Three Things I Believe

It seemed like fate. Or divine intervention. Or whatever teachers call it when it seems like the stars are aligning and a unit will start at exactly the right time. It was mid-November – just one week after The Election (yes, extra emphasis is intended), and our school’s second term was just starting, so I would meet a fresh, new class of students. No matter how small-scale it was, any chance for some kind of do-over seemed like a plus. Plus, the focus of my first hour class is nonfiction reading and writing. Usually, I start with informational text and move on to argumentative writing. But, we were fresh off The Election. Just about everyone I knew had a passionate stance one way or the other, so flipping the units seemed like the natural thing to do. Surely these kids will come in as a mix of emotions, so doing some argumentative writing will be cathartic, I thought. This will be perfect, wont it? Like I said, I thought the stars were aligning.

Less than a week into the unit, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d screwed up so badly. In my units, I always try to give as much autonomy and choice to my students as possible; I try to let them choose their own topics as often as I can. So, after a brief overview of what it means to argue an issue, I started the brainstorming process with my students. I wanted them to air their worries, their opinions, their passions. That’s where the unit came to a screeching halt. Most brainstorming pages were blank. A few had a lonely issue or two hesitantly suggested.

What was the problem? These are teenagers, I thought. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be some of the most opinionated people on the planet? Where were their opinions? Did they just not know what was going on in the world? In the age of social media and constant, in-your-face news, that just couldn’t be it. At least not entirely. For some, it was almost as if they’d been taught that it was not polite to discuss issues. That needed to change. Continue reading

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Finding Time for Technology in Writing Workshop

I think my students would tell you that our classroom is a happy, productive place. They would also tell you that it’s predictable. Monday through Thursday, we write during notebook time, read mentor texts and take notes during the lesson, and write and confer during workshop. We do this for 46 minutes four times a week. On Friday, we read. We repeat this schedule the following week.

For a long time, I worried that students were bored. I feared they found my class plodding. I would hear them talking about the simulations they did in history or the fun activities in science and wondered if they compared those activities to workshop. Our simulation was the writing. Our fun activity was the reading. How was this for them?

I wrote on this topic last April after coming across a quote by Katie Wood Ray on the predictability of workshop. In Study Driven, she writes, “Now the fact that it is predictable doesn’t mean in any way that it is redundant or boring. The way you go about a study is predictable, but the content that comes from the study is anything but predictable” (2006, 110). These words we so reassuring to me then and now.

Still, I felt a little guilty. I felt guilty at technology workshops. I assumed the apps and programs they were offering wouldn’t plug into workshop without unhinging the essentials: time to write, time to confer. I followed plenty of technology blogs and was so intrigued by what they had to offer; nonetheless, I dismissed the ideas, thinking I would have to sacrifice what mattered the most. I could barely squeeze everything we needed to accomplish into a 46 minute period as it was. How could I possibly add something in?  I wanted badly to leverage technology in my classroom, but didn’t see how it would be possible.

That is until my colleague Maria introduced me to Socrative.

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(Maria rocks.)

It seemed simple enough — after all, she had explained the gist of it in an email. And Maria was doing reading workshop with her writers at the time, too. So I decided to look into it. I played around in the website a little bit, and within 20 minutes, I had a plan. A plan that I hoped would add a new dimension to my workshop without sacrificing valuable writing and conferring time.

What I Did

The next day I projected our notebook time prompt as usual. That day we were studying a sentence written by James Wood from the New York Times article “Why? The Fictions of Life and Death”:

Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence.

As usual, I asked students what they noticed about the craft. Here is their list:

  • He repeats the phrase “here he was” several times
  • Each “here he was” phrase is followed by a comma and an -ing word (participle)
  • The entire thing is one sentence
  • He presents little scenes from this person’s life in chronological order
  • He does all of these things to give a broad picture of this person’s life — like a sweeping brushstroke
  • All the commas and semi-colons create a musical rhythm

Then I gave students four minutes to write their own version of this sentence. I told them to close their eyes and visualize a person they knew well, someone whom they could picture in multiple settings. I provided laminated photographs from Work and Love for students who needed more support.

Then I asked students to take out a device, go to socrative.com, and choose Student Login.

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They were prompted to enter a Room Name (you have to set this up before the lesson — see here for a very basic tutorial showing how I prepared for this lesson).

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Then they were greeted by this screen:

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I asked them to carefully type the sentence they had written for notebook time. While they worked, I logged in to Socrative.com and pulled up the Live Results page.

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Suddenly, my screen became populated with all of their responses, and since I was projecting it, everyone was able to read the sentences as they were submitted in real time. Fingers flew across keyboards as students raced to get their sentences up on the board for all to see. For the record, I had not framed this activity as a race!

We ended up taking a few extra minutes in notebook time that day to read the submissions out loud and share in our writing reverie. It was FUN and different and meaningful and essential.

Some of the students even had the idea of supporting the writers whose sentences needed some help in the punctuation department. I quickly copied and pasted these sentences into a Word document and invited student volunteers to come to the board and use the noticings they had made during notebook time to add punctuation to the sentences.

kara

Here are two of the sentences they made stronger with semi-colons and commas:

Here we were, playing with our action figures; here we were, going to the neighborhood pool; here we were, gradually falling off during middle school; here we are, not talking anymore.

Here he is, hanging on to his life; here he is, clutching his wound with blistered hands; here he is, watching the light fade from his eyes; here is is, listening to the chorus of war play in the background; here is here, knowing he isn’t coming home.

nick

The Results

The energy going into the lesson that day was palpable. Students who have never volunteered to share after notebook time had shared — though anonymously — and received positive feedback on their work. We had engaged in a mechanics lesson with students up at the board assisting their peers. This small bit of technology hadn’t eaten into our workshop time at all. If anything, it had begun to eat away at the trepidation that many of my ninth graders feel about sharing out loud.

After my short but powerful bout with Socrative, I’m convinced there must be other forms of technology — apps, websites, digital tools — that could compliment the routines and structures of writing workshop without sacrificing what’s important. So now I’m on a mission to find them.

How do you incorporate technology into your workshop without forfeiting the essentials? Do you see other uses for Socrative in workshop? Please tweet us @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1 or respond in the comments below.

Whole-Class Writing Studies vs. Individual Writing Studies

Every year I write on my syllabus that students will produce a new piece of work every four weeks. And while I do create units of study that typically span four weeks, students aren’t necessarily finishing a new piece every month. It often takes us longer than planned to move through a study. Holidays and vacations set us back. Sometimes, I extend studies if I think that even a few students are not ready to move on. Stuff happens.

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Students reviewing the traits of a book review.

But sometimes students can’t reach this writing quantity because they are waiting for me to move on. Waiting for the study to end, even though they have finished their pieces. Waiting to begin that new writing that started as a flicker at the back of the imagination and has since grown into something large and real and ready to be written. It’s at that point–when I see that some students are itching to move forward and begin something new and others are still stuck in their early drafts and in need of more support–that I begin to wonder if whole-class writing studies are about as effective as whole-class novel studies.

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from zinkshappenings.edublogs.org

Many of us have made the move from whole-class novel study to independent novel study in reading workshop. We differentiate assessment, teach through conferences, and cheer on students as they move from one book to another at their own appropriate pace. What’s preventing us from adopting this structure in writer’s workshop?

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by woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons lic

Nancy Atwell describes an approach to independent writing studies in her book In the Middle. Her 7th and 8th graders produce two pieces of writing every six weeks. Some of these pieces are written in genres the class has studied as a group, but much of the writing students do is completed independently of any whole-class genre study.

At the beginning of each trimester, Atwell’s students set writing goals (I want to write 6 pieces this trimester, I want to write in a new genre, I want to experiment with poetry, I want to try a new approach to drafting, I want to write about my dad, etc.) and are evaluated based on progress made towards these goals. A student who has met all of her goals at the end of a trimester and engaged thoughtfully and deeply in the writing process will receive an A in writing for that trimester. A student who has met some but not all of his goals may receive a B, etc. Individual pieces of writing are not assessed; only a student’s writing portfolio and work ethic hold the key to his or her true abilities as a writer.

In another book, Lessons that Change Writers, Atwell offers a chronology of the mini-lessons she teaches in one year. She places an emphasis on free-verse poetry in September and October, fiction in November, holiday gifts of writing in December, book reviews in February, punctuation in March, essays in April, and humor writing and Mother’s Day poems in May. However, students are moving among these genres and making choices that suit their interests and needs as writers. Atwell expects her students to try the work of different genres as she spotlights them, but my sense is that students are ultimately choosing which pieces to take to final copy.

These books show us that it’s possible to create a rich workshop based on individual writing studies (one look at her chronology on page XXVIII and XXIX of Lessons and you’ll understand the power…).

Still, I long to sit down with Atwell over coffee and ask the hundreds of logistical questions I have about this approach to instruction:

  1. Without an understanding of various genres, how do students make informed choices about which genres they’d like to write in? As genres are spotlighted throughout the the year, their knowledge will grow, but what do those early weeks and months of workshop look like?
  2. How might I create a sequence of writing lessons that would somehow speak to what each particular writer is working on at any given moment while creating some grounded understandings and reference points that will carry any writer through any writing situation?
  3. Deadlines are a fact of writing life. How can I set appropriate and fair deadlines for individual writers while creating momentum in the workshop?
  4. Should I require students to write in certain genres throughout the year but allow them to choose when?
  5. If coupling individual study with whole-class units of study, should I require students to bring all whole-class pieces of writing to completion? Or should they be given the choice to abandon these pieces if they are not working?
  6. What is an appropriate number of pieces to ask a high school student to complete?
  7. If one student is working on a long short story that requires in-depth research, is it fair to ask him to turn in the same number of pieces as a student working on several shorter blog posts?
  8. As a teacher, how will I manage so many writing projects happening concurrently? When will students be asked to submit drafts? Asked to bring pieces to final copy and submit again for editing by me?
  9. How can I create the feeling of a newspaper or magazine staff climate in which writers are working both independently and interdependently towards personal and collective goals?
  10. What if a student only wants to write editorials for the whole year? How do you celebrate that passion while nudging him towards different writing territories? Do you make it a requirement that students write in certain genres throughout the year?

I am fortunate to teach a semester-long creative writing elective in the fall and spring each year. In the past, this class has been my guinea pig: many of the writers are returning students who are better able to navigate a new approach or idea and understand my “let’s try this” enthusiasm. Additionally, I have more autonomy in this class than any other and thus more room to experiment. My goal is to try individual creative writing studies in the spring. But before then, I may have to flag Nancie Atwell down at NCTE ‘14 and buy her a coffee in exchange for workshop wisdom. Wish me luck.

~ Allison

If you have had success with individual writing studies, particularly with middle or high school students, please comment below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchetti @rebekahodell1. We’d love to know more about the logistics of it all.