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Tag Archives: Writing Workshop

Writing Workshop: Assessment and Hope

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Amy in 2012, reminds us that writing isn’t just done for assessment–it’s done to get kids to love reading and writing.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you help kids write to write, and not write for a grade?


Students should write more than teachers can ever grade. I heard this first from Kelly Gallagher, author of the book Readicide, a book, among others, that helped me frame my curriculum around Workshop. If I remember correctly, he said that his students write four times more than he grades. Really?

I pondered this for a long while, and I still struggle, but I think I have some of it figured out. I thought for a long time that my students would not write unless I graded what they wrote. Every assignment:  “Is this for a grade?” Every answer: “Yes, everything is for a grade.” The refrain got old.

Then I tried something new: I began writing with my students on the first day of school, and I had some kind of writing activity every single day. I don’t remember where I read it, but when I was researching the work of the reading writing workshop gurus a couple of years ago, I know I read:  if you struggle with time and have to choose between reading or writing, choose writing.

It’s the complete opposite of what I thought:  My students are struggling readers. How do I give up reading when I know they need it? I thought about it more and realized: If I teach writing well, students will be reading. And they will be reading a lot.

So let me explain how this works for me. Remember, I teach AP English Language and Composition (that’s the top 11th graders) and English I (that’s on-level freshmen)–two extremes.

Writing Every Day

There are many ways to get students to write every day. Of course, some ways will get them to take their writing more seriously than others. I find that when I give them an audience, students will put a lot more effort into what comes out their pens. Audience matters!

Topic Journals. Following the advice of Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, I created “topic journals” that students write in once a week the first semester. I bought composition notebooks and printed labels, using various fonts, of the topics: love, conflict, man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, war, death, gender, hope, redemption, family, romance, hate, promise, temptation, evil, compromise, self-reliance, education, friendship, guilt, doubt, expectation, admiration, ambition, courage, power, patience, fate, temperance, desire, etc. I created 36 notebooks; one for each student in my largest class.

I introduced the topic journals to my AP students first. I set up the scenario:  “I will be teaching 9th grade. I need your help. Do you remember what it was like to be new to high school? nervous, anxious, a little bit obnoxious? I created these notebooks so you could write and give advice to my younger, less advanced students.”

The first task was to turn to the first page in the journal and define the topic. Many looked up the terms in the dictionary or online. They wrote a quickwrite explaining what the topic meant. Then on the next page they wrote about anything they liked as long as their writing fit the topic. I had them sign their posts with their initials and the class period. I told them that they could choose their form (a letter, a narrative, an advice column) as long as they remembered that their audience was 9th graders, and whatever they wrote had to be school appropriate. “If you write about bombs or offing yourself or anyone else, you’re off to see the counselor or the police.” These are good kids, most of them in National Honor Society. They took my charge to help my younger students seriously. This exercise often worked as a lead into our critical reading or class discussion that day, and sometimes students chose a piece they’d started in a topic journal to continue exploring for a process piece.

You can imagine how I introduced the journals to my freshmen. I began by saying, “You know I teach AP English, right? That’s the college-level English class. Well, those students would like to offer you advice about high school, life, and whatever else you might have to deal with the next few years. They are going to write to you in these topic journals. Your job when you see these notebooks on the tables is to choose the one that “calls” to you. First, you will read the messages the older students wrote for you, and then you will respond. Remember to use your best writing.” I then set the timer and had students read and write for 10-15 minutes, depending on the lesson I planned that day. Sometimes I had students share out what they wrote; most often we tucked the notebooks away for another week.

Students constantly fought over a couple of the topics:  love, death, and evil were their favorites. I am certain that is telling (and it did help me when selecting titles for book talks.)

While students wrote in topic journals, I read what students had previously written in the notebooks kids did not select. I’d write a quick line or two in response to something in that notebook. I always used a bright orange or green pen, so students could tell I’d had my eyes in that journal. They knew I was reading them, but they never knew when or what entry. This helped hold them accountable for not only the content of what they were writing but also the mechanics of how they were writing it.

Assessment? Formative. Students have to think quickly and write about a topic on a timed test for the AP exam (11th grade) and STAAR (9th grade).

Blogs

At first I only set up a class blog, and I had students write in response to posts I put on the front page and in response to an article I put on an article of the week page (another Gallagher idea). It didn’t take me long to realize that students would write more and take more ownership of their craft if they created their own blogs. The first year I had students set up blogs I taught gifted and talented sophomores, and I was nervous. Nervous that something would happen:  they’d post inappropriate things, they’d do something to get themselves and me in trouble, they’d be accosted by trolls out to hurt children through internet contact. I chose Edublogs.org as the platform because I could be an administrator on the student blogs, and I had my kids use pseudonyms. This was overkill. Yes, I did have to change two things that year:  one student called his blog Mrs. Rasmussen. I told him my husband didn’t appreciate that much. Another kid used a picture of a bomb as his avatar. Not funny. All-in-all my students did great, and they wrote a lot more (and better) than they ever did for me on paper. I was a stickler for errors and created this cruel scoring guide that said something like: A=only one minor error, B=two minor error, C=three minor errors, F=four or more errors. Students that had never gotten a C in their lives were freaking out over F’s. “Sorry, kiddo, that’s a comma splice. That’s a run-on.” I had more opportunities to teach grammar mini-lessons than I ever had in my career. But see, these kids cared about their grades.

My 9th graders now–not so much. They care about a lot of things, but if I punish them for comma errors or the like, they shut down and stop writing. I learned to be much more careful. Now, I work on building relationships so they trust me to teach them how to fix the errors themselves. It takes a lot more time, but in the end, student writing improves, and students feel more confident in their abilities. I am still working on getting my 9th graders to be effective writers. So far, I have not accomplished that too well, as is evidence of their EOC scores this year.

This past year my AP English students posted on their blogs once a week. I told them that I would read as many of their posts as I could, but I would only grade about every three. I wouldn’t tell them which ones I’d be grading. I let students choose their topics, but since I had to teach them specific skills to master for the AP exam, I instilled parameters. They had to choose a news article that they found interesting, and then they had to formulate an argument that stemmed from that article. The deadline was 10 pm on Monday–every week. This assignment accomplished two of my objectives:  students will become familiar with the world around them, and students will create pieces that incorporate the skills that we learn in class. When I turned to social media to promote student blogs, I got even more ownership from my students.

Assessment? Formative or Summative. Students apply the skills they learned in class regarding grammar, structure, style, devices, etc. Scored using the AP Writing Rubric for the persuasive open-ended question.

Twitter in the Classroom

One of these days I will write a post about the many ways I used Twitter in class this year. For now, let me just tell you:  Twitter was the BEST thing I added to my arsenal of student engagement tools. Ever.

When I began asking students to tweet their blog url’s after they wrote on Mondays, I started leaving quick and easy feedback via Twitter. It was so easy! Kids would tweet their posts; I’d read them; re-tweet with a pithy comment. Within minutes of the first couple of tweet exchanges, students were posting and tweeting more. They were getting feedback from me, and they were giving feedback to one another. They began building a readership, and that’s what matters if students blog. Just because they are posting to the world wide web does not mean anyone is reading what they write. But, a readership, especially one that will leave comments, that’s a whole new story.

Assessment? Formative. Students share their writing and make comments about their peers’ writing. Critical thinking is involved because students only have 140 characters to express their views.

Student Choice. Sometimes.

In a perfect writing class, I am sure students get to choose what they write about every time. This does not work in an AP English class where I am trying to prepare students for that difficult exam. Once a week my students complete a timed writing where they respond to an AP prompt. The guidelines for AP clearly state that the essays are scored as drafts; minor errors are expected. My students must practice on-demand writing. There is no time for conferencing or for taking these essays through the writing process. Unless–we revisit. And sometimes we do. Students are allowed to re-assess per our district grading policy if they score below an 85. 85 is difficult for many of my students, so lots of them re-assess. To do so, students must come in and conference with me about their timed writing. I am usually able to pick out the trouble spots quite easily, and it’s through these brief conversations that I get the most improvement from student writing. Often, instead of conferencing with me, students will evaluate their essays with one another.

I show several student models of higher scoring essays and teach students how to read the AP Writing Rubric. Then, in round robin style, students assess their own essays and at least three of their peers. I remind students not to be “nice” to their friends and give a score that’s undeserved. This will not help anyone master the skills necessary for the AP exam. Rarely do students give themselves or their peers scores higher than I would.

My students also write process papers. For AP reading workshop students choose a book from my short list. After reading and discussing the books with their Book Clubs, students have to write an essay that argues some topic from the book. I model how to structure an essay. I model how to write an engaging introduction. I model how to imbed quotes and how to write direct and indirect citations. I model everything I want to see in this type of writing.

I allow several weeks in my agenda to take these papers through the writing process, and students do most of the work outside of class (not so with my 9th graders).

  • Day one students generate thesis statements, and we critique, re-write, and re-critique.
  • Day two students bring drafts that we read and evaluate in small groups. (I have to teach them that a draft is a finished piece that they are ready to get feedback on–not a quickwrite. So many students type up their rough draft and call in good. This makes me crazy! And I tell them that I will not read their first draft unless they come before or after school or during lunch. They must work on their craft before I will spend my time reading it.)
  • Day three students bring another draft that we read and evaluate again. Sometimes, depending on where my kids are in terms of producing a good piece, I will take these up and provide editing on the first page. Never more than the first page!
  • Day four students turn in their polished papers. I score them holistically on a rubric that aligns with the AP Writing one, or if it’s my 9th graders, I score them on the appropriate STAAR writing rubric.

My freshmen students need a much more hand holding, and we do a lot of writing on lined yellow paper. Most often, especially at the first of the year, they get to choose their own topics. However, I have to give them a lot more structure because on the new Texas state test. 9th graders have to write two essays (about 300 words each): a literary essay, which is an engaging story, and an expository essay, which explains their thinking about a given prompt. Students use the yellow paper to draft during class. I wander the room, answering questions and keeping kids on task. I also try to write an essay every time I ask students to do so. I use these essays as mentor texts in addition to mentor texts I find by professional authors.

Usually I begin class with some kind of mini-lesson if students are in the middle of drafting. I might show students a paragraph with a description that uses sensory imagery and instruct them to add some description in their own writing. Or, I might teach introductory clauses and have students revise a sentence to include one or two or three. This way I am able to get authentic instruction that my students need right there in the middle of their writing time. When I score these student papers, I specifically look for the skills I’ve explicitly taught. If I do it right, I will have read my students papers one or two times during their writing process, prior to them ever turning in their final draft.

Notice I said “if I do it right.” I rarely do it right. I am still learning to budget my time and get to every kid. I am still learning to get every kid to write. I am writing English I curriculum this summer, which I will use in the fall. I hope to get some of my challenges with my struggling students worked out as I focus more purposefully on the standards. I realized this year that while I am teaching writing as a process all the time, I am not necessarily targeting the standards that fit into the process. I am thinking about this a lot lately.

This is still my burning question:  how can I get kids who hate to read and write to participate in writing workshop so their writing improves and their voices are heard?

I am turning to the gurus as I research and think this summer. Jeff Anderson’s book 10 Things Every Writer Should Know has been an excellent start.

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5 Things I Need to Remember When Teaching my Writers

I know we’ve been posting mini-lessons on Mondays on this blog for awhile now, but today marks the first day of my spring break, and since my students and I just finished a fairly complex writing task, this is a good time for reflection.

don-graves-quoteMy AP Language students wrote arguments as spoken-word poems, and then performed them in class. (Or if they produced their poems digitally, which was an option for publishing, they projected them.)

Our process included reading and studying several poems. We watched YouTube videos of spoken word poems by Shane Koyczan, Harry Baker, Marshal Davis Jones and more. We analyzed structure, craft, and theme. We pulled out lines we felt held the weight of the poem and wrote responses to them, hoping to find inspiration for our own writing. We reviewed the elements of argument. We discussed the claims the poets make and how they use evidence (or do not) to support these claims. We spent workshop time thinking, writing, and revising our poems. And my student teacher Zach and I spent hours talking to writers about their writing.

I’ll share some of the amazing poems my students produced in another post. For now, here are some things my students reminded me I need to do better so they can do better in our next round of writing:

  • Topics matter. If I want my students to produce well-written texts, they must select well-chosen topics. Too often my writers choose topics they might have a passion for, but they know little about. This leads to vague superficial writing.

I need to take more time on the front end of the writing process to make sure all of my writers choose a topic that they not only care about, but that is specific enough to the task at hand. One resource that will help as we choose topics for other writing tasks is this tutorial from University of Arizona Libraries. I need to remember to slow down on the front end and help students select narrow topics.

  • Clear feedback matters. For this writing project, I only left feedback once on student drafts. It was not enough. Or it might have been — if students had read it. (Please tell me I am not the only teacher with this issue:  Students ignoring feedback.)

The best feedback is not when I leave comments on Google docs like I did for this project, but when I talk to them face-to-face and answer their questions. Students need to see my response to the work they have done. They need to see if I like it. They often misread, or don’t read, my tone in written feedback. I must remember to give them a balance of both — and a lot of it all along the way.

  • Sometimes more explicit instruction matters. In more than one conference, when I asked students why I didn’t see application of the mini-lesson in their writing, they said: “Oh, I thought that was just a suggestion.” Well, yes. But what’s the point of a mini-lesson — designed to help students write better — if they refuse to at least try it?

I know that we must teach the writer and not the writing, but sometimes without a little push to make specific changes, my writers just do not improve. I need to remember that with some students I must be more explicit in my instruction.

  • Accountability throughout the process matters. I was out of the classroom several days when students had writing workshop time to work on their poems. (Someday I’ll tell you about the standards revision work I’ve done with the TEKS Review Committee in Austin this year.) Although my student teacher was there, and my substitute — a former teacher and a sub my students know well — too many of my students clearly wasted the time given them in class to write. They are teenagers after all:  give them an inch and they take a mile. And they are major procrastinators. I think they are finally understanding that good writing takes time, but many are still not taking the time to produce good writing.

I need to do a better job at holding them accountable for working during workshop time. More exit slips. More sharing a favorite line or passage they’ve written that day. More purposeful formative assessment and personal evaluation of their writing processes.

  • Conferring (more) matters. The two days students shared their poems were exciting. So many were fantastic. So many clearly showed their understanding of how to write an effective argument — and how to be clever and creative with poetic elements as they did so. But quite a few did not.

As Zach and I discussed each performance and each poem, matching the writing to our rubric and assigning a grade, we became clearly aware of which students we conferred with the most and which students we did not. One of us would say: “She did exactly what we discussed in our conference,” or “That was something he and I talked about in his conference.”

The students we conferred with the most not only fulfilled the requirements for the assignment the best, they produced the most creative and convincing argumentative and poetic writing. And they knew it. Their confidence as they performed their poems was evident, and they rocked the house with their beautiful and inspiring poetry.

Taking the time to confer with every student — whether they want to talk about their writing or not — must be a regular part of the writing workshop. Too often conferring becomes optional when I get too busy or spread myself too thin. I must remember to schedule conference time into the lesson plans and hold myself responsible for making them happen — not once but several times for each student.

How do you know when your writing workshop is working?  Please share your ideas in the comments.

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,

IMG_1606

Disney started his work as a cartoonist in high school.  How can we carve these same creative spaces for our own students?

Florida.  Swapping fur boots for flip flops, we ran around Walt Disney World, weaving in and out of storybook rides and watching teeny princesses wobble around Cinderella’s castle.  Only now that I am grown do I have a true appreciation for the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney’s brilliance.  He built a physical world of stories.

Disney doodled his way through high school; he honed his craft through drawing and photography classes.  Unfortunately, few curricula allow for the same creative exploration for students.  Oftentimes, the countless possibilities for storytelling and narration tend to center on only real-life experiences, personal narratives, when in reality, writing fiction opens up an entirely different world for self-exploration.

This year I swapped out our traditional multi-scene personal narrative for a story unit in which I taught many of the same narrative craft marks using a combination of fiction and non-fiction mentor texts.

The greatest challenge I faced was in finding short, succinct, and well-crafted stories that weren’t twenty pages long.  While I love short stories, I knew many of my freshmen would not only lose stamina if asked to write such lengthy pieces , but they would also struggle with translating the story structure of these mentors into their own pieces.  I began my hunt for a strong mentor text in, of all places, the children’s section of the library.

Objectives:  In alignment with the Common Core, students will write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen detail, and well-structured event sequences. Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of craft marks in fictional writing.  They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own stories, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson:  I find writing fictional stories intimidating.  My plots seem to sag in some areas, or my dialogue doesn’t feel authentic, but many of my students love leaving their reality to explore their own creative worlds.  The vast majority read fiction, so its only natural that their reading interests feed into their writing curiosity.  The problem is that their greatest mentor texts are, on average, 250 pages long.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-1.51.36-PM-1514mm8The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin is a beautifully crafted story of a girl growing up in a hardened city. After stealing a purse from a pedestrian, the main character makes a promise out of desperation, only to realize that the purse she has stolen has no value and is instead full of acorns, which she must now plant across the city.  The story reads more like a poem and has a cyclical ending that allows students to see the succinct structure of a short story.

Prior to sharing the story I type up the entire story book (which comes out to two pages) so that the students may access the text without the pictures.  I present it to them as a short story, and we read it aloud like any other mentor text, but I do not tell them it is a picture book!

I ask students to look at the structure of the story—what do they notice about how the author formatted the story as a whole.  Since we just finished studying plot in our literature circles, many of the students dig in to find the rising action and climax while others simply read and re-read to comb through the intricacies of the structure.  Almost all of the students notice The Promise’s cyclical ending that reinforces the story’s themes of redemption and the beauty of nature.

I have them return a second time to the story to look at the writer’s craft.  Students make a list of author’s moves within their writer’s notebook.  If they see something that intrigues them but they aren’t sure of the name, I have them describe what they notice and we develop a name for the skill together as a class.  Finally, we compile our observations onto a large sticky note that remains on display throughout the unit.  Students must then choose two of the craft marks to experiment with in their own writing.

Finally, once we have finished working with the piece, I reveal to students that The Promise is a picture book and I read it aloud.  Oftentimes students are shocked to hear that such a complex story is written for children, but their initial reading makes them value the intricacy of the writer’s work even more.

Follow-Up:  Not only did my students fall in love with the writing process, but they also asked thoughtful questions and engaged in deeper conversations about their writing.  One of my favorite conversations between two jocks involved the complexity of a fight between an alien, human, and zombie.

As a final follow-up, I had students complete a self-revision sheet.  They peer reviewed each other’s work and finally wrote a metacognitive reflection in which they discussed the craft moves they made and how they structured their story.

The freedom to write fiction or nonfiction opened doors for many of the students who tend to struggle with developing ideas while reinforcing many of the craft marks we studied (leads, plot, sensory details, concrete details, internal and external dialogue) in our snapshot narrative unit. As Griffin said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because I’ve gone back and looked at my work in the past.  Fiction is easier because you can make up whatever you want.”

 

 

#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.  

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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?

 

Mini-Lesson Monday – Strengthening Dialogue With Punctuation

Punctuation_Saves_Lives2After reading second drafts of my students’ narratives, I was wowed by so much of their writing.  Thoughtful leads, powerful topics, intriguing plot structures.  But, despite a mini-lesson on the conventions of writing dialogue last week, some of their characters’ conversations were lacking.  I needed to design a responsive mini-lesson accordingly.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Synthesize your knowledge of how punctuation works with narrative speech conventions to craft thoughtful dialogue; Construct dialogue based on your knowledge of a character’s personality.  Or, from the Common Core: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Lesson — While reading drafts, I set aside a few exemplary pieces of student work in terms of dialogue.  In each class period, there were at least two students whose dialogue was superior.  It was subtle, nuanced, and really added to the characters’ depth.

I asked students to open their writer’s notebooks to the Craft Study section and I projected one example of a student’s work on the board using my document camera.  “Good dialogue isn’t just about what a character says,” I begin. “It’s also about how they say it.  A greeting can really change based on phrasing or punctuation.”

I point to the example on the board.  It’s Logan’s, and in his dialogue, his mom is yelling at him for getting drunk:

“LOGAN WAITMAN SANDERS!” Mom hollered. “Just WHAT do you think you are doing, young man?!  And…and…YOU, Jeremy!  You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Everyone laughs, and I ask a volunteer to read the dialogue aloud.  Dylan does, with perfect angry-Mom-inflection.  He makes Logan shrink back in his seat a little.

I ask the class, “Why did Dylan know how to read that dialogue so perfectly?”  They volunteer: the capitalization helped; he knew when to raise his voice.  “How did he know to stutter?”  They say: the dots (ellipses, I add helpfully) told him to stutter.  “How did he know to sound kind of incredulous while yelling?”  They reply: the exclamation points, and especially that exclamation point mixed with a question mark.  “How did he know when to pause?”  They know: commas.

I put up other kinds of punctuation on the board–dashes, periods, italics–and we discuss what effect each of those would have on a character’s dialogue.  Students jot all this down in their notebooks.  Then, I pass back their drafts and ask them to find a partner.  “Now that you know how to really make dialogue more personal, revise your dialogue in your drafts.  Work with a partner to determine whether or not your dialogue has the effect you want it to when you revise–write a line, then ask your partner to read it aloud the way Dylan read Logan’s.”

Students take ten minutes per person to revise, then we launch into writer’s workshop with the remainder of class.  I write beside them on the board, working on my own dialogue in my NaNoWriMo novel.

In each of my other classes, we repeat this exercise with drafts that contain good dialogue.  It’s so important to use student work as mentor texts–students see that great writing is attainable, not just imitable, when we show them their peers’ successes.

Follow-Up — After today’s revision and writing workshops, students will have one more day in class to keep working on their drafts before turning them in again.  I’ll hope to see much improved dialogue, and as such, I’ll ask writers to answer a question on their self-evaluations about how their dialogue enhances their characterization.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Sentence Boundaries and Adding Some Variety

Sorry, I forgot to record the book’s title.

Even the students in my AP English class struggle with correct punctuation and varying their sentences. In one-on-one conferences, I’ve started to remind them more often to pay attention to how the author of their self-selected books craft meaning. I used to get glossy-eyed blank stares, but students are beginning to understand that writers make intentional moves to draw us in, and keep us within, the pages of their books.

“As a writer, you must do that, too,” I remind them.

This lesson grew out of a conferring conversation with a student who told me:  “I just do not understand all the comma and semicolon stuff, but I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say in my writing.”

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize the sentence boundaries and the variety of sentence structures in their self-selected books. They will make observations about the author’s use of punctuation in these sentences, assessing the writer’s effectiveness in crafting meaning. Students will then use their author as a mentor as they apply their knowledge of sentence boundaries and sentence variety and create, revise, and rewrite sentences in their own pieces of writing. Finally, through peer-to-peer conferring, students will evaluate the accuracy and effectiveness of one another’s sentences.

Lesson:  Every student needs their independent reading book. If a student is reading a book of poems, or a graphic novel without many sentences, you will want to supply a stand in book for this lesson or ask the student to find a book she’s previously read.

Tell students that you’ve noticed in their writing that they are ready to make their sentences more sophisticated. Correctness is one way to do this. Varying the length of sentences is another way. Instruct students to turn to a random page in their books, say page 51. Ask them to read the page in search of one long sentence and one short sentence. Give students sentence stips or blank paper and have them write out the sentences they find in their books. They should spell and punctuate the sentences exactly like the author does.

sentence boundaries lessonNext, in small groups, ask students to discuss with one another the structure of the sentences. They might put all the short sentences together and compare them. Then they might put the long sentences together and look at how the authors use commas to separate ideas. Some students will know more about grammatical terms than others, and that is okay. The idea is to get students noticing how writers compose within the boundaries of standard English and to get them to understand how punctuation works to craft meaning. Ask questions that help them discover why boundaries and variety work to produce effective writing.

You may choose to have students imitate the sentences they chose from their books. Imitation is a useful tool for many writers.

Using self-selected books, not just to practice wide reading, but to teach students to read like writers, adds an important element to the workshop classroom. Our writing improves when we take the time to notice and apply the skills of professional writers.

Follow up:  Have students review a piece of their own writing. The writing can be in any stage of the writing process. They should study their writing to evaluate their use of sentence boundaries and variety. Encourage students to revise their writing as necessary, remembering to use the author of their books as their mentors.

Extension:  This lesson works to have students study leads, similar to what Jackie wrote about in the mini-lesson Pick up Lines and Leads. It also works to have students search their books for sentences that include imagery.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Readers & Writers Workshop–Beyond English and Into Journalism

dotCJR-blog480Are any of us really just English teachers?

It has been rare in my teaching tenure to only teach English–and in my current position, my schedule is no different.  I teach Yearbook and Newspaper, in addition to four English classes.

Learning the content of those new-to-me courses has been one of the biggest (and most fruitful) challenges of my teaching career.  While writing instruction is naturally paramount in journalism courses, teaching photography, design, AP style, and the interview process were foreign concepts to me prior to starting this job.

So, when I discovered that I’d be teaching journalism, I did what any good teacher does–I began to research.  This article describing the four properties of powerful teaching–presence, personality, passion, and preparation–reminded me that I had the first three qualities when it came to teaching journalism.  I just had to do the work of preparation.

After a long summer of workshops and self-teaching, I felt well-versed in lens aperture and the inverted pyramid, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to structure my journalism courses.  When I boiled down the values I wanted my young journalists to prize, though, they came down to doing good writing, good research, and good thinking–all values that are foundational parts of the readers and writers workshop.

So, each day in Newspaper and Yearbook, we begin with ten minutes of reading.  I confer with students and we discuss how to read like writers.  We analyze how a writer sets a scene, much like how a photographer composes a picture.  We note the author’s style, filing away their craft moves for use in our own copy writing.  We speculate about the writer’s inspiration for the story, trying to find our own topics to write about.

After two booktalks (often nonfiction), we then move into a quickwrite, thinking in writing for ten minutes about a variety of subjects–sometimes responding to simple questions, sometimes practicing journalistic writing skills, and sometimes brainstorming ideas for articles, photo stories, or coverage.

A ten- to fifteen-minute mini-lesson follows, taught either by me or the editor-in-chief of the day’s publication.  These mini-lessons are based on trends the editors and I notice as students submit their work.  Yesterday we worked on strengthening our headlines; today we’ll focus on brushing up on the conventions of AP style in our copy.

We leave ourselves with a sixty-minute writers’ workshop every day, which is packed full of collaboration, conferring, and chaos.  That last hour is productive until the bell rings, with every student journalist working toward a unique deadline or assignment, receiving guidance from any and every other person in the room.

Watching and participating in the organized, creative chaos of a journalistic writers’ workshop is probably my favorite time of day.

I asked two students how they felt that the workshop enhanced their journalistic learning.  Ryan feels the quickwrites are most valuable:  “Your notebook allows you to open up and be yourself when you write,” he says.  “You learn to still have a voice in journalism, which is usually just really formulaic.”

“I really like that you learn while you write,” he emphasizes, repeating that twice in our brief conference.

Gabi agrees.  “You’re learning as you do the writing–learning from your mistakes–rather than having concepts spoonfed to you,” she says.  “I think everyone likes to learn hands-on, by actually writing, instead of just reading other people’s articles.”

In what electives or non-English classes do you employ the workshop model?

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