Puzzling Through a Movement

One of the reasons I love eduTwitter and the friends I’ve made here on Moving Writers is because it makes me feel less like I’m on my own teaching island. The other day, I tweeted a question about a resource for evaluating bias, and Tricia responded that she was looking at the same site with her students. Then, as I started to piece together the ideas for this post, I read Mike’s latest and realized he, too, was grappling with very similar issues.

Now, with an event as staggering as Parkland and its fallout, it’s no surprise that teachers are on the same wavelength. This time feels different, though.  And I know we’ve heard that so many times it almost seems trite. But I don’t just mean that it feels different from a political standpoint. Maybe it’s the students and how crazy-proud we are of their activism, but teachers this time seem to be digging deeper into our literacy practices.

In Mike’s post, he makes the case for reading like a writer to analyze angles to help students process modern news cycles. My thinking stemmed from a very similar goal, but also from the way that I stumbled through a (somewhat) failed lesson.  

My failed lesson

I presented my students with several articles following the Parkland shooting and asked them to sort the articles. I assumed they’d sort them on a range of opinions: left to right slant, pro-legislation restricting access to guns and against. I was wrong. They had trouble sorting because, many times, they weren’t even recognizing that the article conveyed an opinion. They fumbled through headlines and quotes and graphics, and I stumbled my way through helping them make some sense of what they were reading.

As they finished sorting, we took a look at what they’d come up with. One group sorted their articles by the ideas that each author focused on (gun control legislation, arming teachers, Parkland students as activists) while another group sorted the articles into those that seemed to be persuasive vs. informative in nature. It was pretty clear that they weren’t going to land where I’d hoped they would, so I tried to claw towards a takeaway.

Puzzle ReadingWe ended up agreeing that, when we’re trying to process an issue as big as this one, there’s a lot that we have to think about as readers. When we encounter a text, we have to approach it with the understanding that it’s just one piece of a puzzle.  In order to start putting together the puzzle, we have to work to understand the ideas presented, the author’s opinions, and the purpose for the text we’re reading.

Backing up

The next day, we revisited this puzzle concept, and we zeroed in on how to start understanding the authors’ opinions. So, we put on our “Reading Like a Writer” lenses, and I asked students to revisit one of the articles from yesterday in order to start answering the question:

When do we see clues that the author’s opinion is showing through?

The conversation started off fuzzy. They said things like, “I don’t know. It just sounds like she’s got somethin’ to say.” So we drilled into that. Continue reading


Mentor Text Wednesday: A Love Letter to Saga

Mentor Text: A Love Letter to Saga by Laura Sackton (via BookRiot)


  • Lit appreciation
  • Media Appreciation
  • Review
  • Criticism


Background: Teaching English the way so many of us do winds up highlighting so many great dichotomies that exist in that practice. Write with passion, yet realize that you must do this within constraints sometimes. Read poetry with your heart, but be ready to subject it to an autopsy.

Enjoy and appreciate literature, even though we’re going to attach academic tasks to the reading.

That’s the one that hits me the hardest, and it’s where I see this week’s offering of a mentor text being a good resource. Having students write to a beloved text should prove to be an engaging act of literary appreciation.



Book One of Saga via amazon.com

As you likely already know, Book Riot is a great source for writing about all kinds of books. I especially enjoy their features on genres such as sci-fi and comics. This specific piece reminded me of a particular series, Saga, which I haven’t read in a while, and now need to carve out some time for.


It is the way that this piece is written, as a love letter to that comic, that makes it such a great mentor text. Continue reading

Using Blogging to Grow Independent Writers (or: How to Kick Your Little Birds Out of the Nest)

Copy of wilson james

It’s second semester and my AP Seminar kids are knee-deep in their official Performance Tasks. For those unfamiliar with the AP Capstone program, that means my kids are doing giant, independent research projects and I am required to take a very “hands off” approach.  I can give general instructions to the whole class, and I can ask lots of questions, but I can’t give specific feedback on drafts or tell kids what to change or add or delete. At times (read: All the time)  it can be a little (read: A LOT) frustrating. My students have so many questions and sometimes I just want to tell them what to do.  

Though it nearly broke me last year, this year I’ve come around to this idea of independence. Teaching this course has forced me to rethink how and when I give feedback.  It’s made me consider how I prepare my students to be ready for all this independence– how I can relinquish control and kick my little birds out of the nest.

I can’t just cross my fingers and hope for the best; I need to help them build habits of good writers and researchers. How do you craft quality research questions? How can you give useful feedback to one another? How do you look critically at your own work? How do you use your own reflection to push your writing forward?

There are tons of great resources on this very blog for helping with all of those steps–the practicing and skill building steps.  This one from Rebekah gave ideas for different ways to approach writing conferences. This one has awesome suggestions for how to help students begin to be more independent and ask better questions during conferences. But that final step–the pushing them out of the nest step–that’s always just been the last day of school for me.  Until this class, I’d never considered what it might look like to step back completely and let them take charge. 

This year, I introduced reflective blogging with my students to slowly release control. They write, everyone reads, and everyone comments. Here’s how it’s made them more independent:

Continue reading

The First Seven Days of a First-Time Workshopper

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 4.29.24 PMThere are lots of teachers who implement writing workshop in baby steps — maybe first some mini-lessons, and then some conferring down the road, and later expanded choice for students, and next year some mentor texts. And that works!

For me, it didn’t, though. I dabbled in workshop for a year before I realized that I needed to be all in or all out; there was no workable middle ground. Today’s guest writer, Elontra Hall (@cloudscholar) was the same way. At the beginning of this semester, he found himself with a brand new class and ultimate freedom to teach whatever he wanted to teach. He knew this was the time to jump into workshop with both feet. 

We are so lucky today to feature a post where he walks us through those tentative and miraculous first days of one teacher’s leap into the workshop life! We hope to hear more from him as the semester progresses! 


explore thedeepestwaters

“Are we doing drama today?”

“Are you American?”

“What’s  a writer’s workshop?”

These questions ambushed me as I stepped out into uncharted waters.  Let’s rewind for a moment though before I give my account of the first week of writer’s workshop.


When I interviewed at my current school, I was asked what I would do with seven hours of drama (seven one-hour lessons per week with seven different groups of students) if I were allowed to do whatever I wished. My response was immediate and made my heart feel as if were fluttering:

Writer’s workshop!

Collaboration with teachers of other subjects, team teaching opportunities, group work and research, chances for students to go out of the academy on trips and guest speakers to come in and support. A dream.

Then, I got the job.

After celebrating my new appointment and the freedom that I was to be given, I stared out into the abyss and worry began to boil in a cloud above me.  How was this going to work?

In the States, as a young teacher (two or three years in) I had tried to run a writer’s workshop with varying results. Since moving to England, I had used various writer’s workshop elements in English lessons: freewrites, mentor texts, peer feedback and revision, but in my experience of teaching in the U.K. there was never time to run a proper writer’s workshop because of the amount of content to cover. The GCSEs* loom menacingly over everything; they weigh heavily on students’ future prospects as well as the rating* of the school. Having never “properly” run a writer’s workshop in the UK or heard of anyone else  here running one, I had no idea how it would work.

But, my teacher intuition grumbled, and I remembered what I saw in my mind’s eye during the interview: Teams of students working together to tighten up pieces, Writer’s Marathon in London, pockets of reading and engaged discussion spread out around the room, a board of pieces published by students, a revision and feedback board. Freedom and focus.

It was a risk worth taking.

New job, new class, new content. Luckily, the Christmas holidays had come, so there was time, hypothetically, to thrash some order out of the chaos. One of the best ideas that I had was to take to twitter -as one does- to ask for help and suggestions. And boy did they come!

Next, I took a look back through some of my Writer’s workshop texts: Why Workshop, Bullock; Teaching Writing that Matters, Gallagher, Lee; Living and Teaching the Writer’s Workshop, Painter. I also made sure to get a writer’s notebook for myself and a good pen (Parker IM, ball point, gel ink refills). Finally, I made sure to try to plot out a kind of rough course for my students and I to chart. I wanted to start with freedom and gradually build in a loose structure. These students had never done authentic writing that wasn’t an assessment of some kind. So I worked out that the students would always have a ten minute writing session, a ten minute mini-lesson followed by self-directed writing and one to one/group conferencing.

Well, the festive vittles consumed, the initial anxiety having given way to the choppy waters of starting a new school mid year, I have begun the grand experiment.

Here’s what’s happened so far.  

The First Seven Days

  1. The first seven days have been extremely interesting. I have one hour per week of writer’s workshop with seven groups. My writer’s workshop lessons have taken the place of drama lessons- to the great dismay of a few (Sorry.) From anecdotal accounts, the kids love it. They are excited about being able to choose what they want to write about. They like that they don’t have to be overly focused on SPaG (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation), and they- so far- are genuinely invested in what they are writing. The UK secondary school system is in dire need of programmes like writer’s workshop – programmes that are focused on the student’s interests.
  2. The moment the students realised that they held majority control in their learning they were in. It was remarkable, all of the annoyance disappeared, and pens began that strange yet familiar dance across the page.
  3. Allowing the students to decorate their writer’s notebooks was a quick and definite win.

On the first day, I told them about writer’s workshop and some of the things that are possible. In order to get as much writing done as possible, and to create a positive atmosphere about the new class, I forewent the majority of my teaching time, and we worked through three exercises:

  1. A ten minute free-write
  2. I wonder
  3. Fruit bowl


I think this is pretty standard. Write for ten minutes without stopping and when you get stuck write, ‘I don’t know what to write,’ until you think of something more interesting. The students got to choose the format and content of their writing and as they wrote I wrote. It was a  great experience, sharing time writing with young writers. After time was up, I let the students move around to share their work, with the condition that they could only say thank you in response. (Thank you Ms. Cox from NWP – Meadowbrook Writing Project – Oakland University – Michigan.)

The buzz around the room after the share was palpable and  the apprehension that had lined their faces earlier was gone, replaced by something else – excitement.

I Wonder:

This, too, is a common activity; I have to thank Twitter again for the inspiration. To begin with, I modeled and shared some things that I am genuinely curious about- from scientific and distant to more personal. The students all took a moment (Twenty seconds) to think about things that they were genuinely curious about and then wrote them down. When that moment was over, they wrote down as many ideas as they could in about a minute and a half. Once the time was up, I gave them the option to share with each other:

I wonder if human beings will still exist in a thousand years.

I wonder if faster than light travel is possible.

I wonder what it would be like to live forever.

I wonder how big sharks can get.

I explained to them that as we moved forward these topics might provide topics or act as springboards for them to begin writing. Later on this half term, I plan to compile a number of these from a range of notebooks and put them on sticky notes. The sticky notes will then go to a ‘station’ in the room where students can look at them and perhaps draw inspiration.

Next, I took a bit of time to reinforce some of the basic pillars of our writer’s workshop:

  1. Everybody writes – including me
  2. Traditional teaching only lasts ten to fifteen minutes (max)
  3. Writing here is a process with focus on development and growth – not grades or levels
  4. Collaboration and trust are key for the workshop to be successful
  5. Writing is as much about discovery as it is about creation.

In the time that we had left, I explained ‘Fruit Bowl’.

Fruit Bowl:

The idea is that they were to describe an object without letting (the reader) know explicitly what is being described through naming or other obvious signposting.

After all of the activities I did an informal survey and asked that if they had enjoyed the lesson, that they raise their hands.  A forest of hands shot up and I noticed a number of wide smiles.

The last thing I did was assign homework: Three ten minutes writes on whatever moved them. No sighs, no groans, no muttered whispering about how pointless the homework was. I was pleasantly stunned.


At the end of the seven days, I have to say that I’m pleased with how each classes’ first session went. Now though, I have a different set of issues.

I have to pin down an enthusiastic and reliable team for my PLC to make the workshop truly interdisciplinary. I have to figure out how to make sure that at least one piece of homework gets looked at for each student in each lesson: which calls for conferencing, but is borderline impossible to do in the time frame that I have as each of my groups are over twenty students.

And, finally – most worryingly for me – I’ve given a target of two to three publishable pieces for this five week period. How can I monitor that and coordinate mini-lessons that are meaningful and helpful to all of the students with their disparate ideas and writing ideas?

The answers to this and many more questions I’m sure I’ll come up with soon. I have had quite a bit of help and advice from a number of sources that I regularly refer to; I’m certain that I’ll unearth an answer or, if I’m lucky, a clutch of them.

In short, although I may not be doing it the ‘right’ way (if there is such a thing) I feel like what we’ve started is good, has legs  and a bit of room to grow and develop and adapt as we go along.

What was your first week of workshop like? What did you choose to spend time on? What did you skip? What words of wisdom would you give to Elontra? Leave him a comment below, share your thoughts on Twitter @cloudscholar, or find us on Facebook to join the conversation.


*GCSE exam: an end of year exam for sophomore students (year 11) these are national exams that every student in the UK takes on the same day at the same time across the country, The grades that they get from these have a huge impact on what students do next in their educational careers.
*Rating: Schools in the UK are inspected by a central governmental body called OfSTED. Schools are graded in the following areas: Leadership and management, Teaching, learning and assessment.

Recommended Reading: Get Lit Rising

Pretty much every trip my family takes to the city finds us in a bookstore. Not a surprise, I know.

Recently, as I walked past the teen section, dragging my kids out of the children’s section, a book, of course, caught my eye.

IMG_4594I picked up Get Lit Rising, and flipped through it. And headed straight to the cash register.

Here’s why. In that first scan, I saw the structure of the book. A young writer shares their personal story. There’s a classic poem that they studied. There’s a poem that they wrote in response to that classic. Then, there are some prompts to encourage the reader to write, as well as a list of classic poems around the same themes as the classic featured.

I’ll admit, my overworked TeacherBrain shouted at me, “Jay! This book is a series of readymade lesson plans you don’t need to figure out! You must have it so we can take it easy for once!” I teach thematically, so having lists of poems related to various themes made it a worthwhile purchase as well. Continue reading

Getting Ready to Go Beyond Literary Analysis!

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 7.12.38 AM

We are joining our friends at Heinemann to present a 3-part webinar series designed to get you ready to help your students move beyond literary analysis! You can read session descriptions and register here.

Here’s an overview:

We are getting ready to go BIG—to a place in students’ writing beyond five-paragraph analyses of themes and formulas that dictate their every sentence; to a place past our fear and their dread; to a place of passion and discovery in analytical writing.

This isn’t an insignificant change, though. To give students the transformational skills of analytical writing that are truly transferable, you will likely be striking out into a brave new world of teaching far different from the way you were taught and far different than the way you’ve been teaching analytical writing in the past. You need to prepare.

That’s what we’re doing in this webinar series: giving you the background, the foundation, the language, and the practice you need to feel ready to jump into this new kind of writing work with your students! In our time together, we will:

  • Talk about why this shift is so necessary;
  • Give you tips for explaining this change to others;
  • Introduce you to the four essential tools of analysis and let you practice with them;
  • Help you build creative energy into all the nooks and crannies of your classroom so that passionate writing can happen;
  • Teach you how to turn students’ passions into texts for analysis;
  • Help you plan how to use activities for discovery and crafting techniques throughout the writing process in whole-class, small-group, and conferring settings.

Join us to get ready to turn analytical writing in your classroom upside down!

Reading Like a Writer in Troubled Times

We’ve been studying up on the idea of journalistic “angles”, in preparation for the writing of our big narrative journalism piece.  It’s an unfortunate and important time to be examining such things with high school students. Where we’d normally examining several models about random topics and attempt to uncover the underlying purpose or persuasive efforts of the author, we found ourselves this year understandably distracted by the terrible news of another school shooting.  

It didn’t at first occur to me to revisit such a tough topic as part of our ongoing study of narrative journalism.

Until I came across a terrifying and powerful article at The Atlantic about what AR-15 bullets do to human bodies.  It was gruesomely written for maximum impact on its readers–a master class in angle if I ever saw one.  While the author is a radiologist not a surgeon, Heather Sher’s intentions as a writer are as sharp as a scalpel.  She describes the results of an AR-15 on the human body thusly: “The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively.”  Having already described wounds from other bullets as nothing but thin gray lines on an X-ray, Sher leaves readers with a jarring realization–and we’re only eight sentences into the piece. Continue reading

Review Beyond Literary Analysis & Win!

Review Beyond Literary Analysis

We are dying to know what you think of Beyond Literary Analysis! So, we’re running a contest!

Post a review of our new book on GoodReads or Amazon between today and Friday, April 6, and your name will be entered into a drawing for a 30-minute Google Hangout Q&A for you, or you and a buddy, or you and a buddy and a bottle of wine, or you and your department!

Want to earn additional entires? Take a picture of you reading Beyond Literary Analysis, post it to social media, and tag #BeyondLiteraryAnalysis. You’ll earn an additional entry for each photo.

We love this book and we love you, so we can’t wait to hear what you’ve been thinking as you read!

Mentor Text Wednesday: Parents

Mentor TextParents by Julius Lester


  • Poetic Form

Background: Last April, my co-worker Ashley and I went to see Penny Kittle speak. As is standard, we walked away inspired, full of ideas to try, and thoughts on how we could improve the program that we offer to our students. Penny is the best kind of presenter, openly sharing a plethora of great ideas.

One idea she shared wasn’t in the package she gave us, and I’ll admit to some minor Twitter badgering to get my hands on it. She shared Parents a found poem that Julius Lester created using a New York Times article. What initially hooked me was the use of the article, rearranging it to form a poem. As she shared, the poetic form changes the emphasis on certain words and phrases, and changes the impact of the words.

My initial use of the poem was as a mentor text while my students were creating zines related to social justice issues. It was with my Grade 12 class, a group used to my giving them something like this to work with, and I didn’t do a lot of direct teaching with this piece. I gave them the sheet featuring the article, pointed out what had been done, and set them to creating a version of their own.



The visuals from the slopestyle final were inspiring as well. via The Toronto Star

A month or so later, in the second semester, I found myself using this piece again, with much greater effectiveness in my Grade 10 class. We were studying the Olympics as they happened, looking at how they highlighted elements of our course theme, Facing Adversity and Being a Hero. Pretty much whatever captivated a teacher came into the classroom. There was controversy about the women’s slopestyle event, which was held during heavy winds. The thing is, Canada medalled in that event, partly because the winds cancelled the qualifying rounds, giving Laurie Blouin more time to recover after a crash in training. We watched footage of the event, and all the crashes, and read an article about the controversy. The goal we had in mind was to use Parents as a mentor text, and turn that article, or another one, about hockey, because, well, Canada, into a poem. (Obviously, this is insanely adaptable to whatever you might be studying by giving them related articles!) I also made sure that they had copies of Swim Your Own Race, a poem we had already looked at as another example of poetic form.


With better planning, and well, better teaching on my part, it went so much better than the first use of this piece. Continue reading