Permission to Play

The other night, my four year old broke my heart. “Why don’t you ever play with us?” he asked.

“What do you mean? I play with you all the time!” I responded, obviously feeling defensive from the sting of his question. My kids are the loves of my life. I try to spend as much time with them as is humanly possible for a mom who’s also a teacher.

“No,” he pushed back. “You are always makin’ dinner or doin’ somethin’ else.”

I paused and, in my head, did a quick inventory of what I’d done during the time we’d spent together recently:

  • prepare meals
  • empty and reload dishwasher
  • pick up mess
  • schlep the kids to the store to pick out a birthday present for their cousin
  • read stories

He was right. I was with them, but I was so busy with the day-to-day work of being a parent that I wasn’t doing what they really needed: spending time with them doing what they were doing.   

This struggle reminds me of one I’ve noticed in the classroom, too.

My students regularly keep track of how they spend their workshop time, but aside from conference notes and formative data, I hadn’t really been keeping track of how I’d been spending my own time, so I challenged myself to start. In a week, my inventory for how I spent my workshop time included:

  • Conferences – lots of them
  • Get kids caught up after absences
  • Pull small groups for guided instruction and re-teaching
  • Answer emails
  • Read over a mentor text I plan to use the next day
  • Pretty up an anchor chart
  • Enter notes on goals into the online gradebook

I’m sure that inventory looks familiar to you. But there’s a big, gaping hole there. My students were hard at work writing. Why wasn’t I? I see myself as a writer, but I wasn’t actually spending my time that way. Sure, I was busy. We’re teachers. OF COURSE we’re busy. But I worry that sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work of being busy that I neglect what’s really important: playtime.   Continue reading

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3 Teacher Stances for Writing Conferences

stances

Before I leapt into writing workshop years ago, the biggest thing holding me back was my fear of writing conferences. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t know what to say or that I couldn’t help or that a student would bring me a problem I didn’t know how to solve.

Years have passed. Now, writing conferences bring me a rush of adrenaline. I never feel more in my groove than when I’m running around the classroom in a conferring frenzy. But, like all insecurities, it’s still an element of instruction I spend a lot of time thinking about.

It’s sometimes tempting when we are trying to navigate a room full of students to give a quick to-do and move on. But we need to tread carefully because we should never use writing conferences to limit a writer’s choices by imposing our will on their piece — even accidentally. One thing I’ve discovered on the road to having good conferences is that how I make a suggestion or teach a strategy is just as important as what I say.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I did some Google Hangout professional development with a department in Connecticut who wanted to know more about conferring with writers in a way that is both meaningful and manageable. As I prepared for our time together and tried to articulate how I’ve made conferences work, I discovered that when I approach a writer, I typically take one of three stances depending on what they need and how they need to hear that information: the teacher, the reader, and the writer.

teacher

The Teacher

This is our default, right? The Teacher is a more directive stance, perfect for re-teaching a mini-lesson, re-enforcing a fundamental writing skill, or giving a writer a new technique as a challenge.

What I Might Say:

  • When a writer wants to ____, they ________.
  • If you’re trying to ____________, consider _________.
  • Remember that when we _________, writers ______.
  • To take this to the next level, you might try ____________________.

reader (1)

 

The Reader

Approaching a student’s writing like a reader is the gentlest stance — one I turn to when a piece of writing is in deep trouble (especially in terms of comprehensibility), when I am working with a writer who is resistant to help or feedback, and when I just don’t know what to say.

I love the Reader stance because it gives me an answer every time. No matter what, I know how I feel when I read something. Plus, this stance reminds the writer that there will be an audience on the other side of the writing — an audience who has expectations and needs that should be met. And for the writer in your room who doesn’t want any feedback, the Reader is difficult to disagree with!

What I Might Say: 

  • As a reader, I’m wondering ______.
  • As a reader, I’m confused by ______.
  • As a reader, it’s difficult for me __________.
  • When I read this, I’m thinking _________. Is this what you intended?
  • When I read this, I feel like ________________.
  • As a reader, I’m noticing ____________.

writer

The Writer

The Writer is my go-to approach when a writer doesn’t need a craft move but needs a habit or process instead. This stance is all about articulating for a student what real writers do to move through the writing process.

I might suggest that a student take a break from the words and take a minute to sketch about their ideas instead, talk out their ideas with a friend, go back to a mentor text right before they finish their last-minute edits for inspiration, do some writing-off-the-page, go back and re-read what they had written before.

What I Might Say:

  • When I’m writing, I sometimes ____________________.
  • When a writer gets to this place in their process, they might ___________________.
  • Often, writers ________________ when they _________________.
  • To ________________, writers sometimes ___________________.

Why Do These Stances Matter?

Taking different stances in a writing conference meets the needs to the writer at hand better than when I think I need to be the Teacher all the time — hurling writing strategies around the room at warp speed. I need to differentiate my stance just as much as I need to differentiate my instruction.

But these also help me organize my thinking as I enter a conversation. By thinking in terms of three simple stances, I limit my pre-conference panic. The options and answers no longer feel dauntingly limitless — I know that I am going to take one of three approaches.  They give me an extra boost of confidence which allows me to help my writers feel confident with their choices, too.

Are there different stances you take in a writing conference? A different way you organize your teacher thinking as you approach a writer? Leave us a comment below and share how you conceptualize your conferences with writers, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahODell1! 

 

Toward Better Writing Conferences & More Independent Writers

Writers work toward independence when they...

Conferring with writers has always been the hardest part of workshop teaching for me. When it goes well, a writing conference is where the energy is, where the lightbulb turns on, where the writing and the writer move forward.

But it takes a lot of work to train writers to have a meaningful, energizing writing conference.

My students — whether they are in seventh grade or in twelfth — instinctively default at the beginning of the year to one of two conferring positions. My most-confident writers never ask for a writing conference, explaining later in their author’s notes that, “I didn’t think I needed a conference because I didn’t need help.” My less-confident writers ask for a conference every class period (at least once!), but their conferences are less a conversation and more a panicked gasp of, “Help!”

Neither is ideal. The writer who never confers is working in isolation with limited resources — whatever they already know how to do on their own. The writer who always confers but needs constant handholding isn’t articulating their needs. Both writers need more.

You see, the goal of writing workshop has never really been for students to produce sterling pieces of writing. Rather, the goal is for students to experience a writing process that, over time, builds their writing skills, their confidence, and, ultimately, their independence as writers who can move through an independent writing process on their own out in the world. This is why we allow student writers to make so many choices.

And part of independence is knowing what you need and when you need it.

Recently, I circled back to the lesson I taught in September about what a writing conference is and why a writer might have one. My students were missing that conferences aren’t just for help. In fact, I hope they are usually for more than just help. They are also for having a conversation about work, for talking it out, for getting another set of eyes on a piece of writing, for feedback.

 

help feedback

First, I told students that moving forward, in order to ask for a conference, they needed to be prepared to lead it by asking for help or asking for feedback. No more, “Can you look at this” or “Uhh….I just ….could you…?” leads.

There are really two different kinds of writing conferences, and both are very important for writers.  Help conferences…. ask for help. They usually sound like a statement. They are broad and general and typically occur when a writer has hit a roadblock they cannot get around without assistance.

Feedback conferences, on the other hand, ask for advice about a particular part of the writing. They usually sound like an open-ended question. They are aimed at making part of the paper better, but don’t necessarily happen at a point of writing crisis.

I gave them a small glue-in of the chart above for their notebooks.

That was about it. But the impact on my writing conferences was enormous.

  • Confident writers now understand that there are ways for them to talk about their writing, too. And that the conversation might truly make their writing better.
  • Struggling writers have more specific ways to articulate their needs when they are stuck at a dead end.
  • Writers have a schema to help them figure out what they need most at any given moment in the writing process.
  • Everyone has language that can help them start a discussion with a teacher or peer.

Giving students ways to discern what their writing needs, articulate it, and get the help they need builds their independence. In fact, it builds their confidence just as much as giving them the latitude to choose their own topics and find a unique writing process that works for them.  Real writers know what their writing needs. They know when they have a weak paragraph that needs another set of eyes. They know when the structure is just off … even if they don’t yet know how to fix it. They know when something is just missing. Helping students distinguish between help conferences and feedback conferences moves writers toward this independence.

How do you help students become more independent in and through writing conferences? What tips, hints, or conference starters do you offer to students? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or send me a Tweet @RebekahOdell1! 

3 Techniques for Students Who Know What They Want to Say But Not How to Say it

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 9.21.00 PM

Can you picture the student who has just said this in a writing conference? He smoothes the pages of his notebook to reveal countless scribbles and doodles that he has spent the past few days getting down. He has generated multiple ideas for his next writing project. He has done his homework. But he sits here on Flash Drafting day, staring at a blank screen, the cursor mocking him.

“You doing okay?” I ask.

He sighs. “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”

I sympathize with this student. He’s a perfectionist. He writes one sentence and then the next, slowly building the perfect essay in the same way my son arranges his animals in his crib at night: one after the other, each in its place; snug, tidy, perfect.

So much depends on what I say next. And when I say “so much” I mean: this student’s stamina, his self-confidence, his writing future.

It would be easy to look at his notes and suggest a starting line — to “put words in his mouth.” And while this may help him get started on this particular paper, it’s also where the help ends: here. Next time he can’t figure out “how to say it,” what tools will I have given him? How will he move forward without a teacher whispering in his ear?

Here are three strategies you can share with the student above to help him move past his current state of stuck and any stuckage he may encounter in the future.

Strategy #1: Loop Your Thoughts

Looping is a strategy I discovered in Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers (my favorite book of his!) that helps students in myriad ways: land on a topic, narrow the focus of a piece of writing, or figure out “how to say it.”

The steps:

  1. Write your topic or basic idea at the top of the page.
  2. Then write as fast as you can for 2 to 3 minutes, jotting down whatever comes to mind on this topic. Let your ideas flow onto the page without judgement.
  3. Read over what you wrote, either out loud or in your head.
  4. Choose one thing resonates with you — a word, a phrase, or a line.
  5. Skip a few lines on your paper, and write this new idea on a clean line.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5, writing from your new idea each time, until you figure out what you want to say.

Strategy #2: Write In Between The Lines

Often when a student tells me she knows what she wants to say but not how to say it, she has a draft in front of her. She just doesn’t like how it sounds. And while there are times when scraping a draft makes sense, when starting from scratch can provide the clean mental space a student needs to find momentum again, but I usually encourage the student to try writing in between the lines first.

The steps:

  1. Start with a draft, even if it’s yucky, even if you hate it.
  2. If it’s on the computer, double or triple space it.
  3. If it’s in your notebook, type it up and double or triple space it. Print it out.
  4. In a colorful pen, write in between the lines, or in the white spaces, to flesh out and extend, or question and contradict, the existing writing.
  5. Type up everything you’ve just written in the different color.
  6. Read what it says. See if it moves something in you, or if it better expresses what you were trying to say.
  7. Consider blending the first draft with this “in between” draft for the perfect expression of your ideas.

Strategy #3: Start Talking

James Britton must have been thinking of the writers who can’t find the right words when he wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” In the past I rarely made time for writing partners and groups to get together and talk about their ideas: I worried it would fester into chit-chat and what-are-your-weekend-plans chatter all too soon. But the more I realized the power of conversation as a writing tool, the more room I left in our schedule for regular meetings between writers. This talk strategy can be used in writing partnerships, writing groups, or in a writing conference with your student.

Steps:

  1. Grab a buddy.
  2. Talk to them. Tell them what you’re thinking. If you’re trying to write a scene, close your eyes and tell them what you see. If you’re writing about an opinion you have, tell them your opinion and why you feel that way and why it’s important to talk about. If you’re writing something informational, tell them what you already know and what questions you have and what excites you about the topic. Just talk. For a few minutes.
  3. Buddy: Grab some sticky notes. Write down words, phrases, and lines that resonate with you as the writer speaks. Then tell the story of your sticky notes, and hand them back to the writer.

    Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 10.31.07 PM

    Notes from a writing conference: The students’ handwriting (left) and mine (right)

  4. Writer: Put these sticky notes in your notebook. Ponder them. See what additional thoughts they may yield. Note how powerful it can be to see your words staring back at you.

How to use these strategies with students

Rewind to the moment when my student tells me he doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say, and keep in mind that conferences should be short, instructive, and transferable. In this particular moment, I have three options:

  • If I had taught one or more of these strategies as a minilesson in the past, I could direct the student back to his notes, review the steps with him, and watch him get started.
  • If I had never taught one of the above strategies, I might choose in my head the one that I think would best fit his purpose or writing style and do a quick 30-second demo in my own notebook in front of him.
  • If there were other students in the class with whom I had shared these strategies, I might form an impromptu writing group in the corner and ask each of these students to share one of the strategies with the writer.

Over time, as you teach minilessons that help students solve writing problems, you might consider helping them create glue-ins or classroom anchor charts that remind them of the different tools at their disposal. Here’s an example of one:

It’s tempting in a conference to help the student “fix” the paper in front of him, but if a larger goal of our teaching is our students’ independence, we have to help him solve his problem now and in the future. In other words, we have to give him a tool — or a few — that he can keep in his back pocket for the next time the same problem presents itself.

What strategies do you share with writers who struggle to find the words to express their ideas? Let’s add to this list of strategies together! Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or email me at movingwriters.org.

I Love My Analog Marking Lists

Somewhere, in my busy week of Halloween, my daughter’s birthday, teaching and student led conferences, I found time to do some marking.

DNbHj1WVoAA1r91As I marked, I tweeted a picture of one of my marking sheets, sharing a couple of the reasons that I still use an analog marking model. I don’t do the math in the old gradebook any more, but I still have a stack of sheets that have the grades on them.

Other contributors on the Moving Writers team have shared their thoughts about the grading process, and I echo a lot of what they have to say. The last few years, I’ve moved away from putting the grade physically on their work in favour of comments and feedback. The numbers live in our LMS, and my students themselves decide which of the sources of feedback they want. Many look at the feedback, then the grade, while others only focus on one of those things.

As for my analog sheets, they’re part of my process. I don’t feel comfortable going to a purely digital method of recording grades. Even the best programs are prone to hiccups, and regenerating a whole class of numbers is a task I hope to never take on. I recently had a situation where a student’s program meant that mid-semester, he was put into his own class in the LMS, and in doing so, all the numbers I had entered for his assignments vanished. A few minutes with my sheets, and we were right back where we had been.

My sci-fi fueled distrust of machines isn’t the only reason I value my analog marking sheets though. Continue reading

No Happy Endings

You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.

And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.

We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”

I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”

“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”

Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.   Continue reading

Have Tos & Mights: Making Mentor Text Noticings Concrete

Last year, I began to notice a curious but recurring pattern — students’ final papers lacked many of the elements we noticed in the mentor texts.

It was as though students had  forgotten that we studied the mentor texts for days and days and made grand lists of noticings. It was as though they had never flipped back in their notebook to consult the techniques we discussed. It was as though we had never done it at all!

Here’s what was happening:

Continue reading

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

Scaffolding Authentic Literary Analysis

The need for authentic literary analysis has been simmering in my brain for a while now. Rebekah wrote about 3 Reasons for it  a while back, and I’ve been working on how to help teachers support and empower their students to write without formulas.

I talked with my students about this issue, too. Not surprisingly, they thought the traditional 5 paragraph, formulaic essays were pointless. They didn’t see any connection to why they’d want to write them or who would ever want to read them in the real world. Every single student agreed that they’d rather write for real, authentic audiences in real, authentic formats.

So, I committed. For our literary analysis unit, I was not going to provide them with a list of topics or thesis statements. I wouldn’t start with an outline of how many paragraphs. They would write about something worth analyzing in a way that they felt was worth reading. But I quickly realized that even though they were empowered by choice, some of them still needed a lot of support.

What we started with:

To launch the idea of analyzing literature, we watched a short film together. (I used Borrowed Time. It’s beautifully crafted and packs an awful lot into its short 6 minute time frame. Really, any short or scene that elicits a strong reaction in its viewers could work, though.) I set it up only by telling the students that they would watch, write their reactions in their journals, and then we’d have an opportunity to discuss.

Borrowed Time

image via borrowedtimeshort.com

Their responses were varied: emotional reactions, wonderings, and postulating about meaning. As we wrapped up our conversation I said, “Did you notice how, for some of our conversation topics, there seemed to be a lot more to talk about? That feeling that there’s a conversation waiting to happen is where real literary analysis lives.”

I connected them to this idea by asking if they ever tweet or text a friend after they’ve finished watching a show. Of course they have. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“How— (this character) — was so dumb,” someone replied.

“Yeah, or how I can’t believe it ended like that,” another student responded.

How we connected the concept of analysis to our reading:

THUG

image via: amazon.com

I did a think-aloud with the book I was reading at the time, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I explained, “you know, there’s a lot about this book that I’m really loving. And I keep finding myself recommending it to other people because I want to talk about it with them! That feeling like I need to talk about an idea is a clue that it might be a good topic for analysis, since I sometimes think of analysis as a conversation about thoughts. So I’m going to jot it down in my notebook as a possible topic.” Then, I listed the following possibilities in unpolished, thinking-aloud wording:

 

  • I love how authentic the narrator’s voice is. Angie Thomas does a beautiful job making it sound like a teenage girl is talking to you.
  • I love how Angie Thomas doesn’t oversimplify or fall for easy stereotypes with her characters.
  • That reminds me of another thing. In a lot of YA lit, the parents are either absent or awful. Hers are neither. It’s refreshing.
  • It’s tempting to think that because it’s dealing with a hot-button issue, this book will be a flash-in-the-pan, but I think it has a lot of literary merit and could become a YA classic.

After modeling the thinking behind brainstorming, students went back to their own notebooks to generate similar lists of topics for their own reading.

How I scaffolded brainstorming with mentor texts:

As I conferred with my students, some were ready to hit the ground running right away. With these students, we studied a few shared mentor texts to examine how authors of real literary analysis support their claims. (Hint: they still have evidence, but there is no magic 5 paragraph formula.)

There were still a few kids, though, who were really struggling with coming up with their own topics for analysis. In frustration, one moaned, “just tell me what to write!” I hesitated. I wondered if maybe some kids would benefit from the concrete structure of a 5 paragraph formula, but even they had told me how pointless they feel that kind of writing is. I wasn’t willing to give up on authentic writing.

So, instead I pushed for more. After questioning them about what was frustrating, we agreed that it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to organize their ideas into paragraphs; it was that they still didn’t have ideas that they felt were worth analyzing.

That reminded me of a post by Hattie and a conversation I’ve often had with colleagues. As she described in her post, the hardest work of writing often isn’t always the writing itself. It’s the thinking. Sometimes we need to scaffold the thinking that goes into writing more than we need to scaffold where a topic sentence goes in a paragraph.

To do this, we went back to mentor texts again. (They’re the professionals. Why wouldn’t we?) Instead of reading an article carefully, we looked at as many headlines as we could. Students flipped through VultureA/V Club, Literary Hub, and files of mentor texts that I’ve pulled throughout the past few years. We recorded the titles of articles that stood out as being analytical, then once we had a bunch, we stepped back to see if we noticed any patterns.

Literary Analysis JackpotRight away, they noticed that  almost all dealt with a “why” or a “how.” Then, they noticed that they might examine the “why” or the “how” of a character, a particular scene, etc. (And I bookmarked the idea that the difference between “why” and “how” as it relates to rhetorical analysis might make for some powerful lessons later in the process.) As we collected these trends and observations, we started to form columns, and we noticed how you could almost mix and match to form analysis topics. In my head, I started to picture the columns as the screen on a slot machine where all of the components line up to give you a result. Obviously, we said, our topics shouldn’t be random like a slot machine, but this image helped them understand how different pieces could fit together to make a topic for literary analysis. Fitting together some pieces that they had observed themselves in real-world writing gave them the support they needed to add their own thinking.

After a few minutes and some more tooling around in their notebooks, everyone had an idea for something they were excited to explore in literary analysis and they were starting to draft – without ever asking how many paragraphs they’d need. Jackpot!

What have you done to scaffold your students in authentic literary analysis? Where do you find students usually struggle the most when it comes to literary analysis? Contact me in the comments below or @megankortlandt.

Annotated Intentions (and Why They’ll Change the Way You Grade)

I’ve spent years searching for a fair-minded approach to grading that demands accountability but also doesn’t crush student spirits when products don’t turn out well.  

I’ve definitely been given the “hard grader” label over the years, but students have also mostly agreed with my observations when it comes time to conference.  Our district writing rubric is clear and concise, and since students are familiar with it we can have conversations using common vocabulary.  I would venture to say that most of my students are not surprised by the grades they earn.

I did once have a student respond to my feedback by shouting, “Ah, fiddlesticks!” but I consider him an outlier…

Despite being generally happy with my approach to grading and encouraging a growth mindset in my writers, I’ve still sometimes wound up frustrated with myself, or with the firm language of a rubric that feels fair until those peculiar moments when, on a particular paper, it suddenly doesn’t.    

One of the most effective remedies I’ve discovered is the practice of pre-annotation.   Continue reading