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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Behind The Scenes: Considering The Big Picture

On Monday, Allison wrote about the nightmare of the blank planner.

I started this week with that nightmare as a reality for one of my classes. I knew exactly where I’d be starting with my Grade 11s and my Grade 12s, but I was kind of blanking on what my Grade 9s would be starting with. It kind of freaked me out.

And it kind of seemed like the right thing to do.

I have the luxury of working in a smaller school. Aside from a few changes, my 11s and 12s are groups of students that I know well, and have built a culture with. There are some programming pieces that I’ve used in those courses that are a perfect fit for them.

Those 9s though, I don’t know them yet, and I can’t decide what things I’ve got in the bag of tricks are going to work best for them. It’s a different situation for me – usually, I don’t see Grade 9 students until second semester, and by then, I have a sense of who they are. This year, I’ve got them in my classroom on the first day. I have an opening piece all figured out, personalizing our notebooks. I’ll be scrambling, trying to get some quick reads on who my new students are.

But here’s the thing. I’m actually pretty confident about things, because I’ve thought about what the Big Picture is in the course. I’m not sure exactly what the path will look like, nor have I figured out exactly what we’re going to do, but I know where I’d like us to be at the end of it. Continue reading

Preparing Mini-Lessons that are Intentional

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Recently I attended my oldest daughter’s back-to-school orientation in her third grade classroom. It was a typical night of excited cafeteria room chatter, squeaky new sneakers, and the exchange of adorable little kid hugs between reunited playground friends. The loudspeaker chimed in and out, prompting us to move from one location to the next, and parents shuffled around their forms and folders and PTA fundraising packets. Beginnings are beautiful. But they can be messy.

They can be stressful and overwhelming and exhausting.

But not if you have a plan.

A few other observations I made that night at intermediate school orientation had to do with my daughter’s incredible teacher, Mrs. Bowman. Mrs. Bowman is a teacher’s teacher — the kind who, if you’re in education and you’re sitting in her classroom, makes you want to be a better teacher. Besides the fact that she’s so obviously on the side of her students and passionate about their learning, and looking beyond her adorably and thoughtfully arranged and decorated classroom, what I saw was nuts and bolts organization and intention.

There was a book basket “book shopping” center, writer’s workshop table, and student conference space; there were comfy chairs, work-stations, folders, calendars, Class Dojo accounts, iPads, and adorable multi-colored paper-clips mounted to the walls ready for student work. And my personal favorite, a space on her board entitled, “We will do…How to do…How to succeed” for daily agendas, goals, and self reflection.

Mrs. Bowman has a plan. She doesn’t just anticipate her students’ needs, she prepares for them.

It gets me thinking. When we prepare a new writing study, this is what we should do — prepare for our students’ needs. We should think through each step and prepare our lessons and to joyfully and intentionally meet our students where they are in order to help them achieve as much as they can.

One way to do this is through mini-lessons that scaffold to the overarching goal of your writing study.

Here are some guiding questions that may help you plan and prepare for your writing unit and evaluate where some gaps might need filled in or extra practice might be required:

When taking stock of your writing study…

  • Did you begin with the end in mind? What is the overarching goal?
  • What is the final product? How will you know when a student is successful?
  • What are the critical skills students need in order to be successful in the writing study?
  • What will students need to know in order to successfully create the final product?
  • What will students need to do in order to successfully create the final product?
  • What kind of classroom atmosphere would be ideal in order for students to be productive?
  • Are there opportunities for collaboration?
  • Are there opportunities for modeling?
  • Are there opportunities for reflection and self assessment?
  • What do you want the students to get out of this experience? What do you hope they take away?

I’ve found that if I invest the time up front in asking and answering these questions myself, I have a deeper understanding of not only what I’m asking students to do, but where and when to schedule mini lessons based the task and overarching goal. For example, if you know that you want your students to have a strong introduction devoid of the classic, “Have you ever” questions, then you might want to spend some time in class analyzing and evaluating what makes an effective introduction, modeling how you might approach introducing a topic, and giving students low-stakes writing opportunities to practice and share. You can include plenty of mentor texts along the the way to guide your discussions and writing.

But of course, the greatest variable is our students — their strengths, weaknesses, and greatest needs. And if we can be intentional in preparing for them, I think we’re one step closer to moving our young writers.

How do you decide which mini-lessons to include in your writing study? What questions do you ask in preparing a writing study?

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

 

Rethinking Writing Genres

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As an English teacher with a minor in History, I’ve often wondered aloud to my colleagues in the Social Studies department about how they are able to continue cramming more and more history into the same size school year as the decades wear on.  Part of the answer, of course, is that what we think of as “modern” or recent history mostly goes unstudied–if it’s still fresh in the collective memory of society, chances are it’s getting only light attention in classrooms.  There are only so many hours in the school year, and the older stuff makes more curricular sense in a lot of ways (A student might absorb some sense of the Post-9/11 era at home or through media.  The significance of the Tennessee Valley Authority?  …Not so much.)

I couldn’t say why this year was the first time I made the connection, but it suddenly occurred to me as my PLC sat down to plan our first unit calendar that the curriculum of English classrooms has begun to mirror the struggles of history classrooms.  For one thing, the Canon that once dominated every English classroom in the land has slowly but surely been chipped away at in favor of at least some balance with more modern and diverse text selections.  The problem is, text selection is only one piece to the puzzle…

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Behind the Scenes: Organizing the First Weeks, Semester, and Year…It’s Not What You Think

1It’s the first faculty meeting of the year. A few teachers gather in a corner to show off their new Erin Condrin planners…and as they energetically flip through them, I can see that the first days, weeks, and months are penciled in with big ideas, writing studies, and lesson plans. Then I look down at my own planner and peek inside, expectant… its pages are bright white. Blank. Empty. I don’t even know what I’m doing on the first day of school, and it’s tomorrow…

This is the dream nightmare that plays on repeat during the last few weeks of summer. It’s a nightmare, but it’s also real, because I am faced with a blank planner and the same ginormous question every single August: Where do I begin? What comes first, and then next? 

The curriculum doesn’t answer this question for me. Neither does Common Core, or whatever standards are relevant, or pacing guides. What I did last year doesn’t help either. No. All of these resources are merely guides. The decision of where to begin and where to go next THIS YEAR is ultimately up to me.

Or is it?

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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

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

The Final Thoughts

It’s June.

I know that some of you are already done for the year. I know that many, like myself, are in the homestretch.

Next week is our last week of classes, followed by exams. So, naturally, I’ve been discussing with my students the nature of their final.

finals-finals-everywhere

Via makeameme.org

My team and I have had a number of conversations, evolving what the final looks like in our English classes. I’m a very vocal advocate for having a team that communicates and plans together, because it allows for so much rich discussion and growth, resulting in classes that are engaging for students and teachers alike. Continue reading

How To Reflect: 5 Ways to Encourage Reflection in Your Classroom

How to Reflect

Today is an important day, a day all teachers cherish. Graduation. How remarkable to be able to share in this milestone year after year, class after class. What a privilege to take some small part in the upbringing and education of so many wonderful young people moving up and onto the next steps of their lives.

Every year this time, I’m verklempt by the flood of students parading in and out of my room in their caps and gowns, their hugs and photos, their thank yous and goodbyes. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems I teach, “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” And recently when tearfully thanking my students for sharing in great literature like this with me, one student jokingly promised to not turn bitter and rot like the molded over blackberries in the poem.

It gets me thinking. More accurately, it gets me reflecting—seeing the image of the year thrown back at me without being absorbed by it. Not yet anyway. That will happen in the fall when the yellow school buses pull up and a new year begins.

But for now, I’m reflecting on this year—what went well, what went not so well, where I succeeded, where I failed, how I helped and how I hindered. I reflect on another year’s experience of teaching because reflection is a powerful opportunity to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.

The same, of course, is true for our students.

I love creating opportunities for my students to reflect. I see on their faces the deep introspection that is the turning over of your own thoughts. It’s the class-magic equivalent of a room of silent readers all digging into a good book. But this time, instead of books, it’s their brains. And over the years I’ve noticed that reflection creates sound writing. Speaking of magic, there’s something about making sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas that sparks creativity and, as we like to say around here, moves the writer.

Here are some ways you can encourage reflection in your classroom:

  1. Letter Writing

This is by far my favorite reflective activity. Aside from the beauty and nostalgia of a handwritten letter, the form lends itself to contemplation and introspection. It’s something I’ve only happened upon in my classroom. In letter writing, the task is clear—address a specific person and relay information in your own unique and authentic voice. Plus Letters of Note would sure make for some great mentor texts.

Here are two of my favorite letter writing activities:

The first is an assignment created by my teaching mentor Kevin Mooney, called Hello, It’s Me. The task is to write a letter to someone who you think needs it. There are a few stipulations, and that’s what yields considered writing. They are as follows:

  • The letter should be to someone real, living and available.
  • The letter should say what you haven’t had the presence of mind, the guts, the opportunity or the time to say.
  • The letter should be genuine, heartfelt, and brave.
  • The letter should represent your full effort to balance the scales, pay the debt, mend the fence or rightly honor the achievements.
  • The letter should be written to someone who you would send the letter to. And, I would suggest and prefer, it should be written to someone you think might appreciate or need or require a letter like this most.

My next favorite letter writing assignment is the Literature Letter to Your Teacher. My only requirements were that students read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor an assigned poem; to talk about it with their friends;  examine the writer’s craft, structure, literary elements; and then write a letter to me reflecting on it.

The poem was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in case you’re wondering. And a poem like this certainly begs reflection and elegant prose.

The letter form was perfect for exploring the concepts of the poem. Students were freed from “academic style writing” and free to use their own voices. Here is one of my favorite letters:

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  1. Prove You’ve Been Here (an end-of-course reflection)

Here’s a fun little thought experiment. Give your students this prompt: It’s graduation day and the principal says, “Nope, you’re not walking today. You don’t have your English credit.” You stand there, clad in cap and gown, and you have to defend you did indeed earn an English credit this year. Your task is to prove you’ve been here.

Students have a lot of fun with this, and this playful prompt allows them to really explore what they have learned and achieved throughout the year. And while you’ll probably get a lot of genuine and heartfelt “thank yous” along the way, you’ll also get some surprising reflections from students you may not anticipate. Here was a student response that humbled me and made my heart swell.

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I do love playful writing, but beginning and ending the year with meaningful reflection is meaningful to students. Check out Liz Matheny’s post using the beautiful E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” as a way to open or close your year with reflective writing.

  1. SketchNotes

It’s no secret that visual arts is one of my tricks of the English classroom trade. This year, after my students studied Slaughterhouse Five and before assigning their Narrative of Learning essay, I asked my students to use SketchNotes as a means of reflection and a way to “brain dump.”

The meditative quality of sketching and coloring made this reflection style both unique and worthwhile. This particular form worked as scaffolding to my students’ end of novel essays, but in the meantime, it helped them continue to uncover ideas about the text and see connections they perhaps didn’t before. SketchNotes proved to be an effective form of pre-writing and reflection.

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Minute Papers: Short Sprints

Sprinting

As writing teachers, we have many different writing assignments of varying length. Students write timed essays, five-paragraph essays, formal research papers, poetry, and creative non-fiction. My classroom, for instance, included marathon-length research papers, a half marathon of a literary analysis, and a group-drafted rhetorical analysis project that is best described as a relay. But before I discovered Minute Papers, my classroom was missing a sprint.

In a track meet, the sprint events are my favorite. They are short, exciting bursts of

Wottle

Image via The Toledo Blade

athletic prowess that get me on my feet and craning my neck to see who finishes first. These are the events that the crowd loves.

To run my students through the track meet that is a school year and to not provide the excitement of the sprint events would be a disservice to their writing muscles.

Rules

  1. You must write for the entirety of the race (usually 2-4 minutes).
  2. You must stay in your lane. No disrupting other sprinters.
  3. Finish strong! Don’t give up in the last 10 yards of the race.

Continue reading