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?

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Ask Moving Writers: Generating Ideas or Narrowing Them Down

AMW Karla

Dear Trish,

I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of this problem at some time or another. I know I sure have! And as an adult writer who’s been practicing for many more years than the young writers in my classroom, it’s easier for me to diagnose and treat my writing ailments. Although there’s no cure for idea deficit or idea overload, there are a few remedies I might prescribe.

Our first patient is the “I don’t know what to write” student who hems and haws with a topic and doesn’t know what to say or how. This particular writing problem sometimes gets me talking to myself. I confess that I’ve mistaken these indecisive writers as behavior problems, or worse, plain old lazy. The truth is, most of the time, this type of student truly does require guidance. And before I offer a few strategies to cultivate ideas, there are three checks that I use to test the vital signs of my assignment:

  • Does this assignment offer students choice?
  • Can all students find something relevant or relatable to discuss?
  • Is what I’m asking students to do achievable?

This is important because if a student is too confined, he or she may come up short on ideas. If they can’t relate to the assignment or find some glimmer of inspiration, back to the drylands. And if what I’m asking students to do is too far outside their ability levels, it may cause unnecessary stress and confusion. Trust me, I’ve been guilty on all counts and it was crippling to my students.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are a few fixes for the out-of-ideas student:

Talk. The is the best way I’ve found to help students generate ideas. My classes love activities like Philosophical Chairs and Socratic seminar to explore and define their ideas. I wonder if some of the problem with brainstorming and prewriting is students aren’t sure of what their ideas even are — where they stand on particular issues and what experiences they have to support their thinking. Talk is a simple remedy to cure the no-ideas blues.

Inspire. The longer I teach, the more I realize I’m in the inspiration business. There’s nothing quite like inspired student writing. As we age and mature, we seek our harness our own inspiration, but students need our help. Maybe it’s a walk outside on a beautiful day, maybe it’s a thought provoking story or image, maybe it’s a compelling question or quote, maybe it’s a unique and engaging short film. Whatever it is, I believe the more we create inspiration, the more ideas our students will generate ideas and feel moved to write.

List. Of all the Notebook Time ideas out there (like these, these, and this), my absolute favorite for the struggling writer is the simplest of them all. The small but mighty list. Whether it’s an idea web, an alphabetized list (like this Alpha Boxes assignment I love), or a trusty Top 10, this old school intervention strategy can, at the very least, help our struggling writers put black on white and begin to orient themselves to the landscape of their thoughts. And listing can help ideas take off, which of course, may lead to a side-effect…

On to our next patient — the overwhelmed-by-ideas, “how do I choose just one?” student who may need to play some elaborate game of idea darts to narrow down the choices.

When discussing the creative process, Stephen King said, “If they’re bad ideas, they go away on their own.”

I love this frame when I talk to students who are unsure about which topic to choose for their writing. For my students who have lots and lots of “good” ideas, the trick is helping them find the great idea.

I like to ask students to sit with their ideas for a while before officially claiming a topic, with the hope that the less-great ideas will have gone home for the night. We talk about the ideas that stick as their “shower ideas” — or the ideas that come back to them over and over at random and unobvious times. I don’t want these creative kids, or any kids, getting locked into an idea that doesn’t excite them.

So it becomes a matter of design, where the product is intentional, thought out, and effective. The advantage for the “too many ideas” writers is they have the opportunity to create a smart design.

Here is a series of questions for your inspired writers that may help them land on a single topic or focus:

  • Which ideas excite me the most? (Choose 3-5)
  • What do I find most compelling about them?
  • What experiences, observations, or knowledge do I have that supports these ideas?
  • Which idea could I tell the best story about?
  • Which topic do I know the most about?
  • Which topic do I find most interesting, problematic, or provocative?
  • Which of these best supports the assignment and prompt?

A few doses of these homemade writing remedies typically do the trick. After your students have found their great idea, have them free write a page or so and call you in the morning.

What strategies do YOU have to help students generate ideas or narrow them down? I’d love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

In Pursuit of Meaningful Feedback

Hi, Elizabeth!

First, thank you for asking this important question! We know how important it is to find ways to give meaningful and timely feedback to students. But we also know how limited our time is—there are only so many minutes in a day, in a class, during prep periods, after school, before school. Finding time for effective feedback is the holy grail of English teachers everywhere. 🙂

Second, just a warning that this response is much longer than I initially intended—but when it comes to feedback there is just so much to say! I’ll be going into my 17th year of teaching this fall, and in those years, I still haven’t found the answer when it comes to giving effective feedback. But every year, I think I get a little closer. So much of teaching is just a series of relentless tweaking, here and there, to make our practice just a little bit better from one moment to the next, all in the service of our students.

This (long) post is a result of all that relentless tweaking. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: How do you authentically support and assess vocabulary?

AMW Allison

Dear Noel (and fellow readers!),

In a recent webinar, 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling posited an idea that really rocked my world. It was at once so simple and so profound:

Vocabulary is not a task or a thing, it is a literacy practice.

Not so much a skill, but a habit that readers, writers, and thinkers cultivate.

My immediate reaction to this statement: Yes, of course! How could it be anything else?

But my actual classroom story says otherwise.

Like most of us, I have tried everything when it comes to vocabulary instruction. School-issued vocabulary books. Self-made quizzes based on internet SAT word lists. Choose-your-own-vocabulary-words vocabulary quizzes. 10 random, teacher-selected-words-at -a-time vocabulary instruction. And worst of all: no vocabulary instruction.

But as Sarah reminds us, good vocabulary instruction is not about finding the perfect vocabulary system or website or book. It’s about treating vocabulary the same way we treat writing and reading: as a habit we want to cultivate in our young learners.

Just as we aim to teach the writer and the reader, rather than the writing and the reading, so too should we aim to teach the vocabulary student.

Just as we aim to teach the writer and the reader, rather than the writing and the reading, so too should we aim to teach the vocabulary student. (2)

So the real question is: how do we authentically support (& assess?) the vocabulary student?

If we want to be authentic, we have to start with what real people do.

What do real logophiles do?

  1. They look up words they don’t know.
  2. They actively seek out new words to use in conversation and writing. 
  3. They try on new words in their writing and speaking, even if they’re not 100% sure how to use them.
  4. They literally surround themselves with words: they read, they collect words in notebooks and Pinterest boards, they talk about words.
  5. They learn how to say words in other languages.
  6. They research the origins of words.
  7. They subscribe to mailing lists or follow Twitter handles that dole out words and their meanings daily.
  8. They have favorite words.
  9. They say words out loud because they love their sounds.
  10. They write & they read… a lot.  

So, what does this look like in the classroom? How can we help cultivate these practices in our students? How can we hold them accountable as we do in their writing and reading?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities I’m thinking about:

  • Word Notebooks. Students keep word notebooks, or a section of their writer’s notebook, devoted solely to word collection from their independent/whole class reading, thinking about words, and trying on new words. They share pieces of their word notebooks in Notebook Spotlights or Padlet Walls or Writing Groups, just they like they share pieces of their writing with one another.
  • Word Podcasts. Students partner up to create monthly word podcasts in which they talk about some of the words they’ve discovered that month, the origins of the words, how the words have impacted their reading and writing. Here’s a great lists of podcasts for logophiles that we might use as mentor podcasts!
  • Vocabulary Resources that are accessible 24/7. A digital dropbox of lessons that help vocabulary students cultivate some of the habits listed above. Lessons might include:

                 Dictionary 101

                 How to Use a Thesaurus & Avoid Sounding Ridiculous

                 What Etymology Is & Why It’s Awesome

                 Word Parts: Prefixes & Suffixes and How They Can Help

                  How Do Ya Say It?: A Guide to Pronunciation

                 Twitter Handles & Email Lists to Subscribe To

  • Keep at writing and reading workshop…because that’s honestly the best way to cultivate word love.

Okay, last but not least: the more complicated second half of your question. How do we assess vocabulary? For the record, I am so, so, so glad you used the word assessed instead of graded.

Because it makes my job here much, much easier 🙂

I’m thinking about the questions I might ask my students at the end of the month/quarter/semester year as they reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. I might ask questions like:

  • How has your vocabulary grown this month/semester/year? What evidence can you show me of your growth?
  • How have your vocabulary studies impacted your reading and your writing?
  • What vocabulary practices that you formed this year do you plan to continue in the future?

I think the assessment of vocabulary can be this simple so long as the feedback we give our students is timely & relevant. My teacher feedback checklist might look something like this, and I might use it once or twice a quarter to assess their growth as vocabulary students:

Student’s Name__________________   Date_____________________

         Is the student:

__ able to use a dictionary and thesaurus to research an unfamiliar word?

__ showing word curiosity through:

         Word notebooks

         A section of their notebook

         Word Pinterest board

          Other

__ actively “trying on” new words in their speaking & writing?

__ showing word discrimination in their writing — especially in poetry?

__becoming a student who loves words?

This last item was inspired by the children’s book The Boy Who Loved Words, which currently sits on my son’s nightstand. He’s a little young (okay, way too young…he’s 2) to really appreciate its message, but I can’t help but at least show him the vibrant pictures and sing aloud all the words that float ethereally across the pages.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 8.18.22 PM

Image via Amazon.com

The main character Selig is a boy who collects words and seeks joy in sharing these words with others. On the last page the narrator reveals that Selig is in all of us: You too may find yourself lucky if, one day, while you are thinking or writing or simply speaking, the perfect word just seems to come to you.

As I rethink vocabulary instruction thanks to your question, I’ll keep Selig close. For what better gift to give my students than to help them find, through their writing and thinking and speaking, “the perfect word” to express what’s in their minds and on their hearts…

Thanks for asking this question, Noel. It’s definitely one that will keep me up at night, in a good way.

Warmly,

Allison

Ask Moving Writers: What does a writing unit look like?

Ask

We are spending Mondays this summer answering reader questions in a series called Ask Moving Writers. If these reading our answers sparks yet more questions, please feel free to ask below and join the conversation! 

Here’s our first question: 

Dear Moving Writers,

Hi, Sylvia, Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers!

Ask

As we all head into our summer vacations, we are full of reflection about this year (“Boy, that was the worst lesson I’ve ever taught” and “I can’t believe that worked so well!”) and dreams for next school year.

We are also full of questions! We bet you are, too.

This summer, the Moving Writers team will be answering your burning questions about secondary writing instruction! What do you want to know? What do you need to know more about before fall? How can we help?

Leave your question here! We will start answering them on the blog in July!