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?

Continue reading

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Behind the Scenes: One Notebook to Rule them All

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Zoom in on Henry, an eighth grader whose desk sits in the far right corner of the room. The other students sit down, pull out their notebooks and pencils, jot down the homework; Henry is frantic. Where it is? Please don’t tell me I’ve lost it! Noooooo! he silently panics.

He opens his binder, closes his binder, dumps the contents of his backpack on the floor beside his desk, kneels beside the mountain of stuff in the floor, and starts throwing one wadded-up paper ball after another over his shoulder as he searches fruitlessly. Defeated, tears well up in his eyes, and he slowly crawls back into his seat. Henry silently shakes his fist at the sky as the camera zooms back out. 

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Hard at work gathering ideas in the notebook.

Okay so, this didn’t happen last week, but this is one of my dearest school fantasies. I dream every year that each student’s notebook will becomes so precious, so valuable to them that they would dissolve into tears at the mere thought of losing it.

 

We teachers know that notebooks are a powerful storehouse of student thinking and bits of writing. We know that it is the foundation for the writerly habits that will actually help our students evolve into writers, not just students who submit technically perfect writing products. In many ways, the notebook is the answer to so many of the hows that come up in our writing pedagogy:

How do we help our students identify as writers? Regular, risk-free work in their notebook.

How do we help our student writers develop writing stamina? Dedicated class time to work in their notebook.

How do we help our students gather, curate, and develop ideas for writing? Notebook play.

How do we help our students track writing progress over time? Use the notebook as a writing archive of idea development, information gathering, and drafting.

So, then, how do we organize these all-important notebooks? How do we set them up to best establish their importance? It’s a conversation a few of us have been having on Twitter over the last few weeks, and one teachers get very passionate about.

I have two central goals for my students’ notebooks. I want them to be useful (as in easily useable), and I want them to be important to my students. 

So, in practical terms this means:

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Notes from a mini-lesson gallery walk go in students’ notebooks.

My students will have more success with their notebooks when I relinquish control of them.

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it goes to Ralph Fletcher who shared it at the All Write! Conference in 2016. Ralph told stories of teachers who had specific instructions for each page of a notebook, restricting and constricting them to the point that all of the life was sucked out of them and the joy of writing way gone.

He said, “Students care about their notebooks to the degree we stop controlling them.”

Whoa.

And, truly, this seems to be a central lesson to workshop teaching in general, doesn’t it? We get nervous about control — How will I know they are putting the right thing in their notebook? How will I know they will be able to find them later? How will I know they are complete? But when we impose OUR logic, our order, our need to hold the reigns over our students’, we will never guide them toward success. Is our goal for them to have perfectly ordered notebooks or to be able to engage in the rhythms and practices of real writers? Is our goal for our students to churn out products in the image we have cast for them or to do the real, hard work of real writers?

So, I don’t do much dictating any more about what goes in the notebook in what order. In fact, I don’t even dictate what kind of notebook my students should have. I simply ask that it be a bound notebook rather than a spiral notebook. (Spiral notebooks say “school” and “rip out my pages”, a bound notebook — even a composition book — has a completely different feeling.)

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One of the few required items in my students’ notebooks — a reading rate tracker (a la Penny Kittle’s Book Love) for Reading Workshop. 

My students glue some reading workshop materials in the back of their notebook (a reading ladder, a reading rates tracker, and a TBR list), but other than that, I simply ask them to  start filling the notebook.

 

Over the years, I have found that students’ notebooks are not easily useable when I dictate special sections, elaborate tables of contents, rules and regulations. Now, I make suggestions and show students models of others’ notebooks, but then I let them find organizational systems that work for them to make their notebooks useful in the most personal way.

Everything needs to go in the notebook.

Notice I said the notebook. Not “the notebook or the binder”. Not “one of the notebooks” or “either the reading notebook, the writing notebook, or the grammar notebook.” To be useful and to be important, notebooks need to be simple. Not only do students not need multiple notebooks to keep track of, but the very optics of a single notebook sends a powerful message: everything important goes in here, so this is important.

To the largest extent humanly possible, I do not give my students pieces of paper that Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.18.32 PMwill not be permanently glued or taped into their notebooks (the one notable exception to this is mentor texts, for which my students each have a special Mentor Text Folder.) Notes, ideas, jottings, notebook times, drafts, conference notes, group work, doodles, research — everything goes in the notebook. My students know that unless I direct them to write on something different (say, a piece of looseleaf to be turned in), their default is to go into their notebook. (Because of this, most of my students will fill two notebooks in a year.)

This is what makes the notebook important, significant, life-or-death. This ensures that the notebook goes home, and gets pulled out on the school bus, and sits on the student’s nightstand, and becomes worn and full and loved. Students need it and use it all day long for myriad reasons — and so all the stuff of their brains and their hearts gets captured there.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.20.48 PM.pngRemember Allison’s first post in this series? She suggested that we plan our first days and weeks and months of the new school year by … not planning. Friends, after many years of micromanaging notebooks (only to find them stuffed into trashcans in the hallway on the last day of school), I have found that the way to organize student notebooks is to … not organize them.

A notebook is a malleable, lifelong tool we gift to students when they are in our class. We wouldn’t give our best friend a gift and then dictate how she uses it (“You can use it between this hour and this hour and only for the following purpose …”). Students need a place to hold the thinking they will do in our classes — let’s step back, give up control, and let them discover its usefulness, its significance, its power.

I know you have your favorite ways to organize student notebooks — what are they? What organizational tips have been especially helpful to your students over the year? Leave a comment here to join the conversation, find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or find us on Facebook.

Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all.  Continue reading

Writing Workshop Workflow: A System for Tracking Student Progress in Workshop

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! Continue reading

Reading and Writing Workshop: The Essentials of Getting Organized

I found Rebekah’s visual guide to planning for writing workshop tremendously helpful, and I know many of you did, too. In an effort to be transparent and share the systems that work for us, this week I am going to write a little bit about the various organizational tools that help my workshops run more smoothly and keep the materials my students and I need at our fingertips.

Master Workshop Binder

My Master Workshop Binder

For a year or two I tried to go completely paperless. I condensed dozens of binders (one for each study or unit) into two or three by making or finding digital copies of everything. I forced myself to move conference notes online, and I asked the students to set up digital writing folders. At first, I loved how much space a purely digital system opened up in my room. Our classroom unfettered by papers, thick 2-inch binders, and handouts, we had more room to think. However, I also found that we sometimes wasted time trying to locate essential papers since they weren’t right at our fingertips — and sometimes I just needed to write something down on a piece of paper and save it. Over the past two years, I have refined my system — it’s about 75% digital and 25% analog. The trick is keeping hard copies of what’s essential, and letting a digital binder house everything else.

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My no-frills Master Binder.

 

As you can see from the picture, my Master Binder is nothing fancy — a simple, white, 1-inch binder with different sections for each of the classes I teach and a copy of our school schedule tucked into the front clear pocket. Within each class section, you’ll see four subsections: handouts, mentor texts, rubrics/checklists and rosters/conferences notes — tools that correspond with the components of writing and reading workshop.

Sections and sub-sections in the Master Binder.

Sections and sub-sections in the Master Binder.

Handouts

The handouts subsection contains two to three handouts at any given time:

  • Current study overviews (a description of the current study and expectations) and checkpoints (reflective writing assignments that are completed concurrently with the main piece of writing students are working on)
  • Reading and Writing Workshop Rules and Guidelines — I modify the rules and guidelines Nancie Atwell shares in In the Middle. If a student is not using time or space wisely during workshop, I simply bring my binder over to her desk, point to the rule or guideline she is not following, and remind her of the expectations.

Tips:

  • Colorcode each study overview (in your binder and in students’ binders) so everyone associates each study with a particular color and can find the relevant handouts more easily.
  • Put the Rules and Guidelines handout in a sheet protector since you distribute it during the first week of school and refer to it throughout the year.

Mentor Texts

Almost all of the instruction in my class stems from mentor texts — from the work of real writers. We refer to them every single day of the year — sometimes briefly, sometimes for the full class period — so it’s important that they remain at my fingertips.

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A mentor text from our Letter to the Editor study.

Tips:

  • After you are done with a study, consider filing your personal copies of the mentor texts in a larger binder that you can tote around with you for cross-genre mentor text work in conferences.

Rubrics/Study Checklists

In this section I keep my stash of rubrics and writing checklists from every single writing and reading study from the year. When conferring, I can turn to a rubric or checklist, point to a skill, and ask a student to show me evidence that he is trying the work of the mini-lesson and working this skill into his writing. This section also serves as a quick reference for where we’re headed in the unit — one that I can show a student, a parent, or even an administrator who is interested in what we’re up to.

Tips:

  • Consider using this section to plan for future writing studies. With a list of all of the skills you’ve previously taught in front of you, your planning will be easier and better connected to the students’ prior knowledge.

Rosters/Conference Notes

The last section of my master binder houses a handful of rosters where I write conference notes and/or status of the class updates. The spreadsheet I use is nearly identical to the one Nancie Atwell shares in In the Middle — a simple chart with names printed horizontally and dates printed vertically. I print 8-10 rosters for each class at the beginning of the year, so I never have to print another during the year. They are ready to go when I need them at the beginning of a new study.

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On this conference record, I recorded students’ individual goals/plans for the day during roll call.

In the past I’ve tried various digital applications — a Google Doc, Confer — but I found it difficult to type my notes and listen to students at the same time. Even an iPad or phone felt cumbersome, though not as difficult to manage as a laptop computer. Although I desperately wanted to find a digital system that worked for my students and me, I have found that handwriting notes is the best way to focus on what a student is saying and be able to develop a timely, appropriate response.

Tips:

  • For rosters/conference notes, it’s important that student names run horizontally and the dates run vertically. It’s much easier to view student progress in a workshop when you can read down a column detailing their daily goals and accomplishments.

Student Reading Log

A student's reading log.

A student’s reading log.

My students “turn in” their independent reading every Friday. In class, they report what they are reading and how many pages they read during the week. They also have the opportunity to check in with their quarterly reading goals.

Last year the student reading log was digital, and while it was tremendously useful for me, the students reported that it was cumbersome, and many didn’t complete it on time. As soon as I switched over to a paper log, completion rates increased, and students reported that they felt more connected to their reading because they could see their progress on a daily basis (with the digital reading log, all of the data came to me and was stored in one of my Google Docs folders. Students had to ask to see it or keep a record of their own if they wanted a visual of their progress). Each student has his or her own reading log — one per quarter — and all of these logs are housed in another simple white binder that travels around the room during reading time. They are filed alphabetically by last name, and for particularly large classes, I use alphabetical binder dividers to organize the section so students can access their individual logs as quickly as possible.

Tips:

  • Supplement the paper log with a digital reading log like this one for snow days and other holidays when students aren’t in school to report their reading progress.
  • Students won’t necessarily look at their goals just because they are printed at the top. Every few weeks, ask them to write about the progress they are making towards the goals. Allow them to revise their goals directly on the log as they learn more about what they are capable of and what time will allow.

Student Turn-in Folder

Every student has her own turn-in folder — a place where she keeps all drafts of a paper, as well as checkpoints and other relevant materials. At the beginning of the year, I ask students to watch this video tutorial for homework and set-up their turn-in folder before class the next day. If students title their folders correctly, they will be shared with the teacher in alphabetical order.

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Student turn-in folders in my Shared Google Drive, in alphabetical order by last name.

Within each student turn-in folder, I ask students to create subfolders for Reading and Writing, and smaller folders for each of the units of study within these broader subjects. It’s very easy to locate a student draft when folders are organized in this way.

Student Writing Folders

The contents of Ravenel’s turn-in folder.

Student and Teacher Shared Folder

Finally, in my own Google Drive folder, I have a separate folder for each subject I teach. This shared folder replaced the old Master Binder I used to keep of every single handout, Powerpoint, reading, etc. that I gave to students. Students have access to this folder in their Google Drive (under Shared). They can also access it through a link on my class website.

My Google Drive

My Google Drive for 2014-15 school year.

This folder mirrors the students’ turn-in folder: every unit of study has its own folder, so students can quickly access materials relevant to the current study.

Teacher Student Shared Folder

Sub-folders of my Google Drive that correspond to student turn-in folders.

In addition to the paper copies I hand out, students like having digital copies of everything. Absent students can access the handouts even before they return to school, and students who have misplaced a handout, can print another copy (I have a rule that I only print one copy of anything for each student — this saves paper and time and teaches the students responsibility, especially since they are able to print another for themselves.)

As I prepared this blog post, it struck me as interesting that a teacher’s master binder tells a story about her classroom — about her philosophy, the structure, and the work she and her students are doing. What story does your binder tell?

No system is perfect — and even the best systems inevitably get tweaked over the years as new tools are released and the shape of our work changes. One thing’s for sure, though: sharing systems with one another ultimately leads to better organization for all. So, in the spirit of sharing, please leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @ allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1 and tell us about the tools that help you keep your classroom workshop organized and running smoothly!

Moving Students from Idea to Draft: a Sticky-Note Structure

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Structure seems to be something young writers innately sense … or don’t.  Those who don’t tend to have explosive bursts of thought, leaving word shrapnel all over the paper.

To try to combat this, one of my first mini-lessons of the year is on brainstorming — hoping that if students write their ideas down somewhere, there is a better shot of putting them together in a meaningful order. I emphasize that brainstorming — at least in my class — needs to be tangible. It can be listing, jotting, even doodling, but it has to happen on paper.

When I taught the mini-lesson this year, I ended by rattling off a list of potential supplies to help students get going with their tangible brainstorming: “I have blank paper if you need it, markers, colored pencils, highlighters, I even have sticky notes if you think they would help.”

Please note: at this point, I had no plan for those sticky notes. I just threw it out into the void as an option, not knowing what anyone would really do with them.

Students got to work. Cecile , an ELL student, was working on a critical review of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (a book that is in high rotation on my bookshelf. If you don’t have it already, get it now!). She started off with pen-on-paper, writing down the ideas that came into her head about plot and important thematic elements. If you look at the picture of her notebook, you can see that she quickly got stuck. She asked me for some sticky notes.

Cecile spent two entire workshop days listing facts and tiny tidbits of ideas on post-its. When I conferenced with her, she would reply that she was brainstorming, “Getting it all down.” So, I let her go.

When she was done brainstorming, she spent another two class periods carefully moving the stickies around — grouping them, rearranging. She would stare at them, peel them and re-stick them somewhere else. Finally, somewhere around day five or six, she wrote. She wrote furiously.

With her structure complete, the writing flowed easily.

At the beginning of our next workshop, I asked if she would share her sticky-note method with her peers. She told them:

  1. Put no more than one sentence on a sticky note

  2. Write down every single thing you can think of

  3. When you’re done writing, you will have a lot of sticky notes. Don’t be afraid.

  4. Look at them for a while, and think about which ideas go together. Put them in an order.

  5. Write.

Sticky notes have since become a hot commodity in my classes. They help so many of my students who have trouble organizing their ideas. Here are some tips and variations for your students:

  • This is a great activity for writing groups or writing partners  — introduce the idea by giving students the ideas from a mentor text and ask them to organize them. Compare to the original mentor text, discuss the differences, and their effect.

  • Writing groups can also use sticky notes to help one another organize during pre-writing.

  • Smaller sticky notes work better than large ones — when they are small, students make their ideas smaller, more isolated, and this helps students see the different nuances of a single idea. (This is particularly helpful for students who want to write in one giant paragraph, claiming their paper only has one idea.)

  • For students ready to take their writing to the next level, I offer a second color of sticky note for them to add transitions between paragraphs as they organize.

  • Some students work better on a large sheet of poster paper rather than smaller notebook pages — they use their phones to take pictures of the different iterations they work out as a record of their thinking. Those pictures then get pasted in their notebooks.

  • For students in a structural danger-zone while drafting, I occasionally encourage them to take their draft and go backwards to sticky notes. Sometimes pulling the ideas apart helps students see a better, more cohesive order to their thoughts.

Do your students use sticky notes to organize their writing? For brainstorming? How do they work in your classroom? Leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.