F.A.Q. (Or How to Take Ownership of Writing)

Untitled drawing-1

photo via imdb.com

At my school district in Michigan, we’re in the home stretch. Just a few more days of instruction, and then we’ll be on our final exam schedule. So, for this post, I planned to write about creative lessons that will keep your class engaged and fresh throughout these dog days.

 

From my past tense, though, you can probably tell by now that I’ve failed miserably in that endeavor. I’m at that point in the school year where I feel like I’m just barely making it through the school day. Creativity? What kind of crazy pie-in-the-sky teacher did I think I was? I’m trying my hardest just to maintain the basics: confer, revise, read, reflect.

Come to think of it, it’s the basics that have me so exhausted this year. I think it’s because I took on a new challenge this year at our district’s alternative high school. Instead of two semesters during each of which we teach half of a consecutive, year-long course, we teach four terms of non-consecutive classes. So, in the past, at this point in the year, I’d be in my final weeks with kids I’d known since September or, at worst, January. Now, I get a new class full of fresh faces every 10 weeks. I’ve known my current students since the end of April. The end of April! That’s when, as a teacher, I used to return from spring break and state testing, put my feet up (figuratively, of course), and settle in to cruise through into summer. This was the point of the year when I realized I was really reaping the benefits of a well-established classroom culture. Now, it feels like we’re still working on getting to know each other, yet I have to be ready to assess them and send them on to their next step.

Part of the reason why this is so exhausting to me is because I refuse to treat my classes like credit recovery. Instead of powering through content and assignments, I work to establish trust and relationships, notebooks, reading goals, intrinsic motivation, and growth mindset. I love a good ice breaker as much as anybody, but man, this is tiring!

Which leads me to my point: As I gear up for next year, I want to do more (okay, hopefully not more, but let’s say better) in getting kids to own the classroom values. Continue reading

Beyond the Baked Goods: Appreciate Teachers by Supporting Them

Whether you recognize it for a day or a week, it’s that time of year: teacher appreciation. If you’re an elementary teacher, I apologize; you’re probably thinking, “Don’t remind me. I’ve eaten so many baked goods, I feel a little queasy.” Secondary teachers, your eyes may have just bugged out of your head as you thought, “What!? You get baked goods!?”

 

I joke about teacher appreciation celebrations, but they’re important. And they’re well-timed. This is the stretch of the school year that can feel a bit like pushing a Buick uphill

…in the mud

…with four flat tires.

I’m incredibly thankful for everything our community does for teacher appreciation, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we could do better. Don’t get me wrong; at this time of year, a lunch or a coffee cart can seem like a godsend. But, I’d argue that more than appreciation, we need support.

I imagine we could probably get together at one of these teacher appreciation celebrations and lament all day about how we need more support from our legislators and our community. But I don’t know how far we’d get beyond sharing the same concerns. At least not in one conversation around the coffee cart. There is, however, a lot that we can do within our own buildings to move beyond baked goods to support teachers all year long. Continue reading

Conquering the Blank Page with Note Cards

The Blank Page

One of the largest hurdles for my writers is the fear that accompanies starting an essay. Their fear of the blank page often manifests itself in half-hearted introductions and tentative hooks. Importantly, these students know when their writing is less than what it can be. They aren’t trying to start their essays with weak hooks; they are simply experiencing small moments of hesitancy that is not conducive to their creative process.

Vital to understanding our students’ blank page jitters is the fact that these jitters can be conquered.

Note Cards that Conquer

All that is needed for this exercise are note cards, two sentence starters, and a prompt. With these three components, students are tasked with crafting the idea that will effectively begin their essay.

The Directions

  1. Write your name on the top of your note card.
  2. Answer the following question on your note card:

Do you have something that will interest your reader like a story, statistics, or really interesting facts?

Continue reading

The Door of Chaos: Responding to Original Ideas

An Authentic Problem

Quite often, we ask students to respond to original ideas. We ask them to reflect on an author’s claim. We ask them to connect their values to an author’s values. We even ask them to make personal connections to an author’s background. A colleague of mine has students write letters to Sherman Alexie after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to which he has responded once). Importantly, we also ask students to respond to the writings of other students. These opportunities provide moments of authenticity in terms of revising and publishing that carry genuine weight as students begin to see themselves as writers.

The push to allow for students to respond to one another was alive and well in my classroom until a student asked why she couldn’t respond to her friend who was in a different hour of mine. And so began The Door of Chaos.

The Door of Chaos

The idea behind The Door of Chaos is that students have the opportunity to respond to ideas that were generated when they weren’t in the room. Continue reading

Whiteboard Duels: Collaborative Drafting

Collaborative Drafting

In my time outside of school, I often freelance as a speechwriter. My students know this, and when one of my students came to me with the speechwriting scenario of the century, I decided that a whiteboard duel would be perfect for the task.

This particular student is traveling throughout UN member nations researching and speaking about the Sustainable Development Goals. Her task is daunting and the complexity of her mission deserves its own post. However, the speaking portion of her mission requires that she speaks to various groups about her personal connection to these goals and her unique viewpoint as one who has spanned the globe to see these goals in action. In short, she has become a pseudo-expert for the UN, and she has an intriguing need to express her expertise effectively.

In helping this student prepare her remarks, I used a collaborative drafting method called a Whiteboard Duel.

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We began our drafting by answering 3 metacognitive questions: What are you doing? Why does it matter? and Why should other people care?

The Materials

The biggest whiteboard you can find, two or more different colored markers, two erasers, and a timer.

The idea of the Whiteboard Duel is that two or more writers collaborate on a project in real time. In my scenario, my student and I decided to work on a specific portion of the speech, and we set a ten-minute timer. We then set about crafting a speech.

The Process

  1. Set a purpose
  2. Set a timer
  3. Draft

The Rules

  1. For the duration of the timer, talking is not allowed.
  2. Anything can be erased, but it must be replaced with new writing.
  3. Now is not the time for grammar and punctuation edits.

The beauty of this drafting exercise is that it provides two (or more) writers with the explicit authority to revise a collaborative text. While, in the end, this speech will be delivered by my student, and I will have little to no responsibility to it, the in-the-moment drafting gives both writers real ownership.

My words became her words and her words became mine.

Continue reading

#squadgoals or The Importance of Collaboration & Community

Frequently, I seem to find myself with a work related catchphrase, something I find myself repeating in classes, in meetings, and in PD opportunities. It becomes a key part of my philosophy for a time.

This year, I find myself harping on the fact that what we do, as teachers, is a human endeavour. When it comes to our work with our students, especially in the times we live in, this is readily apparent.

However, I feel like we sometimes lose this notion when it comes to our professional relationships. It is far too easy for us to exist in some sort of Fortress of Solitude, sometimes it’s out of our control, yet other times we do this to ourselves.

justice-league

Of course I’m going to use a nerdy picture to talk about teamwork. (Image via iCloud Wallpaper)

I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons this week. Partly, it’s a reaction to what I’m seeing online. My social media feeds are clogged with people who are struggling, with people who are sharing, with people who are questioning… in short, there are a lot of people questioning their role in things, and seeking, or offering, a sense of community in our work.

This is important for me, because my online PLC has become very important to me. It was a great support, and sounding board when I felt that I lacked that in my “real world” professional life. I had changed schools, and although I worked next door to amazing teachers, we didn’t always work as a collaborative unit, as a team. Interacting online fulfilled that need for me. It led me to wonderful communities of educators, like the one here at Moving Writers. People share openly, ask questions and make suggestions, all things that move “the work” forward in ways that just aren’t there when you’re flying solo.

The other thing that’s happening is that my English department has changed. (It’s literally only four people, and I’m the only one who only teaches English.) There are two new people, and we’re currently teaching the same English courses. Our classrooms are right beside each other.

And we’re collaborating like mad! It’s so energizing and engaging! As I type this, we’ve in the midst of all three of us doing the same set of activities that we hashed out around a drama performance our students saw this week. The magic of like minds, sitting around a table, inspiring, challenging and supporting each other is my favorite part of teaching, outside of the actual work with the students. We’re each benefiting professionally, and the material that we’re able to put in front of our students is so much stronger.

So, I close this week thinking about our human endeavour. I work with great teachers who inspire and excite me. I interact with people online, and this happens there too. As this drops, a whole bunch of folks are gathering for NCTE, and my biggest regret about not being there isn’t the cool stuff I’d learn, but the cool people I’d learn it with.

So make a point of engaging in this human endeavour. Talk, face to face, or via some fancy futuristic electronic method. Share, ask, offer and grow. It is all win.

Who’s in your squad? What magical things have you cooked up with your colleagues?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy, and we can expand our PLNs!

-Jay

Academic Gifting: Offering Authenticity and Collaboration

Creating Authenticity

One of the most frequently asked questions in my writing class concerns itself with the intended audience of a text. When we analyze informational articles, we determine to whom the author is writing. When we analyze biographies, we analyze who might appreciate the organization of the text the most. And when we craft our own argumentative or analytical texts, we decide for ourselves who our readers are and what they want from us.

This last question, especially, hinges upon the idea of authenticity. My students crave real writing and real writing opportunities. It’s what makes a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment so intriguing. They like to occasionally take on new personas and voices, and they certainly like knowing that their writing is real and that it matters.

With the notion of “realness” in mind, I recently turned to Academic Gifting as a way to create both authentic writing opportunities as well as an opportunity for collaborative learning.

Academic Gifting

The Materials: Envelopes, Note Cards, and a Classroom Timer

I began the Academic Gifting exercise with the guiding quote of our unit:

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.”

Students were tasked with responding to this quote on the front of the envelope. For six

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Image via jamestownhistoricalsociety.org

minutes straight (building that writing endurance), pens and pencils could not leave the envelope. Students made “I wonder…” statements, asked questions, and connected the quote to the four major texts of our unit. Importantly, they did not write their names on the envelopes. Instead, while they were writing, I walked around with a sharpie and numbered each envelope according to my seating chart. This allowed me to shuffle the envelopes throughout the room but to still be able to identify the author of the envelope at the end of the lesson. Continue reading

Titan Talk: Pen Pal Letters and Social Health

While sitting in a professional development workshop this summer, Chelsey Avery, a stellar special education and language arts teacher, and I were working on an issue that had been haunting us for days:

“How can we bridge the social gap between our highest academic achievers and students with unique educational needs?”

Our answer to this question has been implemented over the first month of school in the form of pen pal letters. These letters, which we call Titan Talk, are anonymous letters sent between my honors students and Chelsey’s special education students. While they serve vastly different purposes in our writing curricula, they have already shrunken the gap between these two groups of students.

Logistics

  1. Honors English 10 students and 9 special education students will write anonymous letters to one another.
  2. Students will use code names to communicate.
  3. 2 honors students will be responsible for writing to 1 special education student.
  4. Teachers will review each letter before it is sent to the recipient.
  5. Direct and indirect writing instruction will be provided throughout the process.
  6. At the end of the process, students will meet at a reveal party.

Code Names

In an effort to keep the letters anonymous until the big reveal at the end of the school year, students have been assigned code names. For instance, Simba and Nala are writing letters to Batman, while Simon and Garfunkel write to Princess Leia. By asking students to take on pseudonyms, we can encourage them to take more risks in their writing (a natural result of anonymity) while maintaining the authenticity these letters provide.titan-talk-2

Purposes

  • Authentic writing and reading opportunities – students are writing with actual students in their own school. This is not writing a pen pal they will never meet nor is it a contrived assignment in which students write to an absent other.
  • Writing to provide advice and to solve problems – the beautiful aspect of these letters is that the sophomore honors students just finished the experiences that the freshmen have just started. Thus, the expertise of the sophomores will motivate the freshmen. Furthermore, the sophomores will be motivated to provide sound and relevant advice when they know exactly what the freshmen are experiencing.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Synonym Toast Crunch, Euphemistically Speaking

Mentor Texts:

Excerpt from Labors of the Heart by Claire Davis

Writing Techniques:

  • Word Choice

Background:

In Nova Scotia, where we usually spend July, there is an amazing chain of thrift stores. They usually have an interesting selection of books, which corresponds nicely with my having more time to read.

This year, I really lucked out. I’ve become a big fan of the Best American series of books, and this year, the stacks coughed up three of them, two short stories, and one poetry from the early 2000s.

As I dug through the short story book from 2001, I came across this passage from Claire Davis’ story Labors of the Heart:

Labors of the Heart

Right away, I knew I had something I wanted to share. Continue reading

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! 

modern day pen pals- (1)

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 cbronke@csd99.org and Robyn at rcorelit@hinsdale86.org.  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.