Pottery Barn catalog, I paused to appreciate a navy gallery wall. Inky prints, gold frames, and brass hardware framed an assortment of images, below them designer Ken Fulk wrote, “When creating a gallery wall, I like layering different objects…paintings and photographs together; it tells a wonderful story.” I looked at the images, trying to decipher the story these antlers, ivory boats, dogs, and pencil sketches communicated. To be honest, I have no idea what he was going for, but I ripped out the page anyway, taped it into my writer’s notebook and started writing around it: “What story would our own gallery walls tell?” “What is your story?”

These are the questions I want my students to answer, and bit-by-bit their stories unravel. But all too often the process of answering these questions through writing intimidates them. In turn, one of the first activities we did this year to establish classroom culture involved designing and decorating our writer’s notebook covers. In the past I had students create inspiration page collages on the inside of their notebooks, but these were hidden and personal. They didn’t distinguish one’s self or serve as a conversational piece between peers. These images, which could serve as gallery walls for my students, were tucked away.

Student notebooks ready for writing.

Student notebooks ready for writing.

In turn, this year I stocked my classroom with scrapbook paper, patterned tape, and stickers. I lined tables with butcher paper and allowed for the messy process of gluing and cutting and painting. Together, my class sat listening to music and chatting about TV shows, cars, sports, summer vacations, and the scary transition between middle and high school. While this artistry and expression is typically celebrated at the elementary level, I encounter few secondary teachers who value setting aside class time for these collages. Some of my colleagues use it as a homework assignment, but I love how blocking out one class period and allowing for exploration becomes an icebreaker in and of itself. After all, these interactions mirror the same writing process students will engage in as they begin filling their notebooks and sharing the stories of their images.

Today we’ll circle around the classroom, sharing our notebooks with each other and highlighting one meaningful aspect of our covers. This activity is low stakes and comfortable; they have a choice in how much or how little information they provide. Hopefully they’ll find that these collages are snapshots in time of who

we are, reminders of what we value, and visual hopes for who we’ll become. I know this because as we sit in a circle, I will share, for the first time, the cover I created in 8th grade when I was caught between childhood and adulthood, the cover from 11th grade when I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and the cover from my junior year of college when I left on a great adventure to study abroad in Ireland. In the end, we’ll take a great leap forward in beginning our process of sharing who we are through words and images.

My notebook covers through the ages: 8th grade (far left), 11th grade (middle), junior year of college (far right).

My notebook covers through the ages. 8th grade (far left), 11th grade (middle), junior year of college (far right).

I’m Teaching Writing to the Whole 5th Grade — Now What?!

I received this note in a Facebook message:  I had big changes in my classroom assignment this year… moved from 2nd grade to 5th… turns out… after getting there I got the assignment of teaching writing to the entire 5th grade…. not what I really signed up for…. I have not only NEVER formally taught writing (as a process) beyond complete sentences… and moving toward paragraphs…. but I never even had a class in in it in college….. any suggestions on where to start and where to go with it? I will have 4 units of 12 days each during the year with each of the 5th grade classes….. suggestions?

Say you had to analyze the tone, what adjective would you use? concerned? riled? desperate? beseeching?

Let’s look at the clues:  “big changes,” “turns out,” “entire,” “not what I really signed up for,” “NEVER,” and all those “…..”

I could write an entire post on why the kind of changes this teacher has had thrust upon her is so disrespectful to her as an educator, as a professional. But I won’t. I just needed to say that.

Of course, I answered, and I will offer support and help any way I can. You would, too.

Maybe others have similar experiences and are new at teaching writing. Here’s how I answered my friend:

Yes, I have suggestions! Haha. Tons of them. You know I teach AP Language and Composition, right? Just writeThat’s juniors in high school, but good writing is good writing. Your instruction with your 5th graders can look very similar to mine. (And I hope it will.)

Here’s the non-negotiables in my writing class:

Writer’s notebooks. I use the black composition notebooks. Students cover them, personalize them, and make them mean something other than just a notebook for school. We write in them every day as a way to explore our thinking. I might give a prompt, or read a poem, or watch a news clip…whatever, and then I ask students to think and respond. These quickwrites become places to mine for ideas for topics we might develop into more formal pieces. Writer’s notebooks are required and loved in writing classes where students have choice and autonomy, two important components of effective writing instruction.

Mentor Texts. Mentors are texts that look like the writing I want students to practice. For example, if we are writing narrative, I want students to read good narrative writing. If we are writing book reviews, we need to study the structure of book reviews, etc. The authors of these mentors become our “writing coaches.” We study the moves the writers make, and then we try to make those moves in our own writing. Students learn from good models. They do not learn from poor, fix-the-grammar-and-punctuation worksheets or anything of that ilk. Research on that is plentiful.

Choice. When students have choice in the topics they write about, they are more apt to take ownership and care about their writing. Just like you and me — we do not want told what books we have to read, TV shows we have to watch, or essays we must write that show we learned something from pd. Topics matter so much to the effort students will put into their writing. We have to let students choose what they want to spend their time focusing on. Sometimes we need to nudge them. Sometimes we need to help them narrow the topic. But they need to always have a choice if we want to really teach them anything about writing. Save the formal test-like prompts for practice after students learn how to mine for ideas and develop those ideas in writing they want to do. Test writing can serve as a genre in itself later.

Time. Schedule time within the school day for kids to write. Let them know you are there to help. When they write with us, 1) we know they are writing and not a friend or parent, 2) we see their process and know where the struggles are.

Conferences. Meet with writers throughout the writing process, beginning, middle, and end. Ask questions that provoke their thinking. Let them talk about their ideas. Avoid giving advice, rather validate the students’ ideas and speak to them as writers. (Focus on the writer and his needs over the writing and what it needs — avoid the red pen at all costs.)

Modeling. Write in front of your students. This is probably the most effective instructional tool you have. Students need to see the messiness of the writing process. They need to know it is hard — even for a teacher. I try to write every assignment I ask my students to write. I start writing in front of them and let them see my thinking, my errors, my revision, my re-organization, all of it. Too many student writers think they should be able to write well in a one shot in the dark deal. That’s why they refuse to revise. We have to show them that writing is difficult and confusing and time consuming. We have to give them opportunities to see the struggle, so we can convince them that the work is worth it when we’ve finally been able to say what we want and need to say in our writing.

Talking. “Writing floats on a sea of talk,” I heard Penny Kittle say. Talk with students about their ideas, their process, their everything concerning writing. Encourage them to talk with one another. Talk and Write. Read and Talk and Write. Talking works to stimulate thinking and provoke the pen to action.

Celebrating. Feedback matters, even at the sentence level. Invite students to share their writing. This can be a sentence or a complete piece. Celebrating good writing along the way is a more effective feedback tool than a grade at the end of publication. Whips Around the Room that invite all students to share a favorite sentence or passage, Author’s Chairs that invite students to read a best draft, Posting on Blogs and inviting students to read one another’s work and leave comments, are all ways to celebrate writing — and help students understand the importance of audience.
Some of my favorite RESOURCES:

National Writing Project — Resources page

Read Write Reflect — Katherine  Sokolowski’s blog — the reflective practices inside a 5th grade classroom

The Nerdy Book Club — a community of readers (and teachers of readers) — read about books, reading, writing, and more!

Two Writing Teachers blog — more tips on teaching young writers that you can digest in one sitting

Moving Writers blog — Rachel and Allison show they are the best mentor text finders on the planet

And of course, my own blog: Three Teachers Talk where we write about Readers and Writers Workshop

Lucy Calkins quoteBOOKS you will consider life savers:

In the Middle by Nancie Atwell

Read Write Teach by Linda Reif
Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle

And I haven’t read this one yet, but who doesn’t want to be unstoppable? The Unstoppable Writing Teacher by Colleen Cruz
I imagine you are overwhelmed. No, I cannot really imagine. I do know that you are smart though, and you love children and teaching. You will do a wonderful job inspiring students to write — that is half the battle.

The learning comes from doing. Get your students writing. The more they write the better they will write. I see it every year.

Best blessings,


Did I leave anything out? What advice do you have for this emerging writing teacher?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Why Assignment Sheets Might Be Killing Your Students’ Writing

58090ec056811830ee936030edb1c9dbMy first year of teaching, I didn’t realize that the “five-paragraph essay” was a dirty phrase. My  internship year I painstakingly dragged my freshmen through the essay outlining process, watching them regurgitate homogeneous essays about symbolism in Lord of the Flies. At the end of our six-week study of the book, I slogged through 25 nearly identical essays, all of which had eloquent yet oddly familiar intro, body, and conclusion paragraphs. I’ll readily admit that despite the dull content, I felt victorious. My students had completed literary analysis essays and I had taught the foundation of essay structures.

It was that summer that my perception on structured essays changed. Two days into taking Penny Kittle’s writing course at the University of New Hampshire’s Literacy Institute, I realized that I had committed a cardinal sin of workshop teachers. Admitting to teaching the five-paragraph essay (let alone the sandwich method of paragraph-writing) was like confessing to enjoying McDonald’s burgers at an elegant chophouse: the cut (or concoction) of meat might serve the same purpose, to fill me up, but the quality was quite different. In turn, I was feeding my students homogeneous writing, a detailed equation to a subject that couldn’t be distilled down to simple mathematics. If I expected greatness, I needed to break beyond the boundaries of such a restrictive form of writing. After all, an introduction + body paragraphs + conclusion didn’t guarantee a solid essay; if anything, it guaranteed an entirely unspectacular essay.

This process of digesting the material and then providing a summary of the structure was far too easy for students. Not only did it place the onus on me to provide a set guide of instructions, but it also required me to complete the majority of analysis. Instead of my students engaging with the text and delving into the intricacies of structure and craft through individual exploration and group discussions, I was basically pre-digesting the material before offering it to them.


Students analyzing an author’s craft in front of the class.

This year I have made a point to wean my students, particularly my juniors and seniors, off the assignment outlines they so desperately desire. Instead, my students now receive a half-page sheet simply telling them the type of essay they are writing (cause and effect, definition, personal narrative, etc.), the mentor texts they may refer back to, the page length requirement, and the due date.

Initially, they were frustrated with this format. As one student said during our career building unit in which we practiced writing cover letters and resumes for celebrities, “Ms. Catcher, do you have an assignment sheet for this or something?” When I pointed out the paper I had given to him previously, he replied, “No, I mean something that tells me how to write this paper.” We discussed the numerous mentor texts we had read and dissected and how these as well as our class discussions ultimately provided the basis we to develop our pieces. As a class, we asked questions of the text and author, starting broad by looking at the overall tone, voice, structure, intended audience, and progression of the piece. Then, independently or within small groups, we delved into more of the intricacies—what examples were provided, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, and transitions. Students have gradually learned that there is no set solution for getting an A, which also means that they are forced to read and reread mentor texts to gain a firm understanding of a piece’s intricacies.

My problem from the beginning was that I was too busy telling my students how to write an essay to allow them to discover the messy albeit enlightening connection between reading, writing, and modeling. As we complete the last six weeks of school, I have noticed a significant difference in the structure and craft of my students’ work. They are relying more readily on mentors to help guide them in their process, and I can see both their group and independent analysis directly translate into their writing. For the past three years, I have harped on my students about showing rather than telling, but as the year comes to a close, I can finally say that I have internalized my own advice when it comes to my teaching.

How do you inspire students to rely on mentor texts instead of assignment sheets?  What steps have you taken throughout the year to make them more independent and confident writers?

The Question That Changes My Students’ Writing

My first year of teaching I taught thesis statements as these grandiose sentences that establishedimages the entire infrastructure of a paper. I conducted minilessons and writing units just on how to write a three-pronged thesis, which would inevitably lead into a five-paragraph essay. While this technique was arguably successful in its own right, it was also highly limiting. Because the three-pronged thesis set students’ papers up with a distinct outline right from the beginning, it didn’t allow students to delve deeper into their topics. If anything, it actually limited their exploration of their topic or research because it set too stringent of guidelines.

It wasn’t until I read Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This that I found one of the single-most valuable suggestions for student writers. Somewhere in this treasure trove of practical suggestions, Gallagher changed my approach to teaching theses with one question. Instead of asking what the point of the paper was, he questioned what the student wanted their reader to learn. Now during mini-conferences I ask students, “What do you want your reader to take away from this piece?” Not only does this question prompt them to acknowledge and think about their audience, but it also makes them recognize the value of their writing as a reputable, informative piece. As students answer this question, I jot down their responses, asking them additional questions to deepen my understanding of the subject. Eventually, when the point of the essay has become clear, I give them the notes I have taken and say, “This is your thesis,” showing them that the information we want our readers to take away is really the mission of our essay as a whole. From these notes, we formulate their thesis together to better address the overall message of their paper.

In the end, this approach oftentimes transforms students’ papers from flat, five-paragraph essays, to papers that delve deeper into the content. My freshmen recently finished their five-page research papers while my juniors and seniors completed eight-page TED talks. I used this approach during the initial conferences to help them hone in on the issues they wanted to research. After our conference, Emily’s essay transitioned from a simple history of prosthetic limbs to a deeper exploration of the rapid evolution of modern prosthesis and the technology needed to make them more lifelike. Sarah, on the other hand, found that her fascination with the Russian mafia also led into a deeper exploration of a lethal new drug called Krokodil, which is being trafficked through Russia. Each time students were able to isolate what they found to be fascinating about their topic and then ultimately use that as a jumping point for the rest of their paper. In the end, asking this one question helps students clarify an otherwise intimidating thesis while also helping them to polish their approach to the subject.

They Taught Me the Lesson Here: It’s About Time

Please tell me I am not the only one in a rush. Every spring I feel this pressure to teach more, do more, assign more. I know part of it is the AP exam date creeping closer and closer. I know my students are still not ready.

We still struggle with rhetorical analysis. Most students are getting better at recognizing devices in the texts of others, but when they try to analyze the effect? Well, the light bulb is still quite dim. And I have to practically beg to get students to add a device or two in their own writing. So many are afraid to take risks or to explore with words and sentences.

As a way to help students play with language, I turned to POETRY. (Yes, even in my primarily non-fiction AP Language class.)

We read Meg Kearney’s “Creed” poem together, and we talked through the moves she makes to craft it.

Students noticed the sound devices, the contradictions, the little story, the concrete details. They did a fine job of noticing.

But we have to do much more than notice. And that’s the hard part.

I found this “Creed” assignment by a Mrs. Rothbard online, which fit my hopes for my students exactly, and I asked students to read and study the poem themselves and then mirror the moves of our poet.

I still cannot believe how difficult this was for some of my students. Some simplified the assignment and just wrote their own lovely poems. Others made beautiful lists of their personal beliefs — but that was not the assignment. Others modeled Kearney’s first few lines and then rambled on about angst-filled beliefs that the student writers didn’t even care about when they read them to the class. (Note to self: Revision workshop must last much longer next year.)

But, some…some student writers took ownership of their own craft and composed lovely poems, modeled after our writing coach and poet Meg Kearney.

Here’s the links to JerashiaGuillermoNaWoon, Doreen, Josh, and Sydney-Marie‘s blogs where they posted their poems. They’d love it if you’d read them and maybe leave a comment (actually, they will probably die because they think publishing to the WWW makes them anonymous–so much scarier to read their poems aloud in class, which is a topic of another post I need to write.)

I learned some valuable things as a result of this writing task, and I am glad that my students talked to me about what worked and didn’t work for them. I am glad I took the time last week to let them talk.

The comment that will guide our learning the rest of the year came from a table in the back when one of my quiet ones said:

“Could we slow down? We need more time to write with you in the room to help us.”

Yes, I know that.

If I want to truly help my students grow as critical readers and writers, I must devote the time to letting them think, draft, read, write, revise, re-do, share, and all of this again and again with me in the room as their coach, their mentor, and their cheerleader.

My students need to talk to me and to their peers like I talk to my husband and my collaborators when I am writing.

I thought I had this down by now. But what I think is enough time is obviously not what my students think is enough time, so I’ll listen, and starting today.

Class time will be different.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

We are in Process, and that is Beautiful

A follow up to a comment on the post Not the Same ‘Ole AP Writing Teacher

Wow. Thanks for following my blog. I’m grateful. I appreciate your inquiry into our Snowfall writing project. It’s made me do some thinking, and you’ve inspired me to turn my response into a follow up post. Thanks for that.

Here’s my best shot at answering your questions:

1. Do you have any completed student assignment that you would be willing to share? and 2. What vehicle/medium did you use for to students to publish their work?

No student samples yet — this is the first year I’ve had students complete something quite so extensive. In regard to publishing their work, we aim high, so students will do a bit of research to see if they can submit their articles somewhere for publication. When they were first selecting topics, we discussed audience, and students had to justify what kind of magazines would run a piece about their topics. For sure, students will publish their finished articles on their blogs. They each have their own blog in which they write weekly.

3. What were your specific requirements for the assignment?

Since I am pushing toward authenticity, I intentionally did not start with a rubric. I’m sure John Branch didn’t have a rubric when he started writing “Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” either. I want students to take ownership of this work, so I want them to think through the parts and pieces that will make their work turn out the best.

Students and I read five pages of Branch’s piece together, and I encouraged students to read the rest of the article online in their own time. All I really told them was that we were each going to write a full-length feature article, and this Pulitzer Prize winner was our model. I am trying to break habits of skating through writing assignments with weak ideas and weaker research. Many of my student are used to getting A’s without having to actually learn anything. This bothers me. That is partly why, although they got to choose their topics, I had to approve them and be sure there was some depth to what students were thinking in terms of what they could discover in their research.

While it may sound strange, I do not have specific requirements other than–

1. show me that you have learned several different modes of writing, including how to embed and cite research,

2. include several different images, including photos, video clips, info graphics, charts, etc that make your article multi-media and convincing,

3. prove that you take pride in your work by revising, evaluating, improving, and learning as you move toward publishing your best work.

I do keep tick marks in my records of students who submit their work to me for review on time and who use their time wisely in class, but those benchmarks become daily grades and will not influence a student’s final grade on the piece he finally publishes. Most likely I will allow students to give themselves a grade when all is said and done. Without question they always grade themselves harder than I ever do, and I have to score them up a bit.

4. Any other information that you could share with us would be greatly appreciated.

Every week we work on some aspect of this writing. Last week we read some descriptive writing, and students finished up their narrative intros. I read aloud the prologue of The Emperor of All Maladies–a Biography of Cancer (also a Pulitzer), a non-fiction text that begins with a narrative intro, similar to the narrative at the beginning of Snowfall, although different at the same time. We connected our thinking back to Snowfall, and students moved their “remember it” paragraph to the top of their page and revised to make emotional stories that would draw their readers into their articles. They read and evaluated the writing of their peers– aiming for the WOW factor (our way to gut-read a text), and they revised to make better.

Later we talked about definition as a mode, and students began writing a paragraph that defines their topics and includes a position statement. (We are including a persuasive slant more than Snowfall because of the argumentative focus of AP Lang.)

I showed students how to use google forms to conduct surveys, so they could gather their own data instead of relying on whatever they found on the internet, and they took a survey I created that I will use in my own feature article I am writing beside them. Every step I ask students to take, I take as well. They can see my piece develop and change and grow as theirs does. Soon I will introduce info-graphics with the hope some students will include those in their full-length article. I think info-graphics are so cool.

So, that’s about where we’re at with this huge and engaging writing project. I wish we could stop everything else and only work on this piece– we had a district checkpoint, and we have an AP mock exam looming, so we have to move back and forth into the genre of test taking. But … maybe, this slow process is for the best: I am able to show how the skills needed to write on demand are the same as developing a long process piece–only s.l.o.w.e.r.

We are in process, and that is exactly what I want. Kids are learning and growing as writers, and that is so much more important than rushing into a finished product.

I hope this helps. Please ask if you have other questions. I am happy to share and share and share. I am thrilled that others are doing this same kind of exciting and engaging work with students. We are teaching the writer and not the writing, and that is beautiful.

Warmest regards,


%d bloggers like this: