Teaching Each Instead of All

Differentiation: It’s one of those words that all teachers seem to use, but I wonder how many of us really feel confident doing well. When I went through my teacher prep program in undergrad, I thought I had it. Then, when I got asked in interviews about differentiation (and, let’s be honest, we’ve all answered those questions in interviews) I thought I nailed it. I talked about offering opportunities for multiple types of learners. I’d mix visual representations with auditory. And, what I thought was most impressive, I’d give the kids some chances to move around with some especially creative lessons that I peppered in. I thought I had this differentiation thing figured out and was ready for anything.

I know, I know. You can practically hear the sound of music screeching to a halt like in scenes from 90s movies where the parents get home and bust up the house party. I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have it. The reality of a real-world classroom with a diverse range of learners set in. Some of my students were carrying around Jane Austen while others didn’t want to move beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Some wrote beautifully crafted prose while others struggled to remember where end punctuation goes.

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Image via: someecards.com

How could I be fair and reach all my learners? And why on Earth weren’t my carefully prepared, creative lessons helping? It seemed like all the hard work and time I put into developing these lessons was wasted because I never felt like they were reaching all of my kids.

And that’s where, I’ve learned, my mistake was: I was thinking in terms of all of my kids, when I should have been trying to teach each of my kids. The main difference between these two mindsets is grammar; “all” is plural whereas “each” refers to students singularly. Instead of trying to plan perfect lessons that reach all of my students at once, I’ve realized that I need to plan lessons with enough flexibility to adapt for each learner. Continue reading

Writers Pay It Forward

A few years ago, after writing my eleventy-billionth letter of recommendation, I realized that the kids owed me. Perhaps not the most gracious response, but I had agonized over letters for a large group of past students, and I decided it was time for them to pony up. My current students were sweating buckets over revisions of their first essays and the line at my door for extra writing conferences was starting as early as 6:15am! I needed all hands on deck. In a moment of desperation (inspiration?) I dashed off a quick email to 20 former students:

Hey guys!  Any interest in coming to Academic Advisory on Wednesday to help out my current AP Lang kids with their first essays? By the way, all of your letters of rec are finished and submitted.

–Mrs. Maguire

Luckily, the thinly veiled guilt trip worked quite nicely and they all showed–some even brought friends. The next Academic Advisory, my room was packed with current and former students, paired up, perched on tables, huddled in corners, editing and discussing the younger students’ essays.

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Three years later, that email sent on a whim has proven to be one of my favorite traditions of fall in my class. Seniors pop by to ask, “Are you going to need us to come in and help like the seniors did last year?”  And after one go-around with the seniors, my juniors start asking, “When are they coming back??”  

Every year I’m surprised by how successful the mentoring is, but in the crush of fall and the holidays, I’ve honestly never thought that much about why it works so well. So tonight I’m thinking through some possible answers to this question:

What is it about peer to peer mentoring that makes it so successful?

Continue reading

The Only Four Questions You’ll Ever Need to Ask Your Writers

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Carl Anderson taught me to begin every writing conference with the simple question, “How’s it going?”

I love this question for two reasons: it’s a question we ask our colleagues, our friends, and our family members when we want to know how they are doing. In other words, it’s an authentic question that shows we care. Secondly, it puts the onus on students to determine the focus of the writing conference. There is no hidden agenda behind the question, “How’s it going?” It simply means, “How are things going for you in your writing?”

I typically ask this question at the beginning of a writing conference. I pull my stool up to the writer’s desk and lean in: How’s it going? 

It can also be useful on mid-process writing reflections. Sometimes, in the middle of a study, I ask my students to spend a few minutes telling me about their writing. I want them to share what they are currently working on in their notebooks, what their next steps are, and in general, how their writing is going. This question invites them to say anything – anything – about their writing. What a student chooses to talk or write about can be very telling.

Recently I have been thinking about the other questions I ask my student writers and which ones are the most fruitful. Here they are:

2. Can you say more about that?

Why it’s a great question:

I use this question all the time. From writing conferences to Socratic Seminars, this is the best way to help students elaborate. For example:

Teacher: How’s it going?

Student: Good.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: I’m working on my ending.

Teacher: How’s the ending going?

Student: It’s okay.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: It’s not very strong right now. I don’t know how to end it. 

Teacher: Can you read a little of your ending out loud…?

 

This question is like a gentle prod in the writer’s mind. It’s much gentler than, “Can you elaborate?” but more effective than accepting a writer’s one-word response (Good.) and moving on. It invites the writer to step back from his work and reflect on what he’s doing.

When to use it:

  • When a student gives one-word answers or is having trouble talking about his writing.

What it can do for students:

  • It holds students accountable for being able to talk about their work and explain why they are doing something.
  • It emphasizes the skill of elaboration in communication — not just in writing, but in verbal communication, too.
  • It cues the student to talk while still allowing the student to decide what to focus on in the conference.

3. Would you consider trying [x technique]?

Why it’s a great question:

I’m not sure where I picked up this question stem, but in my experience, it’s the nicest way to suggest to a writer that she try something in her writing. It’s the way I teach my students to give each other feedback on their writing.

Teacher to student, it’s much better than:

  • I’d like to see you [insert x technique].
  • I think you should [insert x technique].

With these questions, the teacher has an idea about the student’s writing, and s/he would like him to try it. The student doesn’t really have a choice. The teacher has the power. Is this how it should be?

When to use it:

  • When the student is struggling with something in her writing.
  • When the student needs a specific strategy in his writing.
  • When a student is ready for a challenge outside of the general class lesson.

What it can do for students:

When we ask a student to consider trying something, we are giving that student a concrete strategy, but the student holds the power. The feedback is framed as a choice, and sometimes students are more willing to try something in their writing when given a choice. When forced to try something, students tend to push back.   It’s important to remember that the writing belongs to the student – he ultimately decides what happens to it.

The word “trying” is important too — it suggests that writer sometimes make revisions that don’t work. In other words, the writer can try something, but if it doesn’t work — if the writer isn’t happy with how it affects his piece — he can go back to a previous version.

 

4. Are you ready to try this?

Why it’s a great question:

I came across this question while reading Carl Anderson’s book on assessing writing. I instantly wrote it in my notebook and pledged to use it during conferences the next day. It made what used to be an awkward moment for me (the goodbye at the end of the conference) fruitful and positive.

When you ask this question, the answer will reveal two things to you: 1) If the writer was listening during the conference and 2) If the writer is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference.

1. If the writer wasn’t listening, she’ll say, “Try what?” And you’ll know that you have more work to do. That the conference isn’t over.

2.If the writer was listening, and is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference, she’ll say “Yes.” And if you coach her a little more, she will often follow up with a specific step, as in, “Yes, I am going to do a little writing in my notebook to find an image I can put at the end of my poem.”

If the writer says, “No,” you have more work to do. The conference isn’t over.

~

There are myriad questions writing teachers can ask their students to learn more about their process. Rebekah wrote an incredible post a while back about the power of the question, “What did you discover today in your writing?”

But it seems that most questions lead back to one of the main four.

And some day, with enough practice under their belts, our students will only need one question: How’s it going?

Because this question seeks everything we need to know about our students as writers — and as human beings.

 

What questions help you communicate with your writers? What questions shut them down and what questions open them out? Please leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.

 

 

Helping Writers Listen

I split my teaching days between AP Language and Seminar and working one-on-one as a writing coach with struggling students. Two weeks ago I got to the spend the day at the AssisTechKnow conference to learn about how we can use assistive technology to support students. It was a great conference, but one session in particular has me thinking already about specific ways to improve my practice.

Presenter Craig Steenstra (@csteenst), an Ed Tech Specialist from Kent County ISD, encouraged us to think about ways we can help students “record the storm” of ideas and phrases and words jumbling around in their heads. So many students have a hard time getting their ideas down on paper and, unfortunately, get frustrated and give up.  Craig walked us through several examples of ways to use various audio recording apps on phones, iPads and Chromebooks, and I realized quickly that this was something I could apply right away. My students are willing to listen to me when I talk to them about their writing, but I’m starting to wonder how I can help them listen to themselves as writers.

Continue reading

Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.

 

Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction. Continue reading

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.

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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 …

When Purpose Drives a Project

The Internet has the power to connect people across the globe. I think we can all agree that’s already been well-established. The realization that I’ve recently had, though, is what a powerful impact this can have on my own professional learning. The first time I participated in a Twitter chat, I felt like a superfan who had just received a backstage pass to a Broadway show. There were so many “stars” of ELA, and we were all part of the same conversation!

I feel that same electric excitement whenever I stumble across a blog in which another teacher writes about something I’ve also been working on. Such was the case when I read Allison’s post about children’s literature. In the post, there were a few main points that I felt immediately connected to:

Her kids worked with children’s literature as a genre. This was exciting because this year, I tackled the project of a children’s book with my literacy lab, an elective intervention class comprised of students who struggle with reading and writing. Using children’s literature as a genre was non-threatening while still allowing for in-depth analysis, and it opened the door to other, more challenging texts.

She wrote about the power of having students collaborate on their writing. Collaboration was crucial to our project – mostly because it was such a heady project to tackle. Instead of a bunch of individual stories each paired with artists, though, we all worked together on the same book and then partnered with an artist who was willing to illustrate their work. We found that we needed each other to succeed in this endeavor. Each student had different strengths ranging from generating ideas to rhyming, and they lifted each other up to make an enormous project seem a lot more “doable.”

She used mentor texts to drive the instruction. I share a classroom, and many times I wondered if my teacher-roommate thought I was crazy when she’d arrive before we’d finished cleaning up. The desks were stacked high with every sort of children’s literature imaginable from board books on up. The students even gathered a collection of anti-mentor texts, or books they deemed to be so awful they wanted to make sure to avoid pitfalls that could potentially put our book in that category.

As I reflect on my own experience with our children’s literature project, I know that these were three key factors to its success. What really was the game-changer for me and my students, though, was the authentic audience. Continue reading

5 Tips for Teachers Who Want to Quit Grading

I would wager that grading is probably the very least favorite element of teachers’ jobs. (I would also guess this is quickly followed by complaining parents and senseless, top-down mandates.)

colorsof fallfestivalWe’ve all had the fantasy of the perfect teaching job that would exist if only we weren’t bogged down in numbers and rubrics and gradebooks. And on Monday, I posted a final installment of a year-long series reflecting on my attempt to do just that — to quit grading.

It’s summer (or just about!) Time to start thinking about next year! I’ve walked you through my story this year, but I thought it might be helpful if I synthesized some of what I’ve learned as a list of recommendations for you as you begin considering new ways to approach grading in your classroom. Continue reading

So, I Quit Grading: Part III, A Conclusion

Before reading this post, you might want to catch up with my grand grading experiment this year in my first post and second post in this series!

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The Trinity Episcopal School Class of 2016

I cried at graduation this year. No, that’s not right. I sobbed at graduation this year. Something that has never happened to me in the previous 10 graduations I have attended as a teacher. A crazy, unexpected tidal wave of emotion slammed into me as I thought, “I’ll never be their teacher again.”

Now, I am not given to  big (embarrassing) public displays of emotion. I was caught off-guard, unable to account for my reaction. What has happened? I wondered, choking back tear-filled gasps, trying to pull myself together, hiding puffy eyes behind my sunglasses.

I think I’ve figured it out.

I expected that the way I thought about grading would shift this year in my grand experiment with my seniors. I expected that students would work harder under this new system of accountability. I expected they would own their work, and, as a consequence, own their grades. I expected there would likely be misunderstandings along the way. I expected change. But here’s what I didn’t expect:

Changing the way I graded changed everything in my classroom.

Many of my hopes for this project were realized — as I gave up bits of my control, students found their voice in the classroom and in their writing. Students became risk-takers in all the best ways. They accounted for their mess-ups and  for their enormous victories. They learned to tell me what they needed.

But something even more significant happened.  Somehow, as a result of removing grades on individual assignments, I developed the deepest relationships I have ever had with students. Changing the grades didn’t just change the classroom atmosphere or the students’ work ethic or my paper load. Somehow, changing the grades changed our hearts— theirs and mine. More than ever before, I knew them and they truly knew me.

In a career of experimentation, this particular change — this heart change — has been the most profound.

The ResultsChanging the way I graded

So, at the end of the year, how did it all shake out? Will I do it again? What will I change? Continue reading

Discovering a Writing Process that Works

One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.

As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.

When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.

I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.  Continue reading