Best of 2015-2016: The “So, I Quit Grading” Series

The response to this series of posts about my experiment to give up traditional grading in my senior English class showed us that teachers are searching for a better way to assess student work — a way that helps build relationships and helps students grow. 

Here, you’ll find links to the three parts of this series: 

Part I: Introduction to the experiment

Part II: Mid-Year Check-In – How it’s going, What I’m changing

Part III: The Conclusion


Sentence Hacking Through Social Media

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Today we bring you another amazing guest post from Jeremy Hyler, a middle school language arts teacher and co-director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. He is the  coauthor of Create, Compose, Connect: Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools with Troy Hicks.

There is no arguing that the landscape of teaching students how to write has changed and continues to evolve. Students aren’t just writing anymore with their pencils and paper, they write in a number of different spaces and with different devices. Students don’t consider spaces such as Facebook, Emails, Twitter, or even Snapchat writing spaces. However, they truly are places where our students write on a daily basis. With that in mind, I feel that as a teacher of writing — and being a writer myself — we need to shift our thinking about how we teach our students grammatical skills in today’s digital age.

One of the ideas I want my students to think hard about are those spaces where they write. I spend a lot of time discussing the terms formal and informal writing with my 7th and 8th grade students. Oftentimes students (and adults) blur these lines and don’t realize that it is critical for them to write in a more formal matter when they have a certain audience. For instance, students should know that when they send an email to a teacher, there should be a proper greeting and closing within the email. In addition, there shouldn’t be any, what Kristen Turner, a professor and author at Fordham University, calls Digitalk in their writing.

Turner writes: “I see digitalk as a complex and fascinating combination of written and conversational languages that adolescents use when they text, when they instant message (IM), and when they participate in social networks” (37). Students today have found their own language and ways to communicate with their peers that is easy for them to write and understand information in an informal way. We can’t chastise students for using the letter “u” to represent the word you or how they spell love l-u-v.

As mentioned earlier, it is an opportunity to teach my students the difference between formal and informal writing. I want my students to know I respect their own language, but want to show them the appropriate times to use it. They need to know that what Turner refers to as code switching is necessary. Turner has written two different articles in English Journal about the idea of students using their own language and teaching our students to code switch:  “Using text speak as an example of code-switching may acknowledge the legitimacy of the language while bringing its use to the conscious level, where students can choose to use it or not, depending on the context” (61). In my own classroom, I want my students to practice code switching to help them to think critically about the moves they make as writers, especially in the different writing spaces they write in daily, in and out of school.

The activity I use to help my students work through their different writing spaces is simply titled “Sentence Hacking”. It deals specifically with the different types of sentences students are playing with through the process of sentence combining and composing — a process that is outlined in the Writing Next report.

Now, the sentence types my students focus on are:

  • Compound
  • Complex
  • Compound-complex

Each year the activity grows and evolves with the help of student feedback. Students start off with a template I share with them through Google Slides. As you can see in the example below, it encompasses many different social media spaces that my students write in daily. In this template Google Documents, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Email, and instant messaging are represented. The idea behind Instagram is that the students find pictures that represent the grammar concept being taught.  

Before the students begin working on the template, we establish as a class which spaces are formal and informal writing spaces. This can lead to some great conversations with students, and you can decide as a classroom community which spaces could be formal or informal. As my class and I have this discussion, we often talk about the audience for each writing space, which can change whether it is a formal or informal space.

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Blank template students start with


The task for the students is to first work with a group of 4-5 of their peers to complete the template using a type of sentence that I give them to start. For example, as we read The Giver in 8th grade, I give them an example of a compound-complex sentence from our text:

The fabrics on the upholstered chairs and sofa were slightly thicker and more luxurious; the table legs were not straight like those at home, but slender and curved, with a small carved decoration on the foot (Pg. 74).

My 8th graders then take the sentence and plug it into the template demonstrating what the sentence could potentially look like in the different social media spaces when it comes to formal or informal writing. Students are learning 3 important things

  • Students are learning how to rearrange and “play” with specific types of sentences to adapt in future writing assignments.
  • Students are learning how to differentiate between formal and informal writing spaces.
  • Students are using technology in meaningful and purposeful ways to make them better writers while using mentor texts.
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Template completed by 8th grade students

Now, I could get into how this activity connects to the Common Core State Standards, but I am more interested in sharing the actual activity than the curriculum connections.

After the students complete their templates as a group, I have each group share their template with the class and we discuss the moves that each group made as writers with their sentences or the grammar skill that was taught. Generally, it takes two 60-minute class periods. The skill the students learned is then applied to their own mini writing assignment where I can assess them on the skill that was taught. I do not drill and kill my students with worksheets or teach grammar in isolation.

Though the activity addresses the necessary skills that students need, it continues to evolve and change as I receive student feedback. Recently, my students wanted Snapchat added instead of Instagram because they use that social media tool more. As with any lesson that educators try to implement into the classroom, it should be adapted to your students needs. Also, students’ access to technology can play a key role in how the template may look.

It is without a doubt our students live in many different writing spaces and in general they actually spend a lot of time writing. Technology is not going away and using it just to use it, won’t help our students. Instead, we need to be smart about the implementation of tech in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to embrace the spaces that our students write in and help them differentiate when to write formally and informally.



What digital tools can you you use in your classroom to help students engage more in grammar? Do you think technology is to blame for students lack of correct use of grammar?

You can contact me on Twitter @jeremybballer or at

Best of 2015-2016: Writing Workshop Workflow

There are a million moving pieces in a functioning writing workshop — this is part of what makes it so exciting, so dynamic. Each student is in a slightly different place in their writing, and it’s our job to try to keep it all organized so that we can best help our students. In this post, Allison shares her “writing workshop workflow” — the tracking systems that help her organize the individual writing processes of all the students in her classroom.


In the last three years I have moved from a paper system to an almost exclusively digital system in writing workshop. Finding a good rhythm in a digital environment requires just as much thought as in a paper environment. After a lot of experimentation, I think I’ve landed on a workflow that satisfies my student writers and me. This system has features that

  • allow students to receive feedback in a timely manner
  • help me keep a clear record of student submissions
  • show when I have put feedback on a student’s draft
  • give me immediate access to student writing, without having to shuffle through lots of folders and subfolders
  • put feedback on student work in the order in which it was received

Read on to find out more about this system!

The system has two main components: tracking student progress during workshop, and collecting writing for feedback.

Tracking Student Progress During Workshop

At the beginning of the year, I create a conference binder with three sections:

  1. Writing/Reading Surveys — distributed at the beginning of the year
  2. Writing Study Cover Sheets — a roster for each class, with the dates of the workshop running along the top
  3. Conference Summary for each student — a record of every conference I’ve had with each student throughout the year

Writing Study Cover Sheets

Writing Study Cover Sheet

Every class, after the mini-lesson, I do a status of the class — I call out the name of each student and ask them to verbalize where they are in their process and their goal for the day. I use the following key to track their responses:

Key for coding student progress during workshop:

BS/WP = brainstorming or writing off the page

D = drafting

R = revising

P = ready for publication

FB = preparing for feedback

PW = working with a partner

QC = in need of a quick conference

C = in need of a more in depth conference

T = searching for a topic

MT = working with mentor texts for guidance or inspiration

R = researching

If they tell me they are using a specific mini-lesson during drafting or revision, I write the name of the mini-lesson down instead of the generic code.

This cover sheet shows me a bird’s eye view of what is happening on any given day in each class. I usually highlight the boxes where conferences have occurred; it’s easier to identify which students I have not made enough contact with, which helps me prioritize my conferences for the next day.

Continue reading here …

Do You Hear What I Hear? Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice

Today’s guest post is from Kelly Pace, Hanover County’s (Virginia) Teacher of the Year! She teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English along with IB Theory of Knowledge. You might remember her from a post she wrote for us earlier in the year on teaching active & passive voice!

Nineteen years ago, I found myself a brand new teacher amongst a team of veteran teachers. All were very candid in giving me advice, and while most of that advice resonated with me, teaching structural grammar by making my students complete textbook exercises seemed extremely boring, bringing me back to my own Catholic grammar school days. Why was I going to teach students what a direct object is or make students underline the adjective clause or prepositional phrase if they weren’t applying those skills to their own writing? Why were my colleagues teaching grammar in isolation and why were we using these grammar textbooks with the terribly boring sentences?

So, one day, I told students to put away their grammar textbooks. My students were not to bring them back to class. (Think of me as a slightly less brave version of Robin Williams as Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, encouraging his students to rip out the introduction of their poetry textbooks).

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I replaced the boring grammar sentences with the lyrics to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” a song re-released that year to commemorate Princess Diana. They read the lyrics and discussed the sentence structure. Other lessons followed suit. They looked at songs and underlined prepositional phrases and then had to write in a similar fashion. They underlined adjectives and adverbs in song lyrics and added more of their own to descriptive writing. Students started to bring in songs and notice grammatical structures in them. They couldn’t listen to music without thinking about the way the lyrics were written–without thinking about grammar.

A Mentor Text Re-Visited:  Teaching Voice through Song Lyrics

Fast forward to 2015. My students this year have been struggling with voice in their writing. Every sentence reads the same way.  I read this paragraph where my student is analyzing the differences between Tennessee Williams’ text A Streetcar Named Desire and Elia Kazan’s film version:

Williams and Kazan both include that Mitch and Blanche have never gone out on a date past six o’clock. Mitch states, “You never want to go out till after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted much” (144). Blanche never wants to be met in the light is a light motif of not wanting to show her true self. The light symbolizes appearance and something that is clearly visible. Blanche never wants the truth of her past experiences in Laurel to be exposed to anyone. In other words she doesn’t want Mitch and others to really know what happened to her because they might not like her for who she is. Blanche creating this fantasy of dark lies in both the film and play is significant because it leads to the idea of Blanche lying for her own image in New Orleans.

Shortly after, I read another one that said the same thing in the same way. These students weren’t plagiarizing; their writing simply had no voice. I searched for ways to bring this voice to their writing. And I was somehow reminded of 1997 when my students began to talk about sentence structure through song lyrics. Could I bring music back to teach voice? I decided to try.

For this mini lesson, I used the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Adele’s popular “Hello” as mentor texts. I gave the printed version of the lyrics written in paragraph form, not telling students their mentor text for today was Adele’s lyrics. I read the lyrics aloud, asking students what the writer’s voice sounds like. Of course, students shouted out, “Adele!” They had been singing those lyrics for weeks now.  I had been listening. Then I had them do the same thing with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” leaving off his famous chorus identifying the song’s title. Only a handful of them knew it was Michael Jackson. The rest described his voice as determined, optimistic. We then listened to the lyrics, fully describing what they sounded like.

We began to discuss how easy it is to identify a singer’s voice because we can hear the way that particular vocalist sounds. I told students that with their writing, I have no song to accompany them. If they write voiceless analysis, it sounds the same as it does to every other person.  I should be able to recognize every student’s writing–even analytical writing.

I then gave them the student writing sample from above. We discussed how there is no song to follow with the writing–there is no voice. Then, students revised a paragraph of the essay they had been writing during writing workshop that they deemed as voiceless.  The writing that evolved was so  much better than what I would have gotten had I not brought Adele and Michael Jackson into my classroom:

When a filmmaker creates a film they take many liberties when translating it from a novel or play. In this instance Kazan made alterations to it, to create a more vivid image. Throughout the film Kazan builds Blanche up in particular to create her into an epicenter of drama. In Kazan doing this the audience is more invested in the film. Williams’ written play made Blanche into the center of drama but diluted her commanding presence with distractions from other characters, and stage directions. Williams doing this took away from the original play’s dramatic value. When compared to Williams’ play, Kazan’s film adaptation creates a more dramatic version of Blanche through the use of lighting, stage directions, and dialogue.

This is just one example that one of my students wrote. The paragraph prior to revision did not have words like “liberties,” nor did it describe Blanche as an “epicenter of drama.” Suddenly, I could hear my student’s voices.

Reflections and Other Ideas for Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts

As I reflect on this lesson, I begin to realize that there are so many ways we can use song lyrics as  mentor texts. The possibilities seem endless to me.

  • What about using song lyrics as a means to study verbs in writing? One Republic’s “Counting Stars” could work in studying present tense, future tense, present progressive, and past progressive verbs.
  • Or how about using a song like Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Students could analyze the figurative language there and incorporate it their own in their writing.
  • Perhaps a song with a strong theme could be the introduction to a theme analysis? Consider the top 10 love songs of all time as documented on the Billboard’s top love songs.  What if students analyzed an artist’s theme of love as an introduction to a theme analysis they would write on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

As I said, the possibilities are endless.

When I reflect on 19 years in the classroom, today, I’m grateful–grateful that I asked those students back in 1997 to put away their grammar books. Had I not done that, I might never have thought to use song lyrics as mentor texts in the writing classroom nineteen years later.  Music is an entrance to our students’ understanding of language. My classroom will continue to welcome the voices of Adele, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, One Republic and anyone else who can help my students to to create meaning in the words they write.



How do you combat students’ stale voices in writing? In what ways have you used music as mentor texts? You can connect with me on Twitter @kellyapace or on Facebook at

Best of 2015-2016: Writing Explorers – 4 Ideas for Approaching Writing as Discovery in Your Class Tomorrow

I spent a lot of time with Donald Murray this year, working my way through his books and essays. One of my biggest takeaways is that neither I nor my students need to have all the answers before we begin writing  — and that is such an encouragement to anxious student writers! In this post, I share four ideas for weaving the language of exploration and discovery into the writing process. 


Have you read Donald Murray?

In my career, I had read a lot about Donald Murray. Tons that was inspired by Donald Murray. Oodles that has flowed out of the legacy of Donald Murray, but I’m ashamed to say that until the last month, I had never read the man himself. Until Penny Kittle told me to. And, as you all know by now, I will do anything Penny Kittle says.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’ve read three books in about four weeks. My mind is blown. I am bathing in his words — words that are as fresh and startling today as they were 45 years ago when he first advocated for a better way to teach writing.  Make yourself a New Year’s teaching resolution — go to the source. Read Donald Murray.

Beyond his trailblazing as a teacher of writing, Donald Murray consistently amazes me with the direct simplicity of his message. He articulates truths that I haven’t articulated for myself and much less for my students. But truths that unlock the mystery of the puzzle that is writing. Among many treasures, Murray reminded me that a writer rarely know what she wants to say and then sits down to write. Rather, the process of writing teaches the writer what he wants to say:

“For most writers the act of putting words on paper is not the recording of a discovery but the very act of exploration itself.”

-“The Explorers of Inner Space”, 1969

While this is something I have known and felt as a writer, it isn’t something I have ever offered to my students. At least not in so many words. And what encouragement this might be for them! How many of my students would be able to dive into the deep end of their thinking if they believed that they didn’t need to know what they wanted to say first? If they felt free to “explore the constellations and galaxies which lie unseen within [them] waiting to be mapped with [their] own words”?

It’s a beautiful idea.

So how do we bring this down to the ground of our classrooms? How can we help our students understand that writing is discovery in a way that changes their writing? Here are four possibilities.

Continue reading here …

Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part III. The finale!

We have loved bringing you Chris & Robyn’s exciting project this week! Today marks the final installment in the series, but if you want to hear more (and hear it live!) find their session at NCTE16 in Atlanta in November! They will be presenting under this same title!  Thank you, Chris & Robyn, for sharing with our community! 

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Part Three

We hope you’ve enjoyed our journey as told in the first two blogs in this series.  If you haven’t yet read parts one and two, please check them out; we promise you that this piece will make much more sense if you have read the first two.

This year has been – by far – the most enjoyable year of our teaching careers, and that happiness, the quality of our instruction, and the success of our students’ learning can all be traced back to this project.  Our focus on CLEAR learning (collaborative learning through empathetic and authentic relationships) motivated us as teachers and our students as learners to remember the human side of school. We refocused our instruction and assignments and asked our kids to be mindful of relationships first and foremost—relationships with others, with texts, and with the written word. Nothing we did was revolutionary; we simply refocused our efforts, through collaboration, on what matters most: building empathy.  So, regardless of if you plan on trying some of the activities we have written about in the last two pieces or not, we sincerely hope that your takeaway from our work is simple: don’t lose sight of the kids, the relationships and the empathy—the standards and test scores will take care of themselves if we take care of the caring.

With that said, we wanted to leave you with a few suggestions if you are to try to create CLEAR Learning in your class (or by collaborating with another class, ideally!) as well as share a few changes we will make next year based on student feedback.

  1. Establish a system for workflow

This is really essential; as anyone who works with Google Drive knows, it can be very easy for students (and often times easier for teachers) to get lost within their own Google drive.  So, early on in the collaboration, be sure to establish the workflow for the collaboration.

When we built student partnerships, we used Google Spreadsheets to keep a record of partnerships; this was easily made viewable for all our students and included contact emails and first and last names so students could refer back to it as needed. When it came time to assign work, Chris used Hapara to push the assignment/document to each of his students, and then each of his students shared the document with his/her partner and with Robyn. We also had students copy us on essential emails so we were in the loop for specific projects (and this reinforced how to write a friendly yet professional email – a skill so necessary for all kids today).

This entire collaboration used the spectrum of GAFE; students commented, chatted, and embedded links and images into work done in Drive. These systems worked for us, but they are certainly not the only way.  Whatever you choose, be sure to think that through from the start.

  1. Join the fun

For every writing assignment that we gave to our students in this collaboration, we joined in on the fun. As busy as we all are as teachers, it is all too easy to get caught up with the more mundane tasks of our job, forgetting how much fun we had writing poetry analyses during undergrad or giving a friend feedback on a piece of their writing. We co-wrote, responded to each other’s poetry analyses, and tried to provide real-time models of our work. In addition to showing our kids our own writing processes, we also had FUN. Take the time to join the fun; you will love it, and your students will love seeing it.

  1. Practice Patience and Persistence

This should come as no surprise because, regardless of the task in teaching, we have all learned the even the best of plans come with their share of unexpected chaos! However, when working with two classes (or in our case three) in two different schools that meet at different times during the day, an extra pile of patience and persistence is needed.  There will be times when you dedicate class time for your students to work on their half of the new assignment only to find that their partners didn’t do what they were supposed to the night before, thereby “ruining” your plan for the day. Adjust for things like the November 1st college application deadline, prom, senioritis (ahem), and/or other activities.

Being flexible is so essential in collaboration! This is just one example of many that we experienced along the way in which even the best plans didn’t go as expected.  But for us it was simple: there’s always tomorrow. If we want to teach empathy, we need to practice empathy as educators; there are bigger issues in life than having to alter a lesson plan because your students’ partners were too busy with life, and all that comes with it, to finish their paragraphs the night before.  The chaos was a constant reminder to us, as teachers, of the human side of teaching, and it gave us a consistent opportunity to show our students that we care.

So, what next?  Lessons Learned from Student Feedback

  1. We want to meet our partners sooner and more often.

We waited too long; it is that simple.  While the field trip was a smashing success (you can read about it in blog #2), we learned something very quickly: we waited too long to give them a chance to talk to and see one another.  Maybe it was fear of the logistics (of course there are all sorts of hurdles to jump with this sort of collaboration), or perhaps just not knowing, but the reality is, we plan on getting our kids talking face-to-face via Google Hangouts much sooner into the process.  We will still develop the foundation of the relationships through writing, but not too soon after, we will get them talking with one another.

  1. We want to talk books, darn it!

While they had a chance to annotate poems together (you can read about this in blog #1), it is clear that they wanted to create lit circles with members from each school mixed into the same team.  The best part: they didn’t want it to be part of a grade or have any points or any assignments: they simply wanted to read together, talk together, explore together through literature. If that isn’t an English teacher’s dream, we don’t know what is.

  1. Can we just have more time to write?

Speaking of English teachers’ dreams, it doesn’t get much better than this. Simply put, they wanted more time for writing, and while that in and of itself sounds great, it is even better when you dive into it. They didn’t just want more time because they were lazy or procrastinated, but they wanted more time to draft, to explore language, to revise based on feedback, to get more feedback to revise again, and to learn from one another.  They wanted to be authors – totally free to play with words, to take risks, to FAIL, but to have the time to pick themselves up or to be picked up by their partners and to know that the right product was within them the whole time, it just hadn’t had the opportunity to jump out onto the page yet.

If you have any questions about this work and/or would like to get in touch with us, Chris can be reached at and Robyn at  Additionally, we will be presenting on this at NCTE this year on this very topic, so please come by, say hello, and learn (and maybe write!) with us.



Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part II


Yesterday you read part one of Chris and Robyn’s collaborative writing story! Here’s part two!  

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When we set out to have our students collaborate over Google Docs, a face to face meeting wasn’t part of the original plan. After multiple pairings and collaborations, our students asked, “So, when are we going to meet each other?” Their request made perfect sense – when we (Robyn and Chris) began collaborating on our own writing projects, it was initially done online – and then, of course, we met up to share a drink and discuss writing. Meeting in person humanized the process, making our collaboration – and our writing – stronger. So, why not offer our students the same opportunity (minus the wine bar and plus a school-sponsored field trip)?

Using writing protocols from the National Blogging Collaborative, we designed a day of thinking, writing, and working together. Chris bussed his freshmen from Downers Grove North High School to Hinsdale Central High School, where Robyn’s seniors waited in the Community Room, the air packed with baked goods and absolutely no idea what to expect. Once the initial awkwardness of our students meeting began to wane (think: um, do we shake hands? How will we even know how to find our partner?), we got down to the work of writing and thinking with the charge “Let’s Write!” After viewing a Ta-Nahesi Coates interview on the writing process, students reacted to Coates’ words with a brief gush write, followed by both freshman and seniors sharing their ideas and finally(!) hearing each other’s voices!

Because we didn’t meet until 10:15 and had just spent 45 minutes watching, writing, and discussing the Coates clip, it was time for lunch; however, time was not to be wasted. We kept students in their discussion groups (which were based off of their argument-writing groups), and projected several discussion questions onto the wall. While eating, students pondered such topics as: “why do you write?”; “what is your biggest challenge as a writer?”; “what sort of reading influences you most as a writer?”, and so much more. The conversation was casual yet deep, friendly yet intellectual. In short, it was the exact sort of conversation that teachers push for: grounded in deep thought, yet authentic and real in structure.

As the lunch time conversations began to wrap up we had three more activities from them: playing with verbs, finishing their co-writing projects, and collaborative poetry writing.

The first of those turned out to be a blast, with students laughing in carefree and child-like ways. We asked each student to, individually, start writing a story about being in a car. As students wrote, Chris called out changes to the story. For example, he called out events like: it begins to rain, or you phone rings, or you realize you are missing a shoe. None of these had any rhyme or reason to them, but they forced the writers to push through the story quickly and in different ways. After about five minutes of this, they were asked to stop writing and trade papers with a partner. Then they were asked to do the following:

  1. Read your partner’s story
  2. Give it a title
  3. Reread the piece and, changing only the verbs, completely alter the tone of the piece.

After these three steps, they traded back so that their partner could read the “new” piece, changed by the verbs. Students laughed with one another, seeing how powerful (and oftentimes forgotten) verbs are to writing. Without us prompting, students were asking to share (read in front of everyone) parts or all of their story, so of course, we took time to for this, allowing everyone to hear and laugh together, enjoying the power of writing.

The next activity we did provided students time to work in their passion groups to finish their pieces. The goal of this activity was to create a final version of their collaborative pieces, and we suggested that students play with embedding images and links into the finished pieces to add interactive elements. We gave them an hour and half to write, and they really went to work (gotta love a deadline!). While the kids were typing away, figuring out what to cut, where to add, and what links or pictures to weave into their pieces, we pulled a couple of partnerships into a separate room where they were interviewed by a student videographer. We asked them to share their experience on camera, and it was later published in Hinsdale’s online newsmagazine.

Our final activity was a short collaborative poetry experience. We headed outside to Hinsdale’s chilly yet picturesque courtyard (complete with baby ducks and the resident goose, whose aggressive posturing was nearly as entertaining as our poetry activity), and grouped students into small poetry cohorts. Students wrote down their favorite lines from the passion pieces, and, using those lines as a springboard, wrote poems together, passing their papers clockwise and adding lines and phrases under a tight time limit (20-30 seconds max for each pass). We watched and listened to them giggle as they added to each other’s work and shared from their poems. It was amazing to see the camaraderie formed throughout the day, and this activity really sealed the community with laughter and comfort, smoothing out the awkwardness that they had at their initial meeting and creating a truly collaborative atmosphere.

You can connect with Chris & Robyn on Twitter @MrBronke and @RobynCorelitz or the Moving Writers Community on Facebook.


Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part I

This week, we bring you a special treat — a three-part series from two new guest writers. Over the next few days, they will tell the story of their cross-school, cross-grade writing collaboration as they connected 9th and 12th grade writers. As you’ll see, this partnership grew beyond their expectations! 

Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School, and Robyn Corelitz teaches English at Hinsdale Central High School.  Both schools are located in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.  In addition to their work at school, they both work for the National Blogging Collaborative–Chris as co-director and Robyn as a writing coach.  They met first, digitally, through collaborative writing, and are passionate about connecting teachers and students through writing. You can connect with them on Twitter @MrBronke and @RobynCorelitz. 


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There was a palpable energy in the room; nervous, yet weirdly charming. It was a foreign experience for these seniors, but one to which they had been looking forward for a few months now. The room was set up to look and feel like a collegiate workspace – pods of desks and chairs arranged in friendly quads, a break table full of donuts, a tangle of power cords and adapters criss-crossing the floor.

The bus slowly rumbled its way over the final speed bump, and that is when it hit the freshmen: they were about to meet their senior writing partners.  The youthful laughter and playful sounds of the bus ride quickly turned into faces filled with consternation, a few quizzical smiles.  Finally, after working together for eight months, they were going to meet their partners.

They knew one another as writers, editors, readers, poets, presenters, and people; despite having never met, all of this was accomplished through the power of collaborative writing.  It started as an exercise aimed to improve peer feedback.  Robyn, a teacher at Hinsdale Central High School,  faced a problem: her seniors weren’t taking peer-editing as seriously as she would have liked (we can all relate to that). Chris, department chair at Downers Grove North High School, also faced a problem: he feared his freshmen did not have the discipline-specific vocabulary (yet) to give meaningful enough peer-feedback to truly improve writing.  So, a collaboration was born.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.07.25 PM.pngOver the course of eight months, these two groups of students from two different schools in two very different grade levels, came together virtually to learn from one another.  The collaboration started with an introduction letter, ninth grade students writing to their senior partners not only introduce themselves but to share their fears about being in high school as a person and as a learner/writer.  In return, the seniors wrote back, also introducing themselves, but then addressing the freshmen fears as as well as making a few book recommendations.

From there, we changed gears to the main purpose of this partnership: improving peer-to-peer feedback.  After finishing Fahrenheit 451, the freshmen wrote an analysis essay, and then  shared those with their senior partners.  Seniors then had a few days to give feedback.  The best part about this: none of it was graded.  Not the actual essay for the freshmen nor the feedback for the seniors.  This really was scholars, being scholarly for the sake of scholarship, and it was beautiful.  While not required, most pairings exchanged multiple drafts and received multiple iterations of feedback.  One fact became clear: this exchange, the power of having an authentic audience with which to share one’s writing and one’s feedback, created an intrinsic motivation within our students that neither of us had ever seen before.

This exchanged continued for two more rounds of papers. Chris’s students shared their drafts and Robyn’s students provided high-quality and meaningful feedback; however, we quickly realized, based on student feedback, we were missing the bigger point: this didn’t have to be a one-way street.  The seniors wanted to share their writing with the freshmen in order to get their feedback, too.  This serendipitous surprise truly blew our minds.  We never figured a senior Advanced Placement student would see any value in sharing a piece of his or her writing with a freshman honors student, and yet, they were clamoring for it.   As good fortune would have it, the seniors were currently working on their college admission essays, so not only were the freshmen able to see the seniors’ writing and give feedback, they were able to already start to think about college essays and learn from the seniors.  This step in the process was a highlight for Chris in particular as his earlier fear about his students not having the discipline-specific vocabulary to give meaningful feedback was quickly laid to rest; as a result of getting multiple rounds of great feedback from the seniors, his freshmen had developed the language needed to reciprocate that feedback.

It was at this point in the year that both sets of students began to ask for two things: can we meet our partners at some point this year and can we write WITH them?  Who were we to deny these requests? We quickly worked with our administrations to get a field trip scheduled, and began to create a collaborative writing experience based on the protocols used by the National Blogging Collaborative. Students were paired based on a common passion, given time to gush write, categorize their gushes, and eventually work to turn that into a single coherent piece of writing. After a few weeks on this project, we realized that in order to finish these well, we would need to have them work face-to-face at the field trip (which we will share more about in the second blog in this series).  So, we put this assignment on hold and turned our attention to reading and analyzing poetry.

Students, regardless of age, struggle with poetry; this much we know.  Because of this, we thought these partnerships might be the perfect way to attack poetry.  Turns out, we were right.  Over the course of a month or so, students, using Google Docs, collaboratively annotated/text-marked poems, learning from, questioning, and challenging one another.  This honest and open -yet safe- environment provided the perfect space for students to take risks when discussing poetry, something that is not normally easy for them to do.  Ultimately, this part of the project ended with a true and authentic They Say/I Say style writing piece in which the seniors selected a poem and did a written analysis.  The freshmen then had to read the poem and their partner’s paper and do a response back, working on their argumentative and analytical writing skills while being forced to authentically navigate a real counterclaim. Many of Robyn’s seniors claimed that the feedback from their freshman partners was one of the most valuable writing exercises of the year – many of the freshman really took them to task in their counter-analysis, which sharpened the seniors’ revision process and made them acutely aware of shortcomings in their analyses.

The reality is that we could go on and on about some of the other projects that the pairings went through, but the purpose of this first blog in the series is for you to get a sense of this project, the why, how, and what of this collaboration.  Stay tuned for part two in which we will discuss the actual field trip and what it was like to bring these classes together, face-to-face: to write, think and laugh – not as students, but as people.


Best of 2015-2016: Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

The 2015-2016 school year was an exciting one for us at Moving Writers as we expanded our team to include eight new authors! Lucky, lucky us! One of our most popular posts this school year answers a common question — if we aren’t teaching them 5-paragraph essays, how will students structure their writing? Check out Tricia Ebvaria’s post! 


A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all. 

Which brings me back to that post I read on the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum. Amidst all the responses for and against the five-paragraph essay form was a comment from Geoffrey Layton, a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Layton argued for teaching a form that is commonly found in many professional essays. Here is how he explains it:

The form is a statement of a “Commonplace,” supported by a “First Glance” and contested by a “Closer Look.” The “Commonplace” is a statement of “what most, or many people, probably believe about a topic” and becomes the assumption (or enthymeme) on which the subsequent argument will be based. An examination of a broad range of essays written by and for both academics and the general public begin with such a commonplace. A “first glance” is then used to support the commonplace, which solves the problem that plagues many essayists, even academic writers, when they assume that their naysayers aren’t competent rhetoricians. Finally, the “closer look” advances a differing but not necessarily an opposing or “agonistic” opinion. In other words, this form – a commonplace supported by a first glance and then contested by closer look – is a formula for advancing knowledge, the goal not just of the academy but all writers everywhere. It is what makes the essay such an enduring and necessary form.

The moment I read Layton’s response, I knew he was right. This form—the Commonplace, the First Glance, and the Closer Look—is a form I have seen over and over again in essays from the New York Times, New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on. This year, I started to teach this form explicitly to my students, and the “CFC”–which quickly became our shorthand for this structure—is now one of my students’ favorite go-to methods for organizing their ideas.

Continue reading here …