Machete or Scalpel?

Two and a half weeks from the end of the school year and I’m lucky enough to have kids clamoring to learn! A testament to my mad teacher skills? Unfortunately, no. Rather, they are desperately motivated by the elusive “perfect” college application essay. Several years ago my colleagues and I started finishing our year in AP Language with work on college application essays because we discovered that it is one of the easiest ways to keep the kids invested after the test in early May.  We don’t actually grade them or even collect final drafts, but we spend our last weeks of school knee-deep in writer’s workshop as the students struggle through this high stakes writing and work to produce something of which they can be proud.

 

This year, I’ve been doing daily Google Form “Status of the Class” check-ins to get the pulse of the class and figure out what they need from me in the form of mini lessons. In a recent form, a common theme quickly emerged: word count. They are all way over the dreaded 650 Common Application word limit.  They all need to cut things, but I realized that they needed  some focused instruction on which tool to use: machete or scalpel?

 

Being Concise

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The Quest to Reduce Text

In August, I wrote about saving classroom space for anchor charts. Leaving some precious wall space blank will save you money, sanity, and most of all, will make room for instruction that you’ll actually use throughout the year. Although anchor charts are something that many elementary teachers are pretty adept at using, as a secondary teacher, I’ve just begun dipping my toe in these waters over the past few years, and let’s just say that sometimes I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat.

not-too-texty-tweetThat’s why, when Amy Estersohn @HMX_MsE said that she struggles with “making them simple and not too texty,” I thought to myself, “sing it, sister.” It seemed like I was constantly struggling to balance including enough information with being visually appealing and easy to use. So, I made the decision to really focus on this aspect of my anchor chart craft this year. And now that I’m just about at the halfway point of the year, I figured it was time to take stock of how that’s been going.

The Purpose Must Drive the Poster

When you’re first getting your feet wet with anchor charts, it’s easy to make a couple of mistakes. First, you might be tempted to use the anchor chart to document the whole mini-lesson. Pretty soon, the chart is filled with so much text, it’ll never be read again. Second, you can get lost in the world of Pinterest boards, replicating creative and visually appealing charts. Those often look great on your wall but pose the same problem as the posters you bought at the teachers’ store: they don’t get much use. To help me avoid these pitfalls, I have to keep reminding myself that I have to let purpose drive when it’s time to make an anchor chart.

I don’t chart all of my mini-lessons. Not by a long-shot. Most of the notes for my mini-lessons remain in digital form for students to see that day. If we absolutely need to refer back to them later, it’s easy to pull them back up, but most of the mini-lessons are small enough that we don’t need to refer back too often. If the concept is big enough that we might need to check back with it in the future, that’s my first clue that it might be a good candidate for an anchor chart. But before I uncap my markers, I’ve started to use the following questions to help me decide if information should go on an anchor chart poster: 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.

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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?

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Moving –like really moving– Writers

When I have a rough day at school for whatever reason–a challenging meeting, a botched lesson, a tricky planning problem–the one thing that helps me think and focus is running. I know lots of people say they only run when chased, so maybe that makes me a weirdo, but running is the one thing that is guaranteed to give me some clarity.

I need to move in order to think.

This past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my students and their need to move, too. I spent the early years of my  career teaching Spanish, so I know all about the research that movement helps students learn better. We danced the alphabet, acted out the weather, and clapped and shimmied our way through verb conjugations. But somehow, as I moved away from the world of foreign language,  my classes became more and more sedentary. Writing and reading became this calm, seated activity.  There’s certainly a need for that. You can’t exactly think and compose while you’re dancing. Or can you? I think maybe there are places for it.

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Putting the End at the Beginning: Introducing Revision to Writers

Revision is typically something that comes at the end — at least for young writers who may not be aware of the ubiquity of revision throughout the writing process.

I want my students to understand that revision is important, and that it doesn’t have to be this huge, tear-inducing process. It can be simple. It can be regular. It can be awesome.

Here’s how I do it:

Have them write something

On the first day of our poetry study, I give students a bag of words from two poems I love: Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” and Greg Orr’s “Adolescence.” Both poems are chock full of vivid verbs and concrete nouns — the kinds of words I want my students to use in their own work. I don’t tell them where the words come from (I save that for another day). In fact, I keep the instructions really vague:

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Google Presentation Slide for Poetry Activity

Students spend 10-15 minutes writing poems. Every single student — and I truly mean every student — loves this activity. They’re so focused you can hear the paper words sliding across the plastic composite desks.

In addition to getting students to revise, I use this activity for another reason: I want to learn more about my students’ prior knowledge of poetry, so I ask them to make a poem and tell me why it’s a poem. Their definitions, in addition to the mentor texts we study, help me shape minilessons for the next few weeks. Continue reading

Coaching Writers to Provide Quality Feedback

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Image via Angela Stockman, WNY Young Writers’ Studio

When writers trust that they can consistently receive high quality feedback from their peers, everything changes.

Rather than relying on the teacher, kids begin turning to one another for support. They begin knowing and naming their expertise and soon, they grow hungry for cool feedback. Rather than hearing it as criticism, they take it for what it is: a gift. Quality feedback is timely, criteria specific, and of service to the writer.

Criticism isn’t the same as feedback, and neither are compliments.

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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

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

A Revision Plan for You + Your Students

KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. A mantra I usually don’t heed until the end of the year. When I don’t have a choice.

Our end-of-the year to-do lists are sometimes so lengthy and complicated, the only way to keep up with them is to simplify. To pare the lists down to their essentials. To prioritize.

Sometimes student drafts feel a lot like the end of the year: fraught with chaos and  accompanied by a miles-long to do list. Fix your commas. Bring out your voice here. Can you say more about that? Add detail in the fourth paragraph. Have you thought about a title? Consider zooming out more in your conclusion. Don’t forget to italicize the title of the book and refer to the author by her last name! Paragraphing needs work. Let’s have a conference!

Just as our heads swim at the end of the year, students’ heads swim when they receive a paper — or have a conference — with copious amounts of motley feedback. Continue reading