Balance in the ELA Classroom: Setting the Tone

Last June I discovered a woefully neglected plant in my house. My husband urged me to toss it out, but I was sure I could bring it back to life. Sure enough, by August, a little sun and tlc had it flourishing again. I posted the comparison pic on Twitter and someone pointed out that it was pretty much the perfect metaphor for teachers in June vs. teachers in August.


Listen. I don’t want to be a dead plant this June. And I don’t want dead plants sitting in front of me.

It’s easy to chirp on about balance and #selfcare, but it’s a lot more challenging to actually create classrooms that make those things possible. This fall I will be writing about intentional moves I make in my classroom to create balance both for myself and my students: shared responsibility, standards based grading, notebook time, conferences, etc. 

For my first post, I want to talk about setting the tone for this type of attention to balance. When I first started teaching advanced courses, I felt some pressure to set an “appropriate” tone for the course. We’re here to work. Buckle up, you signed up for this. Though it is still tempting to do just that, it has never been particularly effective for me. I’ve realized it is much more effective to just slow the heck down. We have all year to buckle up.

Start with: “You can do this.”

I used to do a lot of front loading in both AP English Language and AP Seminar. I thought that covering all the foundational knowledge was what they needed because the sophisticated terminology would help them better analyze texts. I have come to realize, though, that that often backfired on me. Dumping “exigence” on kids in the first week of school just intimidated them. They need to build up some confidence with simple, accessible skills.

To work on text analysis this year, we’ve asked the same three questions for the first three weeks:

  1. What’s the writer trying to get me to do/think/believe?  
  2. How is he doing that (what choices is he making)? 
  3. Why do the choices work?

We started small: some commercials, an op-ed, a tweet, a cartoon. We returned to those three simple questions with each text, and with each discussion, some of the material I used to “cover” in the beginning (audience, speaker, context, etc)  cropped up naturally. 

The best part was when we turned this same thinking on our own writing. The students were so used to the three questions that when they worked on an opening narrative assignment, they questioned themselves pretty naturally: What am I trying to get my reader to think or believe about me? How am I doing that?  Why is it working?  

Three weeks in and all of my students are confident in their ability to analyze a text. They’re not perfect yet, of course, but they have some beginning tools and they all at least know how to hold them. I’ve started slowly unleashing the more complex, scary-sounding terms on them (exigence! Here it comes!), but in the context of those three questions–ones they can confidently answer–they aren’t scary at all. 

Then: “This can be fun!”

I think a balanced classroom also has to make time for fun. If we can’t relax and laugh a little at school, we are guaranteed to end up like the June plant photo. Once my students had the basics of the three simple questions down, we needed to practice. In past years, that has meant it was time to dive into something serious: FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech was usually my go to. Nice and short, but meaty and historical enough to get them working. 

But this year I was tired. It was the end of week two. I had the dreaded back to school cold and no energy to sell FDR. So I packed up a bag of my seven year old’s favorite picture books and decided we’d do some practicing with those. 


An analysis paragraph we wrote as a group of the Mo Willems gem “I Really Like Slop”

It was a riot. And very eye-opening. Some of them had it 100%. Others still needed a little more help. All of them, though, knew what I wanted them to do when I asked them to analyze the text.

After Friday, I figured they needed just one more practice with something a little light-hearted before moving on to FDR (can’t ditch him completely), so we read this article from NPR about Earth Wind and Fire’s hit “September” as an example of why certain choices in lyrics “work”. And then, (because why not) we applied the same thinking to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.” The opening line has a rhetorical question AND repetition?? Perfect for a little analysis. Finally, I unleashed them on their playlists and their notebooks. Find a lyric from a favorite song, name the choice the songwriter is making, explain why it works.  Tons of fun, light-hearted writing that helped them practice a challenging skill with accessible material.

Finally: “No! I’m not grading that!”

Don’t worry–this post isn’t just about how to set the tone for balance for our students. We need to be balanced too, guys. Setting the tone for what we will and won’t do–and WHY–is key for this balance. All of this work and practice led to tons of notebook entries over the past three weeks. Since it was all so quick, it was tempting to want to read it all. In a perfect world where I only have 30 students, that’s fine, but in the real world, with almost 150 students, that’s bonkers. I could toil away all weekend and painstakingly give feedback, but that is not sustainable. Here is what I can do:


  • Lots of quick, formative checks. My students read at the beginning of class everyday for ten minutes. Though I love to model good reading for them, they know I’m a reader even if I don’t read every day. So, some days I ask them to leave their notebooks open and I spin around the room and do a quick check of one small thing. I can record a 3 (got it!) 2 (kinda!) 1(nope!) on my clipboard quickly and I know who needs more attention later. When they ask “did this count?”, I respond “Of course! It’s helping me figure out what you need next.”  That’s not really what they’re asking, I know, but I’ve found that if I refuse to buy into the expectation that everything must be for points, they eventually do, too. 



  • Group writing. In the first three weeks of school my students have composed at least three different analytical paragraphs in groups. This helps them build community, share skills AND…each time I only had six or seven paragraphs to grade per class. Totally doable. 



  • One-on-one conferences. All of my students submitted a narrative on the first day of school (their summer writing work). Instead of grading them, I used them for getting to know you conferences. What did you want me to know about you? What choices did you make? Why do you think they worked? I learned more about my writers in those relatively quick conferences than grading those narratives would have ever accomplished. It was fun, and I didn’t take a single paper home. 


A month in, I think balance is possible. I think we can all get to June looking fresh and green and alive if we are intentional about the choices we make in our classrooms. I hope so, at least! Let me know what you are doing to help you and your students stay balanced. I’d love to hear what choices you make in the comments below, the Moving Writers Facebook page, or on Twitter @TeacherHattie.




  1. Thank you for validating my beginning of the year choices!

    I usually start with Orwell’s Politics and the English Language in AP LANG, but this year–I just couldn’t. Instead, we read and analyzed Linda Holmes’s “Rainbows, Dogs, and Frogs”, about the 40th anniversary of the Muppet Movie, and then my kids wrote about a pop culture artifact that they love and want other people to appreciate. “This is so fun!”, “I can’t wait for you to read this!”, and, of course, “Is it ok if I use personal pronouns?” [why oh why do they need to ask?????]

    After a week diving deep into these topics, my students TRUST me, I know them as human beings, we’ve laughed together, and I am not dreading grading these papers. Plus they did authentic rhetorical analysis, and really thought about structure.

    I like starting this way.

    1. I’m so glad someone else is out there feeling the same way!! What you said at the end–“my students TRUST me”–that’s it completely. I think when we start slowly like this, there is so much more time to build that trust and they’re much more willing to come along for the ride when things get more challenging.

      And I LOVED that Muppets piece 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s