Archive for category In the Classroom

Writing Workshop: Assessment and Hope

(posted previously at

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).


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 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 will be 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.

, , , , , ,


It’s Monday! What Are you Reading?

See this? These are the books I brought home to read this summer. The crate is full of YA literature, mostly early releases I picked up in the exhibit hall at ALAN in May. I probably left there with 100 books. I think I’ve read one. I also have a tall stack of ORCA Soundings, short edgy books for reluctant and slow readers, in that crate somewhere. I’ve read two so far, and yep, they are edgy. I think my hostile readers will love them.I know if I want to get my students to read, I have to be a reader. But this is not how I want to spend my summer. I want to read me books:  mystery, adventure, romance…you know, reader candy, books that I devour quite simply for the sweetness of the story.

I do not think there is enough time in my summer days to do both.

In the bag on the right are my book resources for curriculum writing. There’s a whole shelf in my classroom empty because I may need these trusty friends. I am spearheading re-writing 9th grade curriculum to more effectively meet student needs as EOC/STAAR tests threaten to destroy us. (Okay, that’s over-statement, but still…our scores this spring were dismal.)  A favorite? I’ve become a disciple of Jeff Anderson and praise his book 10 Things Every Writer Should Know every chance I get. I’ll be using some of his ideas to coach teachers into conducting writer’s workshop with more fidelity. An ELA goal across my district.

See that book in the bag on the left–Instructional Coaching? That’s the title of my new job–Instructional Coach, and I’m reading it because I need to!  I am excited for the opportunity, and change always makes me eager to learn. I will be teaching two sections of English I on my home campus, and then I will be coaching English I teachers on my campus and the other three high schools in the district in the afternoons. I love that I get to keep working with students, and I love that I get to work with teachers. It’s a perfect marriage, and I think I’ll love it.

So much to read, so little time to read it. So occasionally I’ll claim to be a part of #bookaday, and I just signed up today for #summerthrowdown, although I won’t be too much help to Team Teacher. However, I will be reading. Every day I will be reading.

And I will read those YA books because I can read all the pedagogy books in the world, but if I can’t get my students to read…all the strategies in my toolbox won’t help a thing.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

An Outline Means I Have to Think–Oh, My!

So, here’s the Teachers Write! assignment for the week. It comes from Sally Wilkins, writer and researcher.

Assignment for this week:

If your project is at the idea stage, do a brain-dump, jotting down all the random bits and pieces. Begin to sort them into logical groups. Create a rough outline (or timeline, or map, or flow chart) from these groups.

If you already have a work in progress draft, create an outline from the text. Look for gaps and bulges in the outline. Think about (and jot down) how you can smooth and balance those problem areas in the next draft.

And a note from Kate…

If you don’t have one major project for the summer but you want to practice outlining and see how it all works, try creating an outline of one of your favorite books. When I was writing EYE OF THE STORM, I really wanted to make it fast-paced for kids who love action. Before I started writing my thriller, I sat down and studied the pacing in a book I admired for its pacing, THE HUNGER GAMES. I made a chapter-by-chapter outline and learned a lot about why we can’t put that book down. It’s a fun exercise!

I am sure that creating an outline is a good idea. I teach my students to do this prior to any kind of writing activity. “You need to think and plan before you write. It will save you time.”

But, here’s the thing:  This morning when I read the assignment, I knew that there weren’t enough thoughts in my head about what I want to write to think and plan anything. Then, I thought:  I am my students. That’s why they either skip the outline or create a skimpy one.

Now I am thinking:  How can I get my students to think about writing when they don’t really know what they think about anything–other than boys and girls and who’s hot and who’s not and other 14-yea-old phenomena? How can I get my students to think about organizing their writing when they don’t realize they have any thoughts that need saying on paper?

Somehow I have to get my students to see that knowing how they think and what they think about matters. Then maybe I can get them to think that their voices matter. Then maybe I can get them to want to share their thoughts and voices. And then maybe I can get them to organize their thoughts into a plan that will make their messages clear.

Oh, my! That’s a lot of maybes. And I have a lot of work to do. I better get organized.

, , ,

Leave a comment

Scaffolding or Struggling, Sinking vs Thinking

So, when the school year started, I was all about scaffolding. I would do this, and my students would do that. I’d provide, build, prop, support until my students were writing their souls onto the paper. Good idea, right? Yeah, it worked about two weeks.

Then, I realized my students were bored. No matter how much I tried to get them interested in doing the learning my way, they were all about doing the learning their way:  they wanted me to “get them started” and then let them GO.

Since I am a control freak, this presented a problem. What if they did the work wrong? What if they didn’t learn the skill I needed them to learn? What if I couldn’t stay on the carefully crafted schedule I’d created?

Yep. That last question—see? There’s the problem. I wanted the learning to be about me. My schedule. My way or the highway. I had to learn to let go and let them.

My approach to writing instruction changed. Instead of pounding my students sweet heads with pre-writing strategies, although colorful additions to their writing notebooks, I started more carefully following the advice I’d learned from great coaches like Jeff Anderson, Penny Kittle and Cris Tovani.

One thing I changed:  I started using better mentor texts. I found pieces of writing that included the skill I wanted students to learn, pieces that were inflammatory or insulting—you know, writing that made students crazy with the need to respond? Pieces that made students think. We’d read these pieces together, and then I’d ask the students questions that helped them discover the writing skill in the piece. Inevitably, students will find what I hope they’ll find—if the mentor text is a good one.

For example, I just read this piece by Stephen King entitled “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake” that I plan on using in class one day soon. The title alone will make my students want to read it. (Careful–obviously, there is some salty language.) Take a peek:

What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, “OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.” That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry.

And hey, why don’t we get real about this? Most rich folks paying 28 percent taxes do not give out another 28 percent of their income to charity. Most rich folks like to keep their dough. They don’t strip their bank accounts and investment portfolios. They keep them and then pass them on to their children, their children’s children. And what they do give away is—like the monies my wife and I donate—totally at their own discretion. That’s the rich-guy philosophy in a nutshell: don’t tell us how to use our money; we’ll tell you.

The writing devices in this excerpt scream to be discussed:  Hello? Tone, Dash–baby, Word Choice Wonders, Asyndeton’s a-list, Repetition-Repetition, and more!

If I trust my students to search, find, think, and discuss what makes this writing effective—they will. Then, not only can I encourage my kids to use devices like this in their own writing, I can craft questions that get them thinking about topics to write about. Voile! My mentor text is now an ideas generator.  

Questions like:  What kind of story might be titled “One Single Red Penny”? What topics emerge from these paragraphs? Why should you care about United American citizenry? What are some things you’d like people to “get real” about? What are some things you consider “annoying responsibility stuff”? What are some treasures your family passes down from children to “their children’s children”?

My students will get into these questions, and look at all the different types of writing they can produce just by thinking about these topics? Literary, expository, persuasive.

Thinking. Maybe that’s the deal here. When I provide too much scaffolding, my students do not have to think near as much as when I let them struggle through.

In the rear of my classroom, I have a wall painted with chalkboard  paint that says in colorful fancy letters: It’s TIME to think. Maybe it’s just me, but thinking equates to struggle, and I am pretty sure that’s where the learning is.

, , , ,

1 Comment

Turning Discovery and Learning Over to the Students: That’s Workshop

On occassion, teachers ask me to explain what I mean when I start talking about my reading/ writing workshop classroom. The following is a response to an initial request on Twitter, which later expanded to questions and answers. Tweet: “I am thinking of switching to a workshop approach. Does anyine have any pointers?” Well, yes, actually, I do.

First of all, there are many definitions of “workshop.” Some gurus like Donalyn Miller go with an all student choice approach, while others like Kelly Gallagher and Nancie Atwell incorporate some whole class reading and instruction into their workshop classrooms. While my district is working to implement workshop into the curriculum this summer, we are trying to define what workshop means to us. This is what we’ve deciced so far:

Reading/Writing Workshop means students have a say in the titles and topics in which they read and write. Students read, discuss, write, and share in small and large groups. Teachers continually hold “book talks” and introduce new books, so that students have numerous titles in which they may choose self-selected reading. Teachers may also have short lists (perhaps 5-6 titles) in which students may choose titles and form small book clubs or literature circles. Students gain the pleasure of reading about topics and events that interest them; teachers focus on skills that help students become more critical readers. Students develop as writers as they choose topics that relate personally to their lives. They learn to take pride in their work as they take their writing thoroughly through the writing process and practice the habits of published authors. Teachers introduce mentor texts in which students analyze and model an author’s craft and style. Ultimately, students publish their writing and find pleasure and satisfaction in potentially getting feedback from their audiences.

As you can tell, we’ve combined several different “workshop” models into what we think might work best for our kids. When I first learned about workshop I read Atwell’s book In the Middle, which was great, but I quickly realized that her idea of a student-centered (and self-motivated) classroom would not work with the majority of my sophomores. I knew that I needed to offer more direction. My kids either jump off task and topic quicker than I can take a breath, or they are lumps of lard waiting for something exciting like the monthly fire drill. There’s no way Atwell’s “divide-the-class-into-groups-and-have-them-work-through-center-type-activities” would ever work with my on-level students (my AP kids another story). I had not attended Penny Kittle’s training yet, nor had I read her book Write Beside Them. Once I learned from Kittle, I knew I could create a workshop model that would work for my students.

I’ll try to answer your questions, and then really, you’re right– jump in with both feet! You’ll learn through trial and error, and if nothing else, your students will be reading and writing and engaged.

Q: Normally, we think of each grade level by the books students read. Juniors read American Lit (Huck Finn, Scarlett Letter), Seniors read Brit Lit (Beowulf, 1984). If we move to a workshop, what defines each grade level? What makes sophomore year different from junior year? Is it just a constant reinforcement of the skills?

A: Yes, it’s a skills-based focus. Pull out the standards and decide which are the most important. Texas now does this for us with our Readiness and Supporting standards. We did not join with the National Core, and I am not sure what those look like at different grade levels. I’m pretty sure that no matter there are some standards that must be much more recursive than others. Those are the ones we return to over and over again with reading and writing workshops. For example, our new state mandated test (STAAR), which starts this coming year, will include narrative & expository writing (9th grade), expository & persuasive writing (10th grade), persuasive & analytical writing (11th grade). Obviously, the skills needed to write in these forms will be taught throughout the year, ideally through the use of mentor texts, teacher modeling, and delving deeply into the writing process, which must be the focus–process–more than the product.

I believe it is still possible to move through thematic units with American Lit at 11th and Brittish Lit at 12th. My district still mandates a few “required” texts at each grade level, and the new workshop curriculum will reflect the same American Lit then Brittish Lit as you mention; we just now have the freedom to either do all of the text or just excerpts, and the approach is different– student-centered learning instead of the ‘ole Sage on the Stage: teacher at the front of the room doing all the talking, and kids glaring at their eyelids trying to remember what they read in Spark Notes so they can pass the end-of-class quiz.

Q: We have partial block. Monday-Wednesday are 50 minutes.. and then we block 90 minutes Thurs/Friday. So I only see my students four days a week. How would you recommend we organize the workshops with those time limitations?

A: I work within the constraints of 47 minute classes five days a week. I’d love to have your 90 minutes on Thurs/Fridays, but I’m not exactly sure how to tell you what I’d do with them. I think your organization will come naturally as you play with what approach to workshop feels right to you and works best for your kids.

Q: How do students keep everything organized? Do they have a reader’s notebook, writer’s notebook.. and then some way to publish their finished products?

A: Yes, all students have writer’s notebooks. We use the hardbacked composition books because they hold up so much better and are less of a hassle than spirals. Make sure to work in time for students to decorate and take ownership of their notebooks. This is vital. Also, teachers must create a notebook and model writing for their students as often as possible.

We made our notebooks “interactive” because our science department had great success with students cutting and pasting all handouts in their science notebooks. Students liked the Kindergarten-ness of scissors and glue…oh, and foldables, kids love foldables!

Q: I was thinking the publishing would be perfect on a blog. What do you do for that?

A: I have a class blog, and my students all have their own blogs. My AP kiddos do great at publishing pretty much once a week. Three kids are even getting published as student samples in Tony Romano and Gary Anderson’s book Expository Writing. I’m proud! (a Twitter connection–another testament to PLN). I was not as successfull getting my 10th graders to take ownership and publish on their blogs. My fault. I expected more than they could give without more time in the lab and instruction from me. I will handle blogging differently with my on-level students next year, but so far, blogging is the best thing I’ve found for students to publish to a world-wide audience, and I’m determined to make it work with all my students.

Other publishing resources- Teen Ink, Teen Ink Raw and lots of online writing contests. Google it. I also want to compile a class anthology that students publish at the end of the year.

Q: Are there some things you can do as a full-class? For example: Macbeth with my seniors. I have the Folger book with the Macbeth activities that I love doing where the students act out portions of the play. Normally, I devote a month to Macbeth. Obviously, that would need to be drastically cut down in a workshop. How do you incorporate some of those whole-class studies that would be too challenging for the students to do on their own?

A: As stated previously, the definition of workshop is different to many people. Whole class instruction can still happen and be called workshop. Are students reading? talking about texts? problem solving? analyzing? Are students writing? responding to challenging texts? learning from one another? Yes?? You’ve got a workshop!

I attended a training last summer where Sheridan Blau of National Writing Project fame now a professor at Berkley (I think) held several “workshops” in the course of the afternoon. Blau called the following a workshop:
1. Read the poem.
2. Respond in your notebook.
3. Share response in small group.
4. Discuss and analyze poem in small group.
5. Share out in whole class.
6. Respond in notebook to whole class discussion.

I love the simplicity of this. I learned a similar approach from Penny Kittle. Basically, it’s turning the discovery and learning over to the students. It’s allowing and teaching them to think and share their thoughts. In my experience, students always find the literary elements and devices that I want them to learn. They might not know the term, but they can “find what’s interesting.” The interesting thing leads to me teaching them the skill.

Okay, that’s a lot of information, and I hope it’s clear. Questions? Ask away. I’m happy to help

Leave a comment

I Want to Be That Teacher


Lately on Facebook I’ve noticed a rash of “You know you grew up in _____ if…” status updates. The comments vary from favorite restaurants and haunts to town and school traditions. It’s been interesting to note how often the conversation turns to high school teachers, and surprisingly, most of the comments are positive. I am fascinated by what people remember.

I have a few memories of my own:

Mr. Strittmatter who wrote out algebraic equations as if they were poetry, and I finally got math.
Mr. Tisdel who loved Melville and planted in me a love of literature.
Mrs. Shirey who devoted hours of her life, so I could say I created a great yearbook.

But here’s the thing: when I try to analyze what they did, I come up short. Was it kindness, patience, passion for their content, the sheer joy of teaching? A myriad of other things? I don’t know.

I do know I remember them: names, faces, the way they made me feel.

In a week, I start my 6th year teaching, and as I think about how I will partner with my students one question resonates:

What do teachers do that create the impact on a student that lasts for decades?

I want to be that teacher.

Leave a comment

Why Writing Workshop?

Energized. That’s the word I needed earlier today. A friend asked how teaching’s going, and I tried to explain but couldn’t find the word to convey the difference in this year versus last or the year before or before or before. I’m usually counting the moments to Fair Day and a day off, tired of dealing with lazy kids and too-busy schedules to want to think down the calendar.  But this year I’m reading ahead, planning ahead, hoping ahead, trying to stay ahead of my students who have stepped up the learning. As I drove home I thought about it. What’s different?

  • Student choice in reading materials. So students want to read.
  • Student choice in writing topics. So students want to write.
  • Students talking about their writing/reading. So student talk is learning.

Yep, energized. Students are working. Pretty sure I’m having fun.

Leave a comment

What Works and what doesn’t

We’re six weeks in to the semester. My students pretty much know what to expect each day: They pull out their personalized writer’s notebooks, get their pens ready, and write in response to some kind of thought stimulant. So, today my daily routine didn’t work.

In a hurry, I didn’t take the time to find a video or passage that gave my students any ownership. Oh, the youtube clip was precious. You probably know the one “Charlie bit my finger.” I asked my kids to watch it and then write what they thought, considering the overall message of the clip. Now, I’m thinking, “This is easy. They’ll get that it’s all about avoiding traps that can cause us pain.” Nope. Not even close.

The typical response from 62 kids  (and I gave them 5 minutes to write) went something like:

“I thought this video was funny the first time I saw it. Now I’ve seen it a billion times, and it is just annoying.”

I learned a valuable lesson:  If I want students to think, I have to give them something to think about. Topics that inspire controversy. Topics that my students might see in themselves or their lives somehow. Topics that evoke passion or anger or even remorse. Just because the video clip is funny does not make it thought-provoking. Simple.

Tomorrow I’m showing a clip on gangs and how they are making threats on youtube. This will get some kind of response.

Leave a comment

Reading Writing Workshop in Secondary School

It’s working. Workshop that is. I’d wanted to try the reading writing workshop approach in my secondary classes for sometime, but I’d always lacked the faith to turn so much responsibility over to my students. I didn’t trust them to stay on task. I didn’t trust myself to allow them to explore topics on their own. I didn’t think they would take advantage of the time I gave them to read and write during class. I was wrong. Very very wrong.

I started the school year with a different mindset than I’d had in the past. I studied all summer on how to create a workshop, student-centered classroom. I read Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, Linda Reif’s Seeking Diversity, Ralph Fletcher’s Writer’s Notebook and thankfully had the chance to attend a training with Penny Kittle. I read her book Write Beside Them in one long sitting and knew that my philosophy on teaching had changed. I determined to give up the traditional model and turn to Workshop.

I currently teach juniors in AP Language and Composition and sophomores in English II. Both classes work pretty much the same way:  student choice in what they read; student choice in what they write; lots of student talk about what they’re writing and what they think…and boy, is it enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring to learn what these kids think!

Leave a comment