Required Reading: On Mandated Texts

If you’re a regular visitor to Moving Writers, you’ve seen the Behind The Scenes series of posts throughout September related to organizing the year. Earlier, throughout August, the Ask Moving Writers series had this team sharing answers to readers’ questions.  I have an obvious bias, but what a wonderful thing to have a community of teachers sharing their experience and insight.

In the spirit of this, I’d like to address a question that came up as we prepped for the Behind The Scenes series. Britt Decker asked about mandated novels within the workshop model. Although I don’t necessarily work in the workshop model, the idea of working with mandated novels got me thinking.

 

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via the TEDEd blog

I’m lucky enough to not have to deal with mandated novels. My team and I have great flexibility, and have novels that are loosely attached to a grade, but little that is set in stone. We communicate to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and make an effort to complement what each other are doing with the texts that each of us chooses.

 

I’ve been open about my affinity for the whole class novel. I think a community of learners, exploring a text, creating some common experiences and knowledge is a powerful thing in a classroom. The whole class novel has been tarnished by the image of repetitive, mindless busywork. The mandated text compounds this distaste for us, because it feels like our freedom is impacted. We have to teach a book we didn’t choose, and we think of how we likely did a whole class novel as students, that mindless busywork hamster wheel we felt trapped on. Continue reading

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Organizing Instruction for Effective Feedback: Strategies for Teachers and Students

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As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.

But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead?  As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Studying Structure & Genre Mixing with Nicola Yoon

yoon

Photo via The Guardian

Today’s Mentor Text Wednesday post comes from Amy Estersohn, a middle school English teacher in New York.  She blogs over at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and tweets @HMX_MSE.

Mentor Text: “We don’t make princesses in those colours” by Nicola Yoon in The Guardian

Writing Techniques:

  • Structure

  • Craft

  • Genre mixing

Background:

The Guardian is one of my favorite online magazines for its English take on the world and, of all things, for its sports analysis pieces.  Nicola Yoon is a well-known author in my classroom, and I enjoy collecting stories of race-based microaggressions, like the story here, to share with students for reflection.

I haven’t used this one in a classroom yet, but if I do tie it into a unit on fairness, I want to make sure I let the piece breathe before I dive into a mini lesson.

How We Might Use This Text:

Structure – Nicola Yoon sets her piece by establishing her character as a protective mother first.  It’s an unusual choice, as most writers might want to start off by describing the birthday party or even with the announcement that she’s the first black female to hit #1 on the New York Times Young Adult list.  Why does she make that choice?  Why does the “story” only start halfway through the piece?  What would your piece look like if you established and described the characters first?

Craft – I used Yoon’s last sentence and did some sentence mimicking in my own notebook:

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and teens shouldn’t cyberbully each other.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and racism is wrong.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and global warming is a major issue.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and there are no such things as girl books or guy books.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

By using Yoon’s words I was able to think about the how she uses repetition to make her voice stronger, and her tone balances between a gently admonishing “c’mon you guys” and an outraged “I can’t believe this still happens.”  The “it’s 2017” gives the call to action a sense of urgency because we’re all writing in the here and now.

Genre mixing – Is this piece memoir?  A call to action?  Both?  Neither?  I’d say it uses the techniques of a memoir to serve as a persuasive piece to agitate and inform a mostly white readership about the realities of living as a Person of Color. Another writer might say it’s a memoir with flecks of a call for justice, because there’s a focus on Yoon’s personal growth.  Whatever we decide to call it or not call it, it’s a good example of how pieces in the real world don’t always neatly conform to elements of a single genre.

Organizing to Communicate: Open the Door of Your Writing Workshop to School Families

I’ve just moved to a new city, and with a move comes lots of conversations with strangers, small talk with new people who I hope against hope might become new friends. Inevitably, that small talk turns to work, and when I tell those potential new friends that I teach high school, inevitably someone in the new crowd shudders a bit and says, “Teenagers? I could never do that.” The shuddering stranger doesn’t get to see or hear what many of us witness every day–kind, compassionate hearts; eager, hungry minds; goofy, geeky abandon; dogged, unflappable determination–no, the shuddering stranger doesn’t know that the people I’m most anxious to face are actually…teenagers’ parents.

Sound familiar?

I’ve spent each of my ten years of teaching wondering why, when most of the interactions I’ve had with parents have been incredibly positive and encouraging, I’m still sometimes reluctant to reach out or make contact. I revert back to my timid, first-year teacher self. My best guess comes down to communities and borders: each year, my students and I build a community–we all know the rules, expectations, and customs, so we’re comfortable with each other–but then those students go home to family communities with their own sets of rules and expectations, customs I must learn when I venture into those communities.

What’s unfamiliar can be scary; I’m a daughter and a sister, but I’ve never been a parent, so I always feel a little out of my depth in these conversations. Perhaps some parents feel a little apprehensive because they’ve been students but not teachers. No matter what’s provoking our nervousness, it’s clear that diplomatic communication can strengthen community partnerships, creating more places for our writers to thrive. Writing workshop needs some neighborhood buy-in to succeed.

Now that you’ve followed advice from the previous posts to create a wonderful writing workshop, it’s time to organize so you can share what’s great about that writing workshop with parents and families.

Let’s start by planning backward and anticipating the questions parents and guardians might ask. Here are some frequently asked writing workshop questions from parents and strategies for answering them.

  • Writing workshop? What’s that?
  • What are the benefits of writing workshop? Where’s the rigor?
  • How will my student be assessed? 
  • How can I help? 

Continue reading

How to Make Blogging a Core Practice in Your Writing Workshop

A few months after Rebekah and I started Moving Writers in 2015, I knew blogging was something I needed to bring into my classroom. I was undoubtedly behind the curve — lots of teachers I knew were already blogging with students, and every year at NCTE, I circled multiple blogging sessions in my program but never attended them. 2015 was going to be the year.

But I struggled. Only two years into using the writing workshop approach, I was still trying to find my rhythm — the perfect balance of depth and breadth. Writing studies took a long time, and I was trying to fit 6-8 studies in over the course of the year. In addition to these studies, how would I be able to successfully integrate blogging into the classroom? How could I make it MORE than a single writing study without sucking all our writing energy and precious time? Could I make it a core practice in our workshop — one that could magically run itself?

It took me a few tries, but last year I feel like I finally got into a groove with my eighth graders. Here are some considerations for making blogging a core practice in your workshop: Continue reading

Organizing Instructional Time

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food organization

I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now that the slice-able carrots are in the same bin as the plastic bok choy.

Organization. When we first kicked around the idea of organization being a common thread for our first series of the school year, I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from panicking. As I racked my brain for something I could write about, I was coming up empty. Well, unless you count Organization or Procrastination: You Decide as a worthy topic, in which case I could write all day. Take for instance the deadline for this blog entry. Before finally sitting down to hammer it out, I didn’t just tidy up my kids’ toys, I organized their pretend kitchen by food group.

 

Aside from this particular habit, anyone who has seen the mountains of file folders on my desk could probably attest that organization is not exactly my area of expertise. In nearly every case of organization I could think of as a possible topic, I found more questions than answers. How we organize our instructional time is no exception, but it is one that I’ve been especially invested in lately.

How we organize our instructional time is a big question in itself, or rather, it is comprised of several smaller questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between reading and writing?
  • What about the speaking and listening standards? Where do those fit?
  • How much time do we devote to reading shared vs. choice texts?
  • What role does independent reading have within the class structure?
  • How do we gradually release responsibility so that students can confidently take on the lessons independently?

These questions have been churning around in our department over the past few years, but this year, they’re mixed in with another big one:

How does lesson planning change between a standard period and a block?

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Poetry of Small Moments

Mentor Text: The Taco Boat by Al Ortolani

Writing Techniques:

  • Idea Generation
  • Memoir
  • Poetic Form
  • Voice

Background:

In  Twitter edchats, I’ve been part of discussions about what should be part of a teacher’s Twitter feed. One of my go-to recommendations is always poetry. Following poets, literary magazines and other sites that focus on poetry. The wealth of poetry this puts into your feed is good for your soul as a human, and a vital resource as an English teacher. My screens feed me poetry daily.

I’m a huge fan of poetry as a mentor text, as the texts I’ve shared on Mentor Text Wednesday would attest. Often, it is my Twitter feed that puts these poems in front of me, such as this week’s poem. Al Ortolani’s The Taco Boat was one of those poems that you read and instantly know has a place in your classroom.

Whaaaaat

The poem, as retweeted by Rattle magaizine, in which it appears

Continue reading

Using Tech to Steal Back Time for Workshop

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A few years ago, the writing in my classroom was floundering. Our department had been aligning curriculum for awhile and, in my rush to get my ducks in a row and “cover” everything, I had begun sacrificing key parts of my instruction. There just wasn’t time to fit it all in. One afternoon during a particularly rushed writing conference, I knew I needed to reorganize and rethink what workshop was going to look like in my classroom.  I couldn’t make major changes to the curriculum, and I couldn’t magically make my class periods longer, so I started experimenting with ways to use technology to steal back some time. What I’ve landed on isn’t perfect, but it’s helped me create a space for the thing I believe helps writers grow the most:  face to face talk about writing.

Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: One Notebook to Rule them All

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Zoom in on Henry, an eighth grader whose desk sits in the far right corner of the room. The other students sit down, pull out their notebooks and pencils, jot down the homework; Henry is frantic. Where it is? Please don’t tell me I’ve lost it! Noooooo! he silently panics.

He opens his binder, closes his binder, dumps the contents of his backpack on the floor beside his desk, kneels beside the mountain of stuff in the floor, and starts throwing one wadded-up paper ball after another over his shoulder as he searches fruitlessly. Defeated, tears well up in his eyes, and he slowly crawls back into his seat. Henry silently shakes his fist at the sky as the camera zooms back out. 

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Hard at work gathering ideas in the notebook.

Okay so, this didn’t happen last week, but this is one of my dearest school fantasies. I dream every year that each student’s notebook will becomes so precious, so valuable to them that they would dissolve into tears at the mere thought of losing it.

 

We teachers know that notebooks are a powerful storehouse of student thinking and bits of writing. We know that it is the foundation for the writerly habits that will actually help our students evolve into writers, not just students who submit technically perfect writing products. In many ways, the notebook is the answer to so many of the hows that come up in our writing pedagogy:

How do we help our students identify as writers? Regular, risk-free work in their notebook.

How do we help our student writers develop writing stamina? Dedicated class time to work in their notebook.

How do we help our students gather, curate, and develop ideas for writing? Notebook play.

How do we help our students track writing progress over time? Use the notebook as a writing archive of idea development, information gathering, and drafting.

So, then, how do we organize these all-important notebooks? How do we set them up to best establish their importance? It’s a conversation a few of us have been having on Twitter over the last few weeks, and one teachers get very passionate about.

I have two central goals for my students’ notebooks. I want them to be useful (as in easily useable), and I want them to be important to my students. 

So, in practical terms this means:

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Notes from a mini-lesson gallery walk go in students’ notebooks.

My students will have more success with their notebooks when I relinquish control of them.

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it goes to Ralph Fletcher who shared it at the All Write! Conference in 2016. Ralph told stories of teachers who had specific instructions for each page of a notebook, restricting and constricting them to the point that all of the life was sucked out of them and the joy of writing way gone.

He said, “Students care about their notebooks to the degree we stop controlling them.”

Whoa.

And, truly, this seems to be a central lesson to workshop teaching in general, doesn’t it? We get nervous about control — How will I know they are putting the right thing in their notebook? How will I know they will be able to find them later? How will I know they are complete? But when we impose OUR logic, our order, our need to hold the reigns over our students’, we will never guide them toward success. Is our goal for them to have perfectly ordered notebooks or to be able to engage in the rhythms and practices of real writers? Is our goal for our students to churn out products in the image we have cast for them or to do the real, hard work of real writers?

So, I don’t do much dictating any more about what goes in the notebook in what order. In fact, I don’t even dictate what kind of notebook my students should have. I simply ask that it be a bound notebook rather than a spiral notebook. (Spiral notebooks say “school” and “rip out my pages”, a bound notebook — even a composition book — has a completely different feeling.)

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One of the few required items in my students’ notebooks — a reading rate tracker (a la Penny Kittle’s Book Love) for Reading Workshop. 

My students glue some reading workshop materials in the back of their notebook (a reading ladder, a reading rates tracker, and a TBR list), but other than that, I simply ask them to  start filling the notebook.

 

Over the years, I have found that students’ notebooks are not easily useable when I dictate special sections, elaborate tables of contents, rules and regulations. Now, I make suggestions and show students models of others’ notebooks, but then I let them find organizational systems that work for them to make their notebooks useful in the most personal way.

Everything needs to go in the notebook.

Notice I said the notebook. Not “the notebook or the binder”. Not “one of the notebooks” or “either the reading notebook, the writing notebook, or the grammar notebook.” To be useful and to be important, notebooks need to be simple. Not only do students not need multiple notebooks to keep track of, but the very optics of a single notebook sends a powerful message: everything important goes in here, so this is important.

To the largest extent humanly possible, I do not give my students pieces of paper that Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.18.32 PMwill not be permanently glued or taped into their notebooks (the one notable exception to this is mentor texts, for which my students each have a special Mentor Text Folder.) Notes, ideas, jottings, notebook times, drafts, conference notes, group work, doodles, research — everything goes in the notebook. My students know that unless I direct them to write on something different (say, a piece of looseleaf to be turned in), their default is to go into their notebook. (Because of this, most of my students will fill two notebooks in a year.)

This is what makes the notebook important, significant, life-or-death. This ensures that the notebook goes home, and gets pulled out on the school bus, and sits on the student’s nightstand, and becomes worn and full and loved. Students need it and use it all day long for myriad reasons — and so all the stuff of their brains and their hearts gets captured there.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.20.48 PM.pngRemember Allison’s first post in this series? She suggested that we plan our first days and weeks and months of the new school year by … not planning. Friends, after many years of micromanaging notebooks (only to find them stuffed into trashcans in the hallway on the last day of school), I have found that the way to organize student notebooks is to … not organize them.

A notebook is a malleable, lifelong tool we gift to students when they are in our class. We wouldn’t give our best friend a gift and then dictate how she uses it (“You can use it between this hour and this hour and only for the following purpose …”). Students need a place to hold the thinking they will do in our classes — let’s step back, give up control, and let them discover its usefulness, its significance, its power.

I know you have your favorite ways to organize student notebooks — what are they? What organizational tips have been especially helpful to your students over the year? Leave a comment here to join the conversation, find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or find us on Facebook.

Behind The Scenes: Considering The Big Picture

On Monday, Allison wrote about the nightmare of the blank planner.

I started this week with that nightmare as a reality for one of my classes. I knew exactly where I’d be starting with my Grade 11s and my Grade 12s, but I was kind of blanking on what my Grade 9s would be starting with. It kind of freaked me out.

And it kind of seemed like the right thing to do.

I have the luxury of working in a smaller school. Aside from a few changes, my 11s and 12s are groups of students that I know well, and have built a culture with. There are some programming pieces that I’ve used in those courses that are a perfect fit for them.

Those 9s though, I don’t know them yet, and I can’t decide what things I’ve got in the bag of tricks are going to work best for them. It’s a different situation for me – usually, I don’t see Grade 9 students until second semester, and by then, I have a sense of who they are. This year, I’ve got them in my classroom on the first day. I have an opening piece all figured out, personalizing our notebooks. I’ll be scrambling, trying to get some quick reads on who my new students are.

But here’s the thing. I’m actually pretty confident about things, because I’ve thought about what the Big Picture is in the course. I’m not sure exactly what the path will look like, nor have I figured out exactly what we’re going to do, but I know where I’d like us to be at the end of it. Continue reading