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

Advertisements

Preparing Mini-Lessons that are Intentional

1

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

1

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…

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: A Moving Writers Series for a New School Year

 

1Every August, when I enter my classroom for the first time I begin in the same way: I open all my cabinets, desk drawers, and shelves, and dump everything out into the middle of the room. Then I begin sorting. I organize, toss, refile, reshelve, donate, upcycle, recycle, declutter, reclutter, etc. You get the picture. Meanwhile my colleagues next door are lesson planning and making copies and putting finishing touches on their classrooms. And this is when it dawns on me, mid-sorting, that this might not be the best place to start. That there are 1,000 other jobs that need doing, and throwing everything into a giant pile Marie Kondo-style may not be the best use of my time. After all, I have a lot to do to get my classroom organized for a new class of writers!

So why do I do it? Beginning is scary. What to do first, next, last? The miles-long to do list begs to be prioritized but its length and depth overwhelm. So, this year I asked for a little help from my Moving Writers friends.

What’s the first thing you do to get your writing classroom organized?

That’s the question the Moving Writers team will answer over the next month as each of our writers takes us behind the scenes and shares ideas for organizing the classroom for our writers at the beginning of the year:

2

We hope you’ll join us as we kick off a new year in the writing classroom!

~ Allison

 

 

The Important Thing

After the Labour Day weekend, my school year officially starts. Staff only on Tuesday, Grade 9 orientation on Wednesday and the full meal deal on Thursday.

It’s exciting, and daunting, and a million other things.

I spent two days in my school this week, in sessions about literacy, anxiety and even math. Three out of four of them were in my classroom, where it was interesting to take the students’ seat and be a learner. It looks different from the back corner.

I also spent some time with our LMS open, looking at the little pictures of my students’ faces.

It’s exciting, and daunting, and a million other things. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: 3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic

There is a a common thread that runs through many of our most-popular posts from the 2016-2017 school year: authentic analysis.  We are all hungry for something more. For something more than poorly-crafted already-been-said-before five-paragraph essays about the same old topics. And if your and your students’ disdain for reading and writing these kinds of essays isn’t enough of a reason to abolish them, Rebekah explores three other reasons why the literary analysis we teach must be as authentic and real world as any other genre of writing we teach. 

 

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-9-42-25-am

Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!

Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!

Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development  via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.

We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.

So, that doesn’t work. What does? Continue reading

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

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Mentor Texts for the First Week of School

One of the best ways to show our students the value that mentor texts have for their writing is to let it be the first thing they hear about on the first day of school — to put a mentor text in their hands, tell them that a mentor text is a piece of writing that guides and inspires us, and let them dig in. In this post, Rebekah offers some tried-and-true mentor texts for kicking off your writing year! 

Are you ready to start planning for the first week of school?

We use mentor texts in our classes from the very first day of school. We want to lay down a strong foundation and also some strong expectations that mentor texts will be our go-to source for inspiring our work, giving us how-tos, and answering our writing questions all year long.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have fun. The mentor texts we use the first week of school are visually engaging and meet our high school students right where they are as they walk in the door.

In our mentor text countdown this week, we are giving you a two-for-one: two very different approaches to using mentor texts in the very first week of school to help you students get to know one another while also learning the fundamentals of mentor text work!

Get out your planner! We are helping you get ready to get back to school! Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Memoir on Wax

Mentor Text: Coat of Many Colours by Dolly Parton

Writing Techniques:

  • Memoir
  • Symbolism
  • Allusion
  • Revision

Background:

Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure when, the woman I love fell for Dolly Parton. I know it wasn’t a childhood thing, because that’s not really what her folks listened to. But she’s a fan. And I get it, Dolly is an amazing songwriter, and just comes across as such a genuine person. As teachers, her support if literacy is something we admire greatly.

IMG_4140So, for the past few months, as I dig in record crates for myself. I’ve kept an eye out for some Dolly records for her. While we were in Nova Scotia, I found myself in one of those awesome, and terrifying, small used bookstores. You know, the ones that seem to have a little bit of everything crammed into a space that’s about half the size it should be. And I came across a copy of Dolly’s 1971 album, Coat of Many Colours.

Now, we’re home, and as we settle back into routines, my wife is doing stuff around the house, and I’m looking for inspiration to write. That Dolly album has been our soundtrack for the last few days, as stuff gets done around the house, and I find this week’s inspiration. Continue reading