Thankful for an authentic audience

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I sit here on a Saturday with five school days left in the semester, reflecting over yesterday’s class.

Here’s what happened:

Students, in groups, presented their social issue speeches. Each group had a special guest, someone from central office, an administrator, or an educator, to give the students feedback. Students were excited and nervous about presenting in front of special guests, but as the process began I watched amazed as students greeted the guests, presented speeches, gave each other feedback, and intently listened to feedback from the guests.

This idea was inspired during the Teacher’s College Argument Institute I IMG_8298attended last year. They talked about having guests come in for a debate panel to give students an authentic audience. I’ve talked about my quest for authentic class experiences since then in another blog post. When it came time for students to give speeches on their social issues, I wanted to try to do two things: (1) Give students an authentic audience and (2) Have the speeches delivered in groups in one day (instead of hearing 30 speeches in one class over the course of a week).

I cannot express the gratitude I have for all the Central Office folks, administrators, and educators who listened to students’ speeches and gave them feedback yesterday. I cannot say how proud I am of the students—their work, their willingness to take a risk, their feedback to each other, their professionalism.

IMG_8284But what I might be most proud of was listening to students and the guests talk after the speeches were all delivered. The students asked questions, the guests shared personal stories and bits of wisdom. There was laughter, and as Lester Laminack says, if there isn’t laughter, there isn’t learning.

For the students, they felt special.  “Important people” (as they called them) were taking time out of their busy schedules to come listen to them, really listen to them, and to talk with them-not to them, but really have discussion with them.  The students had worked hard on these assignments, and they wanted honest feedback.  They wanted to know what they could do to become better.  We talk in class all the time about how their voices matter.  Now they had to chance to talk to people who had some experience with public speaking to get insight in to how to make those voices that mattered heard.

One guest asked how much I had prepped the students for the after speech IMG_8271discussion, and I confessed I didn’t. The first time doing this, I hadn’t thought that it might go faster than my carefully planned out schedule. After I realized we had some time at the end, I asked the students to learn as much as they could from the guests while we had them here. And that’s what they did.  In a way that came naturally from a curiosity and a quest for knowledge.  What students learned yesterday was more than just about public speaking. They learned a little life. And I’m so thankful for all those who had a part in that.

If you are interested in doing something like this, here’s a little more on what we did:

  1. Students had already been working on their social issue assignments. They had completed research, conducted an interview, and wrote a proposal. For more on that, read this.
  2. Students wrote and practiced speeches after studying speeches through mentor texts, specifically focusing on audience, purpose, and delivery.
  3. Our literacy coach helped me conference with students about their speeches, an invaluable piece.
  4. I sent out invitations for our presentations and made a schedule, trying to have groups with a variety of topics.
  5. Students volunteered to be a part of a hospitality team. They set up a IMG_8252hospitality room for the guests, greeted the guests, and directed as needed. They also made thank you cards.
  6. Our principal’s administrative assistant helped me gather things we needed and went over what we might need that I was forgetting.
  7. Our media specialist and media clerk let us take over the media center and sat in on speeches as well.
  8. Students made name tags and worked through logistics the day before.
  9. The day of the speeches, students had the schedules and assigned spots. They gave their speeches and then received feedback from students and guests. I had them write feedback too, which I will compile and give them to keep.
  10. Clean up and then go to sleep. Wake up the next day and reflect on what happened. Or maybe that is just me. It was a lot of work but incredibly worth it!

Bonus Read:  We all do reflecting at the end of the semester.  I found this Three Teachers Talk post Writing my wrongs: How I’m learning from my mistakes to be beautifully honest and encouraging for us all, as we get ready to end one semester and begin another one.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.

I could have written a better paper

2015-12-02 15.15.29I’m in the middle of grading 152 literary analysis papers. As I’m reading these papers, I’m proud. Not because they are perfect—they aren’t. This isn’t even the best set of literary analysis papers I’ve received from 10th graders during my teaching career.

No, the best literary analysis papers I’ve ever received may have been from those students years ago who I heavily guided (probably somewhat mercilessly) with preselected text, a thesis developed by the class and then tweaked by me, and a plan I had constructed for them to flesh out the predetermined structure. But why shouldn’t they have been the best? I was the best writer in the room, and I did most of the thinking work in writing the paper.

There are numerous problems with this teaching practice, which I have worked relentlessly to change over the years.

Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, says, “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, it’s a recipe.” I think the same is true for student writing. We can’t keep giving our students all the ingredients and the recipe for their work. They don’t have to think, or at least not a lot, 51yvxpuquxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_when we do this.

Right now our ELA department is doing a book study on Reading and Writing Project Staff Developer Christopher Lehman’s Energize Research Reading and Writing. He talks about research being “messy and exciting” (9) and says that

“handing students topics and preselected sources removes a natural and important step of learning to do anything: making errors. If we are developing students to be creative, flexible, independent learners, then we cannot scrub away opportunities for mistakes to be made and corrections to be learned” (10, emphasis added).

While literary analysis may not be considered traditional research, Lehman’s challenge here was at the heart of designing this unit. (For more on this unit, see literary analysis post and writing boot camp post.)

Students had almost complete control over their choice of short story to analyze. While during the reading part of the unit I gave students many lenses on how to analyze a text, they decided which ones they wanted to 2015-11-16 09.52.08use in their writing. We looked at tons of mentor theme statements and practiced finding themes, but they developed their own theme statements for their papers. They were never locked in—several students completely changed their story and many changed their lenses as they began to work out their thinking in their writing. One student remarked, “I have to go back to my text because now that I’m writing I realize none of evidence I collected really works.”

This type of learning takes courage—for me and for my students.

I’m not a parent, but I imagine the feeling of not wanting to see your own child fail is similar to the feeling I have about my students. It was hard not to jump in and tell them that I thought they were going to have a hard time with a particular story, or lens, or the evidence gathered. It was a bit scary having students write in such a formal manner about stories that I had not read.

It took courage for the students to work as hard as they did on 2015-11-18 13.40.32independent reading and writing. They were brave in the way they rehearsed their thinking and changed their ideas about the literature and their writing as they went through the process. There were no right or wrong answers to make them feel safe.

So as I sit here grading the 152 literary analysis papers that I could have done a better job writing, I am beaming with pride. I have that “mama pride.” I see their authentic work, their own thinking and voice coming alive on the paper, their depth of understanding that went so much further than when asked to simply plug and play. Not to mention, I was not bored by reading the exact same thing over and over in slightly different words.

Most 2015-12-01 16.20.30importantly, though, my students are proud. Many have said they are turning in their best paper they’ve ever written. Some commented on how they finally figured out how to write about literature. One student, who I’m often lucky if I ever get his work by the due date, turned in his paper on time proudly, saying he even skipped playing basketball to work on his writing.

There is power in giving students choice and ownership. There is power in allowing students the freedom to make mistakes. There is power in students finding their voice through independent writing.

Bonus Read: If you are like me and could not attend NCTE this year (or even if you did and you want to relive it), there are lots of blogs worth checking out. Sarah Zerwin’s daily NCTE blog with an additional top takeaway post is a great place to start. Thank you, Elizabeth, for introducing me to this blog on your Links I Loved Last Week.  Also, check out her Top Ten List about NCTE15. To Make a Prairie gives thanks to NCTE with a beautiful post of inspiration and challenges.

I survived writing boot camp!

2015-11-16 09.48.58This week all my students are participating in writing boot camp during class. What makes writing boot camp different than just a week of writing instruction? It’s very focused. It’s intense. It’s about the mindset.

Doing a little internet research, I found several keys to running a successful fitness boot camp. I think these apply to an academic writing boot camp as well.

  1. Research: Spend time finding out what skills students need additional focus and which ones they already know how to do.
  2. Start with good management: Figure out how to divide the skills across the week, how much time to spend on the skills, and what resources are needed.
  3. Craft the boot camp so it offers something new or different: This week 2015-11-16 10.47.31has to feel different from the other weeks in class; it has to be special. It may be that students are allowed to bring in snacks/drinks or spread out on the floor. It may be that all instruction is focused on this type of writing. It may be that music will be playing while they write.
  4. Focus on quality class structure: Students have to buy in to the boot camp. The first day is the most important. They have to feel like they really accomplish something and are encouraged to do the hard work in the days to come.
  5. Invest in marketing: Build it up in the weeks prior to the boot camp. They should know a challenge is coming but feel excited to meet the challenge.
  6. Invest in resources: Make sure there are mentor texts, access to writing materials, and other handouts for quick teaching of a skill.
  7. Start small: Students have to feel that they have accomplished something (as do you!), so start with something small on the first day that they can use to build on the rest of the week.
  8. Time class properly: Boot camp has to be structured. Time every part of it so that the pace is consistent. Use phrases like, “You have 10 minutes! Ready! Set! Go!” It should feel like a mental workout!
  9. Create a feeling of camaraderie: This is a group experience. The teacher should be walking around reading, encouraging, guiding, gently correctly. The class should celebrate each others work and 2015-11-16 10.02.12improvements.
  10. Structure class like group personal training: Make class adjustments for each class period: change length of times, resources, or focus skills as necessary. Give as much personal and small group attention as possible. Reflect not only on each day but each period.
  11. Reward: Make a big deal about completing boot camp and the accomplishments/growth made during the week.

This is a general overview of our writing boot camp.

We have 50-minute class periods (except Wednesday which is 45 minutes).

Previous to Boot Camp (see more about this in last week’s post):

  • Read three short stories (of your choice, must be approved) and write journal entries on each.
  • Choose one short story and complete close reading lens analysis with six lenses.
  • Establish a theme statement for the short story.
  • Write a 100-words on author bio, context, and summary of short story.
*The minutes indicate quiet student work time and do not include the instruction time in between.

2015-11-18 13.00.27Monday
1. Collect and review all previous work, data, evidence. (2 minutes)
2. Write a flash draft (or quick write) about theme in the short story. (5 minutes)
3. Revise or reword theme statements, as needed. (5 minutes)
4. Deciding on best lenses to prove development of theme (all analysis is a form of argument). Choose three out of the 6. (5 minutes)
5. Write a thesis statement; focus on active verb. (7 minutes)
6. Gather information for context in the introduction. (5 minutes)
7. Write a working introduction (subject to change). (10 minutes)

Tuesday
1. Finish introduction– make it tight. (3 minutes)
2. Focus on one lens and gather appropriate evidence. (10 minutes)
3. To use a quote or not to quote? Summary, paraphrase, and quotations (mid-workshop teaching point)
4. Flash draft for first lens. (5 minutes, 1 minute break, 6 minutes, 1 minute break)
5. Writing partner review. (10 minutes)
6. Brag about something your partner did.

Wednesday
1. Look at mentor text for writer’s craft moves for literary analysis. Chart.2015-11-18 13.02.24
2. Discuss possible structure of body paragraphs (write about each lens separately or blending lenses).
3. Work on body paragraphs (7 minutes, 1 minute break, 10 minutes, 1 minute break, 12 minutes)
4. Share out best sentence.

Thursday
1. Discuss strategies for conclusions.
2. Continue writing paper—work on whatever is needed. (10 minutes, 1 minute break)
3. Work with a writing partner to discuss writing and trouble shoot problem areas. (10 minutes)
4. Continue writing. (15 minutes)
5. Make a goal list for final boot camp day.

2015-11-18 13.40.32Friday
1. Discuss revision and proofreading strategies.
2. Write independently. (10 minutes)
3. Work with peers and conference on final touches. (30 minutes)
4. Reflect on boot camp and name the one thing you are most proud of from this week.

 

What my students said:

Overall, students appreciated the experience, even if they didn’t all love it. Some really struggled with the timed parts. Next time, I will be clearer of how they can use their time and that they can finish later what they don’t finish in that timed session. However, I will not change using timed writing sessions. Our students have to practice timed writing and many of students will take AP the following year. It’s good practice for them, and I believe it kept my students more focused and productive.

Another concern several students raised was that they felt unsure about what they were supposed to be writing. I think this came from not being given a formula to follow. I will not give a formula, but I may do more small group sessions during some of the time writing stages or offer small groups before or after school for more direction, in the future.

As for the positives, I’ll let you hear their voices:

  • I loved that it pushed me to do more in my writing than I ever thought I could.
  • I liked the examples and text given to us in order to aid in our writing.
  • I liked how it pushed me to think faster and write more thoroughly.
  • I’m learning to fix mistakes that I habitually make in my writing.2015-11-16 10.48.04
  • I liked having the option of asking any question right when I had the problem in my writing.
  • I am most proud that I have been about to identify errors in my own paper and identify good things in my own paper.
  • I liked that we had the opportunity to revise our papers as we were writing them.
  • I have learned to weave lenses into my writing the correct and efficient way.
  • The fact that I was able to write for a long time made me happy.
  • I liked the freedom of choice.
  • Writing boot camp has helped me know how to analyze a piece of text.
  • Writing boot camp helped me realize that I could do a lot better.
  • Writing boot camp has helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses in writing. It has also helped me learn to pull information from text.
  • I think writing boot camp was great! At first, I thought it would be just terrible, but it turned out to be really fun and challenging in a good way. I love that we had a chance to really analyze a story.

I think this idea is a keeper. Now just to get some “I survived writing boot camp” t-shirts…

Bonus Read: I really liked Katy’s post (Not) Going Fishing on the Turn and Talk Blog.  One, I am just a Katy fan, and I really liked her voice in this blog.  But most importantly, this post challenged me to think about how and when and why I question in the class.  One thing I learned through this writing boot camp process was how much time I actually do have in the classroom.  Now that we are finished with boot camp, I want to make sure I keep maximizing my time.  Becoming effective with questioning is a way to do that.  Effective questioning is purposeful.  Thanks Katy for the fun metaphorical reminder!

Literary analysis through close reading of picture books and short films

A month or so ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Lester Laminack at the Georgia Association for Curriculum and Instruction Supervisors Fall Conference. He is brilliant and I could write about all I learned from him for many blogs. At the heart of Lester’s presentation and his new book, Writers ARE Readers, was the message that every reading lesson can be flipped into a writing opportunity. Brilliant, right? But also, so common sense…when he says it! 🙂

A few week ago, I attended our system ELA Vertical Team meeting, where the amazing Cheryl Daniels, our system’s 6-12 ELA Instructional Coach, presented on how to use picture books in centers for theme work. It was beautiful. The picture books were powerful and had layers of meaning. The task cards gave students enough scaffolding to help them do the work in groups, but also enough depth to encourage rigor in student thinking. Cheryl graciously agreed to let me share a sample of what a station task card might look like. You can see that here.

2015-11-09 12.01.22As my colleagues and I sat down to plan our literary analysis unit, these professional development opportunities were at the forefront of my mind. I knew I wanted to give students tools to help them learn to do the work of literary analysis independently. But to do that I knew I couldn’t start with hard, inaccessible text. I needed to teach the ways to analyze text. I needed to give students a reason to go back to the text. I needed to give them a protocol so they could learn to do it independently. (See my last posts on how anchor charts support independence.)

So here’s what we did:

  1. We started with an argument protocol from Teacher’s College. You can read more about that here (be sure to check the links at the bottom). Our last unit’s focus was argument, so this felt like a good way to introduce the new unit. We debated whether the theme of Margaret Wild’s Fox was more about loyalty or overcoming obstacles. (I’ve also used the short film Mr. Hublot and debated whether the theme is more about sacrifice or friendship.)
  2. This led into a discussion on how there are certain lenses we can look through to discover the theme of a text, and the closer we look through the lens the more we will understand about the text.
  3. Then, I introduced the close reading protocol from Christopher Lehman and 2015-11-03 15.20.36Kate Roberts’ Falling in Love with Close Reading.
  4. We decided to look through the following lenses in our unit of study (in no particular order): setting, symbolism, characterization, diction, mood, perspective, and figurative language.
  5. I did a mini-lesson on each lens, practicing with short videos and picture books. Cheryl Daniels was incredibly helpful in helping me find texts. The ones I used plus other options are listed below and on my Pinterest board.
  6. We are still working on lenses right now, but the next steps for us will be writing a literary analysis on a short story of their choice. They will do a little research on the author and context for the story, and then choose three lenses to 2015-11-10 13.17.58analyze their story. This will be the pre-work and thinking before beginning the writing process.

What I like about this is that the students are learning ways to analyze text on their own—they have tools. Then they will be able to choose which tools are best to analyze a story of their choice. They will be building independence instead of the teacher telling them what to write about and how to format their papers. They have ownership. And that ownership will help them far beyond the time in my classroom.

Lenses and Possible Texts(for links to all books & videos and other resourc2015-11-10 13.15.18es, see Pinterest)

Thank you, Cheryl Daniels, for providing picture book titles. 

Starred titles are what I used for mini-lessons. 

Setting

  • Jane Cutler’s The Cello of Mr. O
  • Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side
  • *Chipotle’s The Scarecrow

Symbols

  • Patricia Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt
  • Eve Bunting’s The Terrible Things
  • Sherry Garland’s The Lotus Seed
  • *PSA: The Bystander

Point of View/Perspective

  • *Donald Hall’s I am the Dog; I am the Cat
  • Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park
  • Cris Van Allsburg’s Two Bad Ants

Characterization

  • Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum
  • Mem Fox’s Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge
  • Joan W. Blos’ Old Henry
  • Ellen Levine’s Henry’s Freedom Box
  • *Joseph Oxford’s Me + Her (short film)

Structure of Text

  • *Allan Ahlberg’s Previously
  • Melanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel
  • Christopher Myer’s Wings
  • Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey

Diction

  • Debra Frasier’s Miss Alanius
  • Graeme Base’s The Sign of the Seahorse
  • Julius Lester’s John Henry
  • *Christopher Myer’s Wings

Figurative Language

  • *Robert Burleigh’s Langston’s Train Ride
  • Julius Lester’s John Henry
  • Avery Wood’s Quick as a Cricket

Tone and Mood

  • Margie Palatini’s Piggie Pie
  • Judith Viorst’s Earrings
  • *Movie Trailers & Recuts – see Pinterest for examples

Bonus Read:  Friday our school received some test scores from a high-stakes, statewide test given last year.  The conversation about test scores and what they mean and don’t mean buzzed.  I was reminded of Amy’s post 7 Reasons to Stop Asking about AP Scores.  I loved what she said in this post about student learning and test scores.  This is a must read and reminder for all educators, not just AP teachers.

I have nothing to wear (aka Why anchor charts matter)

2015-11-03 15.20.36It was Sunday night. I was getting everything ready to start a new week at school—packing lunch, gathering papers, and finding an outfit. Laundry was done, and all my clothes were hanging in my closet. There were a lot of clothes, but I still stared at my closet thinking I need to go shopping because I have nothing to wear.

I finally decided to take out each pair of pants and each skirt, one at a time, and match it with a top. Turns out, I had plenty to wear. I just needed a system, a way to look at what I had, to find what I needed.

It made me think of my students. They learn a lot of skills and have lots of tools to access those skills. Sometimes this comes in a piece here and a piece there; sometimes we give several tools for the same skill. And then we, as teachers, ask them to use these tools and skills throughout the year again and again—using the tools or developing the skills with different text or different writing assignments (building different outfits each time).

I think students can often feel like I did standing in front of my closet. Overwhelmed. Having no clue where to look or what to look for. It’s not that they 2015-11-03 15.20.31don’t have lots of tools or lots of practice with the skills. It wasn’t that I didn’t have lots of clothes. They just need a system, a way to see what they have and access the tools when needed.

For me, this is the purpose of the anchor chart. It helps my students access the tools they need to do what they need to do.

I didn’t always use anchor charts. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the idea of anchor charts. I just thought they took too much time (It was easier to use PowerPoint); I thought they were too difficult to display (that chart paper never sticks to my painted brick wall); I thought I didn’t have room (I have to display all my pretty, colorful posters and sayings); I thought it was a little too elementary (I teach those very grown up 10th graders).

This year I’ve used them, but most importantly my students have used them. I see students pointing to the anchor chart that helps them when they are working in groups, or I hear students referring to it during discussion. I can direct them to anchor cha2015-11-04 15.42.20rts, and then they can do it themselves. It builds agency in the students.

All the reason I didn’t use them seem silly. Why wouldn’t I give my students a way to access the tools to use the skills I spend so much time helping them learn? Why wouldn’t I help them figure out that they have outfits they can wear, instead of leaving them overwhelmed thinking they have nothing to wear?

Someone once told me that my walls should be useful for my students or its wasted space. I think my walls are finally starting to talk the right talk.

I challenge you to try it, if you don’t already. Just do one or two and see how it works out. Maybe your students will be like mine and realize just how many tools they have at their disposal.

PS– These pictures of anchor charts are from my current literary analysis unit.  My next post will be on this unit, but the lens idea and structure is from Christopher Lehman and Kate RobertsFalling in Love with Close Reading.  A must have in your professional library!

Bonus Read:  Two Writing Teachers are doing this amazing blog series on Diving into Informational Writing.  Each post is incredibly helpful, and they provide lots of information, helps, and resources.  Two of my favorite from the series are Using Qualities of Informational Writing to Guide Students to Set Goals and Allowing Student Choice Within Informational Writing.

Rising above the rubric expectations

2015-09-28 12.09.14I believe in giving students mentor text. I believe in modeling skills. I believe in setting goals and using progression charts. I sometimes do not believe in the effectiveness of rubrics.

Don’t get me wrong—there is a time and place for rubrics. I use them for some assignments. But I’ve also seen where rubrics have crippled creativity and making in a classroom.

Unless the rubric is crafted well, it can often be read as the least you need to do to get a certain grade. I don’t want my students thinking in those terms. So for some assignments, I set out my expectations in a different way. In a way that allows students to know what they need to do without putting them (and myself) in the “least you have to do” box.

For example, recently we studied logos, pathos, and ethos, and their use in argument. I wanted to know if students understood logos, pathos, and ethos, and I wanted to know if they could use each effectively in an argument. There were lots of ways this could have been done, but, for fun, I created a scenario about the world ending (see below), and they had to take on the persona of a superhero and argue for the honor saving the world. In their arguments, they had to effectively use pathos, logos, and ethosUnit 2, as well as some of the other elements of argument we had learned.

I could have created a rubric for this assignment, but instead I asked the students to be very convincing and surprise me in a good way. We have built a culture of high expectations in my classroom. Students know that I expect quality work. But how do you put creativity or leadership or collaboration or curiosity or self-efficacy or so many of those other skills that are hard to quantify on a rubric? How do you put going above and beyond on a rubric?

So I didn’t make a rubric. It wasn’t a major grade in the grade book. I just wanted the students to have fun and show me what they learned (the quantifiable stuff) in a way that worked for them.

When they presented their work. I was amazed. I would have never even thought to ask them to do the things they did in the ways they did it. They did surprise me in a2015-09-28 14.18.29-1 good way, because they had the freedom to do so. Here’s one example:  Superhero News Cast

I’m not saying do away with rubrics for everything, but I am saying maybe we should consider the boxes rubrics can create.

Bonus Read:
Sometimes I get frustrated just when I hear the word differentiation.  It’s not because I don’t value it, use it, or believe in it.  It’s just become one of those educational words that is overused and often not used correctly.  It was refreshing to read Pernille Ripp’s An Easy Yet Powerful Method for Differentiating Instruction. Even more than that, I felt challenged to allow my students to make differentiation choices for themselves.  And perhaps best of all, it is something that I can use immediately in my classroom.

This class is real life

As a student was leaving my class the other day, she remarked, “This class is real life.”

“Reading and writing is life,” I quipped back.

She smiled. “You know what I mean. Classes aren’t always like real life.”

And I know she is right. So many times what we do in class is in a bubble—it’s things that we deem important but have little or no direct connection to students’ present lives, nor their future lives outside our four walls. (By the way, Justin Tarte has an excellent post on why we should stop using the term “real life.”)

I’ve made a very concerted effort this year to make class more reflective of life. I want my class to be an extension of life, a space to examine life, and a safe place to try out our ideas about life.

Below are 5 examples of what we’ve been up to in Room 2414. Some ways I’ve tried to doFacebook Page 3 this are new this year; others have been tweaked or changed from previous years.

Social Action: Three years ago, I was challenged to have my students use reading, writing, and speaking to do something to selfless to impact their world. Mary Ehrenworth says, “We have to teach toward social justice & personal empowerment or there would be no reason to teach at all.”

So I developed a multi step social action performance task that my sopho2014-12-09 12.27.43mores complete throughout the course of the year. You can see an overview of the assignment here.

If you are wanting to implement something of this nature, I suggest using the following books as references: Randy Bomer and Katherine Bomer’s For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action; Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice; and Barbara Lewis’s The Teen Guide to Global Action. I’ve also posted other resources on my Pinterest Social Issue & Justice board.

Each year I am so moved by the comments students make in their final reflection. A few of their comments are below. I also included three of the culminating videos from former students (Domestic Abuse and Feeding the Hungry video links are here). I agree with Mary; this is why we teach.

  • In my opinion, most projects are just for a grade to be put in, but this was more about opening yourself up to the truth in life. I think it was about finding out who you really are and how to use your positive traits to make a difference.
  • I realize that the point of this project was not only to help benefit those in need, or to change how people view an issue. It was so much more than that. The project was to show those in our class that we are all people, we all have feelings, and all of us go through struggles, both big and small. It helped me realize that I’m not the only one who has struggled with their self-image and that even when I thought I was alone, there will always be people, somewhere, willing to listen.
  • Probably about a week ago, we were setting a date and time to go drop our donations off at Loaves and Fishes and I had a sort of epiphany. I realized that what we’re doing really does matter and even though it may not seem like we’re doing a lot, we are. We can’t just sit back and wait for the next guy to do it just because we aren’t the president or Senate. We aren’t even eighteen yet and we can still take action!
  • When we asked people at our school to leave an encouraging message for someone with suicidal thoughts, I honestly was expecting crazy messages. In high school, you always have those people who are going to have immature and rude things to say regardless of the purpose, but shockingly most of our messages were so sweet and inspirational. These messages included bible verses, inspirational sayings, and even personal experiences sharing their own suicidal thoughts and how they were overcome. It really opened my eyes to know that some of my fellow [students], people I might see in the hallway five days a week, actually shared some of the same concerns we discovered in our research.

Relevant application text: We’ve been working on argument this unit. I’m a HUGE fan of George Hillocks’s Teaching Argument Writing. The book (you can get a sample chapter here) gives several ways to teach argument through progression of relevant texts and situations. My students have been engaged in learning, have a deeper understanding of arguments (and the importance of each part of argument), and are more effective in developing and analyzing arguments.

In his foundation chapters, Hillocks discusses how crime shows and court cases exhibit the work we are teaching students. I took two of the texts he mentioned, CSI (season 1, episode 3) and the Supreme Court Case Scott v. Harris, and created extension lessons. You can access the transcript online, or you can use a condensed version (with instructions) I created for my classes.

Students loved using what they we had learned about argument in analyzing these text. There was much rich discussion about claims, evidence, warrants, counterclaims, rebuttals. Both of these text provided complex, rigorous examples that required the students too look closely, go back to the text, and think about the way claims were made and evidence presented. They learned so much more than if they had looked at an artificial text that neatly displayed each element of argument. And, dare I say, they had fun doing it.

Other texts we have used in the argument unit can be found on my Pinterest Argument Text Set board.  More to be added here as we continue through this unit.

Audience: I find providing an authentic audience for my students is hard sometimes, but I also feel it is incredibly important. It is something that I am working hard to do in my class this year. After we completed our memoirs, I had students share their memoirs with an adult and asked the adult to share some written comments with them. I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, but I have been pleasantly surprised. Students asked a variety of adults, including parents, grandparents, former teachers, and even administrators. The adult feedback has been meaningful, instructive, and even humorous at times.

File Sep 23, 1 28 46 PMOne of my favorites was when a student shared her story about an ambulance ride. The student had leukemia when she was very young, but she doesn’t tell people. She doesn’t want to be seen as a victim or have people treat her differently. She asked for a former teacher to read and comment on her story. When she got his comments back, she immediately came to my room, crying. She was so moved by the support she received and realized she could be a support for others.

With this type of response, I don’t know how I could ever go back to being the only audience for their work. I will be exploring ideas and ways to connect students with authentic audiences throughout the year.

Article of the Week: I totally took this idea from one of my heroes, Kelly Gallagher. He very clearly articulates the power behind using an article of the week on his website. He also posts links to the articles he uses. I use this website, Newsela (which allows you to change the Lexile level of the same article), and other articles that I come across. I post articles I use to my Pinterest Articles board.

At the beginning of the year, students often struggle with sharing their thoughts on the subjects. We learn how to talk, to support or disagree respectfully, to listen, and how to dig deeper on topics. I am often surprised at how little my students know about the world around them, and I feel this is an excellent way to connect world events with what we are studying and to help them become more educated citizens of the world.

Choice in reading: I’ve written about this in a previous post, so I won’t say a lot here. It is just so important for students to have authentic reading experience—not forced, shallow responses, made up logs, or artificial conversation. If I want my students to be lifelong readers, then I have to help them establish habits of a reader.

Bonus Read: If you read my last post, you know I am a huge Kylene Beers fan. Her blog post about Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction text is very timely. In this post she responds to a teacher’s question:

“How do you know if they are talking at a surface level or really digging deeper?”

She even includes a checklist that will be in her and Probst’s new Reading Nonfiction Notice and Note book that is coming soon.

Giving students what they need to access text

2015-09-11 07.31.44I remember pretty vividly a lesson on annotation I did several years ago.

I was very excited. I had selected Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s Baby, a text I knew to be rich with lots of examples of, well, just about everything. There would be no end to what we could highlight and scribble notes about in the margin. Plus, there was the added bonus–this was a text I knew the students would love.

As I began to model, marking every craft move Chopin made, the students scrambled to keep up. I just knew their busyness was a sign of engagement. I would stop and ask questions about the text or ask students why they thought Chopin made this comparison or chose this word. Students would oblige and guess (and guess and guess) at the possible reason.

After I made a particularly brilliant comment about something great Chopin did in the text, a student asked, “How did you do that? I don’t see what you see at all!”

Once finished annotating Desiree’s Baby to death, I gave the students another Chopin text to do on their own and set them off. I’m sure you aren’t surprised that I didn’t amazing results. Students were frustrated when they couldn’t make sense of writer’s craft and their purpose (or even at time understand the text).2015-09-11 07.27.46

I mistakenly believed that my thinking was transparent to students and if I just talked about it, they would get it. I did not take into account that I was an English major in college and had even studied this text in one of those courses. What made me think that these sophomores were going to make that leap without learning skills to access the text? The truth is I didn’t really think about skills or access to text at all.

My mentor gave me Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s Notice and Note. I thumbed through the pages, thinking it might be a little too childish for my sophisticated sophomores. But the cries of confusion from my students haunted me. I decided to give it a try, and my world was changed. Well, at the very least my teaching practice and student learning in my class.

Notice and Note gives six very specific “signposts” to help students notice important moments in a text. In other words, it gives students access to the text. It showed me how to teach skills that students can use in any texts they read, which they now do in their independent novels as well as text we use in class.

Notice and Note was the beginning of my change. Other books such as Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading and Christopher Lehman and Kate RobertsFalling in Love with Close Reading are must have resources. There is also a Facebook group for Notice and Note that has so many resources you could spend days going through it.

In Write Like This, Kelly Gallagher says, “The Wizard of Oz would have been a lousy writing teacher.” He would be an equally lousy close read teacher.

Bonus Read: Zackary Kirk did a series of posts on doing high school differently. His last one, Teach Like a (Master) Teacher!, is a call to stop teaching like anything other than a really great teacher. He challenged me to be reflective while also giving lots of additional reading to keep me thinking.

Choice in reading–how, exactly?

2015-09-04 07.20.16There has been much written about student choice in reading–powerful, challenging calls to action from educational greats such as Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller among many others. I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch Kittle’s video, Why Students Don’t Read What is Assigned in Class?, and read Miller’s blog post, Let My People Read, if you haven’t already.  Kelly Gallagher writes an important piece on combining choice, limited choice and no choice in Moving Beyond the 4X4 Classroom.

I’m not going to try to say what others have already said, and much better than I ever could. Instead I am going to try to show why I believe in it for my sophomore 2015-09-04 07.07.38students and how choice in reading looks like in my classroom.

One year, a group of former students came back to visit me.  During our reminiscing, they began to joke about how they didn’t finish reading the books we studied when they were in my class.  I knew something had to change. I didn’t want students to come back joking about what they didn’t read.  I wanted students to come back and talk to me how much they were still reading.  So I began to explore the idea of choice.

I believe in giving choice, because I know how powerful it has been in my classroom with my students. This year I have focused on giving students choice in reading and allowing them to enjoy it by not assigning a certain number of pages to be read, lengthy responses, or mandatory written reading logs.

Just in case you were wondering, my students are doing this reading as well as a lot of reading in class.  To date we have read and studied in class 1 children’s book, 3 articles, 10 complete short memoirs,  10 excerpts from books, 3 complete short stories, 3 poems, and 2 short videos.

Some of the things I have done so far to foster this in my classroom so far this year:

  • Students were exposed to numerous books on the second day of school.
  • Students have been given time to read in class, at least 3-4 times a week.
  • Students set their own goals on Goodreads.
  • Students log their pages on Goodreads, but they have not been assigned a specific number of pages to complete.
  • Students are given the freedom to abandon books.
  • We have Book Talk Tuesdays. Often our media specialist and assistant join us.  I pin the books promoted to our Pinterest page so students can go back and look (and I can keep up with the titles).
  • Students are surrounded by books in my classroom and have easy access to them. They also have time to go to the media center.
  • I post what I’m reading in the classroom, as well as on Goodreads. Students can always see what I’m reading and how much I’m reading.

I asked my students to complete an anonymous survey (via SurveyMonkey) to gauge how the students felt about their reading this year. (Side note: I foster a safe environme2015-09-03 22.44.33nt where I value what students think and real feedback—with each other and with me. I’m not saying they always tell the truth, but they know I value truthful feedback.) Out of my 151 students, 145 completed the survey.

  • 63% believe they have read more this year than last year.
  • 61% have read 1 or more books since the beginning of school, August 3. Of that 61%, 24% have read 3 or more books since school began.
  • 82% prefer to choose their own books; 3% prefer to have a novel assigned; and 15% said they had no preference.
  • 53% almost never completed an entire novel when assigned; 7% said they never read anything assigned outside of class.
  • 86% said choosing their own books encouraged them to read more; 62% said using Goodreads encouraged them to read more.

Some of the student comments (in their own words):

  • I don’t like doing homework assigned with reading because it makes me feel as though reading is something forced rather than something fun.
  • I don’t feel forced. I can read at my own slow pace and enjoy my book without feeling like I have to cram pages in just for a grade.
  • The book goals give added purpose for reading.
  • Please don’t choose my books for me.

  • I just wanted to make a point that Goodreads has been the most motivational thing I’ve ever used to log reading and find new books.
  • When we got to read the blurb/skim through the many different books in the library, it gave me lots of options and helped a lot.
  • Having class time to read to get me going in my book [motivates me to read]

While I believe passionately in giving students choice, I also know the challenges. I asked some colleagues (thank you Laura, Elizabeth, and Suzy!) to help me brainstorm some of the questions and concerns teachers may have when beginning to give students choice in the classroom. Below is how I navigated (and am still navigating) these on my journey.

Where do I get enough books?

I used a lot of resources. Garage sales and local used bookstores have been a great way to collect titles for my classroom library. I am particularly partial to the Goodwill Bookstore in our area that also gives an extra discount to teachers once a week. I connected with our school media center. They help me throughout the year by having titles available, doing book talks, and making the media center an extension of our space. It does help that my classroom is super close to the media center.

A colleague and I also did a school wide book drive. We asked different organizations, clubs, and sports to donate prizes. We received everything from t-shirts to tickets to games. Then we promoted the book drive through the English department and had letters to parents for Open House and community media outlets (see sample letter here). Students received a ticket for the prize drawings for each book they donated. We received tons of books this way.

How do I help students find the right book for the right student?

I don’t know if I can find right book for every student, especially early on in the year when you don’t know your students as well. I want the students to learn how to find the right books for themselves. I give them lots of opportunities to find books 2015-08-04 09.57.46through speed dating, book talks (and not just from me), and chances to peruse my classroom library, the media center, and Goodreads.

But what probably helps them the most is giving students the freedom to abandon books. Students didn’t feel pressured to pick the one book that they will like enough to finish it. They can try out a book, see if they like it, and then decide on whether or not they want to finish. For students to who don’t normally read to find a book they want or for readers to try new genre, they have to feel safe that they can try it and walk away if they don’t like it. All I ask is that they read 10 pages before deciding. Most of the time it only takes 1-3 tries before we find a book a student likes. One particular student from last year, it took 10 tries. But he finally found a book he liked.

Will students actually read outside of class?

Yes, most of them will actually read outside of class, but that doesn’t excuse us from not giving them time in class to read. If we think it is important, if we value it, we will make time for it in class. By the time students reach high school, an alarming amount of them, who used to like reading, don’t do it any more, or rarely read outside of class. Sometimes they just need the time to remember the joy of reading2015-08-04 11.12.34 and get hooked again. There are those who don’t like to read, even some who hate it. Requiring them to read, even a book of their choice, is not going to make them magically like reading. Chances are they don’t even know how to choose a book they like.

Just like I would do with any skill I was teaching, I am going to give my students lots of tools (speed dating, Goodreads, book talks, freedom to abandon, etc) to help find books and time to practice their skill (reading in class). I’m also going to talk to them about their books. I have reading conferences as often as I can with them.

What do I require of them?

There are a lot of different thoughts about this, and I’ve tried a lot of different ways. This year I had them set their own reading goals for the number of books they wanted to try to read this year. I asked them to update Goodreads once a week, but there were no requirements on many pages. Most of them update during class after we have read. I do ask that students read 10 pages before they decide to abandon a book. This is the least amount of requirements I have ever had, and it has been the most successful year.

When I required written logs and a certain number of pages each week, it felt more like forced choice reading—which wasn’t fun. Students often made up the logs right before they were due. I don’t know about you, but I hate assigning, reading, and grading work that isn’t real, probably as much as students resent it.   So I require that students always have a book in class for reading time. I require that they read during reading time. I require that they update Goodreads once a week. I require that they talk to me about the book. There are times I will ask the students to share in class conversation or in writing how a certain skill we are studying is being used in their books.

How do I hold them accountable for something I haven’t read?

Talk to them. You don’t have to have read the novel to talk about it. If you are a reader, you will know enough about books, characters, plots, themes, etc to ask questions about books you haven’t read. Ask them questions about their books—the characters, the plot, the title, themes. Have them show you parts in the text that are significant and meaningful. I find that when students know they are going to talk about their book, they read. Million Words Campaign has great resources conferring with students about independent reading and questions to ask (Making the Most of Independent Reading Using Student Conferences).

How do I hold them accountable? Grades?

I hold them accountable through talk, Goodreads, and asking them about how skills we are learning are showing up in their books; however, holding them accountable does not always mean grades. There is an expectation of reading in my class and tie to do it. Grades are something I am constantly trying to figure out and it is still evolving.

Right now, I grade on preparedness for our conferences or when I ask them to do a quick write showing how a skill was used in the book. I will ask students to do some written reflections on their reading but not every night or week. The Reading and Writing Project has a great resource of different reading responses that allows students to react to the text in a way that works for the student and is meaningful rather than having students write to a generic prompt. I’d love to hear your thoughts or ideas on this.

What if they choose something inappropriate (or that their parents deem inappropriate), but I didn’t know it was inappropriate (or that parents would see it that way)?

I try to handle this in my syllabus. I use the parent letter Kelly Gallagher shares in Reading Reasons. It’s a well-written piece to explain to parents the goals for reading and the purpose of the classroom library. I then ask parents to sign giving permission for students to check out books from my library.

I also ask parents to sign on whether they allow students to read any book they choose or whether they want to give permission for each book. Out of my 151 students, all parents gave permission to check out books from my classroom library and only one parent wanted to give permission for individual books. Find a copy of the permission page from my syllabus here.

Bonus Read:  Two Writing Teacher’s Dana Murphy provided a treasure trove of resources in her Back to School Post on TWT.  She includes resources for topics such as conferencing, conventions, minilessons, organization, read alouds, routines and so much more.  This is one to bookmark so it is easily accessible throughout the year.

Moving from peer editing to partnership revision

This week we have been working on revision, true revision.  And we’ve had to make 2015-08-20 14.35.19a  shift in the way many students view and participate in the revision process.

There is a difference between editing and revision, but often times revision just gets lumped in with editing. This causes confusion for students and many begin to think that revising writing is changing a few spelling or grammatical errors marked by a peer and then rewriting it in pen or typing it. The Berkley Student Learning Center does a great job at describing the difference between editing and revision. Look at some key phrases from the description of revision:2015-08-26 13.06.14

  •  deals with the paper as a whole
  • is dialogue-based
  • purpose of discussion is to expand and clarify ideas rather than “correct” them

This is something that I am continuing to develop in my classes—focusing a little more, using more effective tools, teaching in to the strategies better each year.

Here’s how it looked during our memoir unit this year:

We started revision almost as soon as we finished flash drafting our memoirs (see this post for more details). Students read numerous mentor texts, examining 2015-08-26 12.10.26writer’s craft. They reworked leads and conclusions and tried out craft moves based on those mentor pieces (see last week’s post). We celebrated their thoughtfulness, their work, and their willingness to take risks. Although they were seated in groups and encouraged to talk to one another and they did quite a bit of writing in the air, much of this reworking of their writing was individual. Now it was time for them to form writing partnerships.

First we talked about the importance of revision work. I was probably a little over dramatic, but I needed to make a point. This was serious work. This was hard work. This wasn’t a checklist that they would finish in five minutes. This wasn’t just telling someone they wrote a good story (what does that even mean?) or marking a few grammatical errors.  It required close reading of both their writing and the rubric, thoughtful and meaningful dialogue about their 2015-08-20 14.37.40writing, and a self-negotiation of changes to make (or not) in their memoirs after discussion.

I allowed students to choose their writing partner. We discussed that they needed to choose someone who would help them, be honest with them, and keep them focused. Most of the students made wise choices, often choosing not to work with their closest friends. You may want to choose their partners; you know your students and what is best for them.

I asked students to get prepared for their discussion with their writing partner by using the checklist they had completed earlier to help them find where they believed their writing best fell on the rubric. I used the checklist and rubric from Lucy Calkins and Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions, Grades K-8. I teach 10th ELA and Gifted 10th ELA, and I have found this resource to be invaluable even with the focus on K-8. The writing progression/continuum gives detailed descriptions of the skills that should be evident at each grade level, including 9th grade. Also student examples are provided which help me and the students see what these skills look like in actual pieces. Students of all levels and abilities find the rubric useful in naming skills and setting goals for their writing. I did choose to remove grade levels on the rubric and use stars instead.

Students were instructed that they were the only ones to write on their papers. They would have discussion about their writing, but they were to write notes on their own rubrics and memoirs about what they wanted to do. They were to have discussion using the language of the rubric, looking to see if each skill was evidenced in the writing and noting possible strategies for lifting the level of writing2015-08-20 11.05.05 to the next step on the rubric, essentially goal setting for their writing. Then, they were sent off to work.

Students spread out in my classroom and even in the hallway, finding a place to work, really work. Equipped with the right tools, tools that helped them know what good writing looked like (mentor texts) and the language to talk about the skills and craft of good writing (checklist and rubric), students worked diligently.

Listening to their conversations might have been my proudest moment of the year so far.  Students finally had vocabulary and context to give meaningful feedback to their partners, to ask questions about the piece as a whole, and to name specific 2015-08-20 08.18.11places and ways to lift the level of writing.  Some of the conversations I heard:

  •  A lively discussion over resolution being open-ended but still providing a sense of closure for the reader
  • Using voice in the lead so it is consistent with the rest of the memoir
  • Sense of setting being used throughout the memoir
  • Using courage of a character to make a connection to a larger meaning
  • Dialogue about changing the pace in the narrative and how that would affect transitions
  • Condensing text to highlight the suspense more

After our in-class work on the memoirs (about 2 ½ weeks), I asked students to write a couple of sentence reflecting on our process. I don’t ask my students to put their names on this, because I want them to be honest. I need the feedback to improve my skill just as they do. By far the most suggested improvement was to spend more time with partnership editing. Most students felt they had grown as a writer and shared what helped the most (I’ve listed a few below); however, one student did tell me that he or she “only grew 2% as a writer.” I know my goal for the next writing unit. 🙂

What helped students the most in their words:

  • The [anchor] chart helped me to guide my writing.
  • Reading the different memoirs really helped, so I could see an example of what I am trying to do.
  • Analyzing other author’s writing has helped me understa2015-08-26 12.10.58nd how to make mine better.
  • What really helped me is the little individual checks that you did. [It] helped me establish what was needed.
  • Had time to try out, reject/accept many memoir ideas (wasn’t pressured into getting stuck with something I didn’t want to write about.
  • Working with a partner and getting feedback gave me new ideas and confidence with my piece
  • Actually getting feedback that could help me instead of “yeah, it’s fine”
  • Writing more often and reading has helped me
  • Having a partner to go over [my writing] and reflect on it
  • Actually cared about my work. Actually felt motivated to do it right.

Teaching students to be reflective on their writing and our processes in the classroom will be on-going. My hope is that all of them will eventually be able to say as one student put it, “I thought about how far I’ve come and am surprised as what I’ve accomplished.”

If you want to lift the level of revision in your classroom beyond this or just want to look at ways to expand this process,  wrote an amazing post, Moving from Partnerships to Peer Conferences, on the Two Writing Teachers blog.  This post includes resources and tips for making the transition.  I was inspired and challenged by this post and will most definitely work on sliding my students a little further in our next writing unit.

Bonus Read: I loved Elizabeth’s 7 Trends in My Fall Classes post on the dirigible plum blog. I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to have students respond to text or to reflect. Her seven creative ideas gave me a great jump start. Here’s just one that I’m going to try out soon:

Micro-response. Students in 4 classes are going to get a heavy dose of Twitter essays, 6-word stories, and 17-word summaries. There is something so powerful and affecting about the clarity and strength of a thought expressed under constraint.