Scaffolding Synthesis: Smaller Steps Toward Rigorous Writing

If you teach at the high school level, then you know that teaching synthesis writing is an important part of our jobs right now. Undoubtedly, some of that is motivated by the writing section on the ACT, which is essentially a truncated, 0n-demand synthesis essay. But synthesis writing also represents a skill that should be in every well-educated student’s back pocket. It requires writers to not only present information or have an opinion, but rather to analyze the varied perspectives on an issue, organizing and evaluating them to create a complex argument.

In other words, good synthesis writing involves the kind of rhetoric that we wish most adults out on the internet had at their disposal. Therein lies one of the difficulties of teaching this kind of writing–today’s students really struggle to write about multifaceted topics without oversimplifying. Some simply present their opinion as the only reasonable way to think about something. Others get a little more sophisticated by acknowledging two sides–an extreme pro and an extreme con. But that’s not reality, nor is it good writing. How do we get students to explore sources and really present a whole spectrum ideas about an issue?

I’ve been working to solve this problem for several years now, and each year I add something new to my teaching strategies for synthesis. This year, I was really happy with the results, and wanted to share a couple things I made to help my students learn the smaller skills that are needed to be successful with synthesis–just a couple extra puzzle pieces that can help boost some skills.

SCAFFOLDING TIP #1: Before asking them to write critically, make sure they can read critically.

The presentation below guided some of my pre-teaching about recognizing perspectives within texts–I pulled some articles on current events and we used them to work through the question set on the last slide… first together, then individually. This crucial first step really helped my students start thinking about each of their sources as representing a particular viewpoint, rather than simply viewing all sources as “information.” This lesson also helped equip my students with vocabulary meant for recognizing multiple ways of looking at an issue: “opposing perspective,” “overlapping perspective”, “additional perspective,” etc. Coming to class already having these kinds of reading and thinking skills are not a guarantee, even for upper level high school students. Pre-teaching them (or re-teaching them) made a big difference in the sophistication of my students’ thinking over the whole unit.


SCAFFOLDING TIP #2: After modeling how to find sources on a topic, have students draw a spectrum of viewpoints and locate their own.

Once students start getting into their research, I have them create a numbered list of sources they could potentially use in their writing. Then, I show them how to draw a spectrum of views and locate different viewpoints within that continuum. This process really helped them visualize the full conversation surrounding their topics. (And, in some cases where students did not draw anything in the middle, it was an immediate indicator that I needed to provide more remediation before they began writing.) I conferenced with each student on his or her perspective map, and the conversations led naturally into their writing. Below is my example and some student examples.

SCAFFOLDING TIP #3: Focus on assessing writing skills, not quantifying checklists of writing tasks.

As far as grading goes, I created a new rubric to focus on the skills I wanted to see students demonstrate. This scoring guide was helpful to my students while drafting and revising, because it was based on my learning standards for the unit. Instead of superficial conversations like “How long should it be?” or “How many sources should I have?”, the new rubric led to discussions about how to make a position strong or what successful organization looks like. Feel free to modify my rubric (below) for your own classroom!

Communications 3: Synthesis Unit Essay Rubric

____/ 10 Complexity of thought: Writer is able to describe various viewpoints on a topic that extend beyond a mere binary pro/con relationship. The spectrum of views, including mid-point or partially supportive ones, is explored. Writer identifies elements of the topic that make it a complicated one.

____/ 10 Clarity and strength of position: Writer holds a specific, clear viewpoint on the topic, which is well-supported with reasoning. Writer’s convictions are immediately observable and presented with a strong voice.

____/ 10 Perspective-taking ability: Perspectives are presented in an objective way, then reasonably considered and evaluated. Description of opposing viewpoints is measured, with academically appropriate acknowledgement of the influences that create different points of view.

____/ 10 Organization and transitions: Paragraphs are used to signal shift in topic or tone. Overall order of paragraphs follows a logical flow. Successful transitions are used to create a link between ideas as a new paragraph begins. Introduction sets up successful context and thesis statement. Conclusion offers strong, compelling final points.

____/ 10 Working with sources: Sources are introduced effectively, put in context for the reader, and used to provide evidence for various perspectives on the topic. The use of direct quotes and citations is grammatically sound. If bias is present in a source, it is identified. A complete “Works Cited” page accurately records sources used in in the paper.

____/ 10 Use of language: Mechanics, grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation are correct. Academic voice is engaging and formal enough to be appropriate for an academic context. (You/your do not appear)

____/ 60 TOTAL

Scoring guide for each standard:

0   Not present / 3   Still emerging / 6   Beginner /

9 Proficient / 10  Exemplary

Arm Me With

It’s hard to teach (and write about teaching) in this moment in history where unthinkable violence can reach children at school. There’s a lot of noise out here, and I just can’t lift my voice right now, so I’ll simply post an image this month. So much love to all of you.

Found Poetry as a Tool for Engaging with Difficult Text

Here in Wisconsin, the January weather can be pretty brutal. We all cope in our own ways, but my preferred way is daydreaming about summer as hard as I possibly can! It was in one of these reveries that I found myself thinking back to the day I spent with the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project summer institute, working with the facilitators and teacher consultants in the beautiful setting of the Lynden Sculpture Garden. One of the writing activities we discussed (and tried!) that morning stuck with me and my colleague, Mr. B. We knew we wanted to try it with our high school juniors as an entry approach to a difficult textA special thank you goes out to Jenny Hussa of the UWMWP 2017 ISI for sharing this found poetry teaching idea with us! Here’s how it went.

The approach is very simple, with several possible variations. The most pared-down version includes these steps:

  1. Tell students that you’ll be reading a text to them, and that you want them to listen for words that seem important, sound distinctive, or just strike them in some way. As you read aloud, the students should jot down a bulleted list of those words and phrases in their notebooks.
  2. In small groups, the students compare their lists. Working together to identify the best (10-ish) words/phrases from their communal pile, they then write these winning words on paper strips. *Teacher note: don’t forget to make these ahead of time!
  3. Still working together, students then organize the words to create a poem that reflects the essence of the text’s message. (We let our students add words where needed.) Then, they make it official by gluing the poem to a sturdy sheet, ready for classroom display.

Since we’re working with high school students, we used our whole class text of The Crucible as the starting point. Miller’s introduction–which provides commentary on the socio-historical context of the play–describes 1692 Puritan culture in Salem, Massachusetts. The nuances of this society are difficult for students to understand, because the norms and beliefs are so radically different from our contemporary America. On top of that, Miller’s words are dense and challenging. It’s prime “tune out” territory, which is the kiss of death when you’re just starting a whole class book and trying to convince teenagers that it’s going to be cool. Found poetry to the rescue!

When working with a text where comprehension is a challenge, it’s important to get students identifying key details and subsequently figuring out the relationships between those details in the author’s argument. This activity achieved both of those things in a way that was creative, collaborative, and engaging.

Check out some of their poems! They use Miller’s language in new ways, all while clearly showing an emerging understanding of the novel’s historic setting through the author’s eyes.

Support for Our Passion: A High School Teacher’s Christmas Wishlist

Happy holiday season! Santa, if you’re listening, I’d like to explain one thing that I know is on a lot of teachers’ Christmas lists–an oversized box of passion, with the batteries included. Here’s what I mean.

Schools are always trying something new. As someone who is committed to research-driven teaching methods, I do like to push myself to dive into new theories, recommendations, and strategies. But as long as schools exist, there will always be someone new coming to town to tout the Next Big Thing that will revolutionize education. And sometimes a back-to-basics approach can remind us of what’s most important.

I think we sometimes forget that the true core of teaching, the best thing about teaching, can’t ever be summed up with a buzzword or sold for a price-per-student fee, because it’s just too personal. And for content-area teachers in high schools, a big part of that is our love for our subjects. If I were to define the concept of “high school teacher” to an alien, this is what I would say: A high school teacher is a person who loves a certain discipline or skill so much that they spend their life helping young people to learn it. Good teachers know that our passion for what we teach, why we teach, and who we teach will always come first.

Am I just being sentimental here? Maybe we should look at some data. Would a study that synthesizes findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students be convincing enough? In the recently published Visible Learning research (Hattie, 2016) about the individual impacts of over 250 elements in education, “Teacher Credibility” was named as one of the top ten positive influences on student learning, with 0.90 effect size. That is MASSIVE! What is this magical element of teaching that can impact students so strongly for the better? Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher, Hattie, and Frey, 2016) defines it as such: “a constellation of characteristics, including trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy.” In other words, caring teachers who know their content, demonstrate a dynamic excitement about it, and create a sense of urgency to learn it will have a profound impact on their students. If we ever doubted that, the numbers are here to remind us that good teaching relies on a personal energy that cannot be bought, nor can it be faked. It can only come from that irreplaceable, exciting feeling of passion that brings many teachers to the career. People, maybe, like me, who find themselves floored with wonder over the power of words to create beautiful moments within a flawed world. Or people who relish the truths hidden deep within the structure of mathematics, with its unwavering consistency and elegant logic. Or people who have an uncommonly deep respect for history, who understand the figures of our past as if they were intimate acquaintances.

This kind of dynamic, contagious, urgent excitement for a particular type of knowledge is what inspires students to learn. And that makes sense, right? Do you remember a teacher who loved a certain book so much that it made you read it and love it? Or maybe a science teacher who was so gosh darn excited about each and every lab that it made you curious about science in a new way? Or a social studies teacher who made you care about the events in the world because he was always sharing relevant news articles constantly? Maybe you were lucky enough to be a part of something–a discussion, a performance, a debate, or a project that was so engaging that it set you on the path to the life you now lead as an adult?

Those milestone learning experiences are part of the magic of education, and they are propelled by the incredible force within teachers who love what they teach. But that force does not always flow freely–it can get damaged when teachers are overwhelmed, when staff morale is suffering, when time is not available to tap into that passion. Depending on where we are in our lives, personal struggles with mental health or home concerns can also dim the light of the most passionate teacher. In these times of lower ebb, support from others can help. It might be a kind email from a colleague, a chance to connect with other experts in the content area, or just a genuine comment from a student or parent that says, “Hey, I see what you do, and I value it.”  There is no educator resource more powerful then a simple vote of confidence to cultivate that shared excitement for learning which powers good teaching. When members of our community get excited about the same things that teachers are excited about, it creates this huge, good energy that makes our school days bright and productive.

So here’s my Christmas wish: I wish that school communities everywhere might recognize the very real (quantifiable, even!) positive impact that individual teacher passion has on student learning. Help us notice it, support it, and fuel it however we can… because an excited teacher is not only an effective one, but a happy one, too.

Happy Holidays.

Look at it This Way: Stories from the Growth Mindset Classroom

At the beginning of this school year, I set up some growth mindset self-talk phrases on my bulletin board. I had seen many great examples of elementary boards that encourage students down this kind of mental path, and I adapted what I saw online to suit my purposes, rephrasing when necessary to fit my high school clientele. While these are things that I hope my students will eventually be able to internalize, it takes modeling from me to show them how to adopt a mindset where they are at an emotionally healthy and academically ready place for learning. I’d like to share the statements that I use and a couple of ways that they pop up in real student interactions.

One of the biggest indicators to me that a student is going to grow in their skills and succeed in a class is their ability to problem-solve and self-advocate. In my classroom, that often means extra one-on-one help from me. If you know any high school students, you know that asking for help isn’t always their strong suit. I get around this by introducing non-optional, one-on-one conferencing with my students often, especially early in the year. We conference on their reading, their writing, their ideas for projects… and yes, it does take up a good chunk of class time. But it’s so valuable, because it builds a routine and a comfort with approaching me one-on-one. It simply becomes part of the daily workings of class. During a conference, I will speak problem-solving thinking processes aloud that could benefit them–things like, “Hey, since you’re having trouble finding a book, let’s go through how to look up titles on the library catalog by subject or author. I bet that would be a good tool to use” or “You know, it seems like you really had trouble with your conclusion of your last essay. Should we plan ahead for that this time by talking about how to write a successful conclusion?” It doesn’t take long before they start approaching me and adopting that kind of language on their own. In turn, I try to always make myself easily available and approachable for students who need support.

After nine years of teaching, I’ve cultivated some great standard responses for common questions or complaints from students. One of my favorites is set up with the cry of, “This is really hard! I don’t get it at all!” In response, I crack a huge smile and enthusiastically say, “Well, that’s a relief. If you thought it was easy and didn’t need any help figuring it out, I wouldn’t have a job! That’s why I’m here: to help you learn.” I often remind students that physical tasks, like riding a bike, take a lot of practice to learn and perfect. Why would a mental task be any different? Learning is a gradual process that doesn’t yield perfect results the first time. That’s a very freeing thing to realize. Early learning attempts should be free of pressure and judgement. Another classic comeback I have is this: “It’s ok that you’re struggling. That’s normal at first. You wouldn’t make fun of a baby for not being able to talk very well, would you? You’re still a beginner, but you will get better the more we practice.” It may seem obvious, but it can help a student snap out of the (incorrect) assumption that certain academic skills are just inherent to our personalities–instead, they arrive through exposure, study, and experience. Just like in the weight room, the more we train, the more challenge we can handle!

Laziness and apathy are the enemies of discovery. It’s important to me that students learn how to challenge themselves. Too often the focus is on “What do I need to do in order to be done as quickly as possible?” I’m sure this is in some way a symptom of our hurried, hectic modern lives, but most students default to being impatient, sloppy, and rushed…especially in their writing. For students who work at a high skill level, they often get by on “good enough” without actually challenging themselves. I try to show students the value of slow consideration and revision through modeling my own writing as it takes shape. I also attempt to relentlessly push students forward in my feedback. Even an “A” paper will get revision suggestions from me in the comments–I’m sure that’s initially frustrating to my students, but I explain that one of the reasons I love writing so much is that the difficulty level is unlimited! We are always growing, and there’s always a way to revise and improve. I intentionally talk about how hard writing is. Even for someone who thinks, teaches, and does writing for a living, writing presents a challenge. “If you’re not working hard or feeling challenged, you’re not doing it right”: another axiom that I hold my kids to. The struggle should be welcomed–it’s an indication that you’re working at an appropriate level of difficulty. I want to teach all my students to savor challenge. Still figuring that one out.

For kids who felt chronically helpless, giving up is the easiest way out. By the time they’ve reached the teenage years, many of them have mastered disengaging at a profound enough level to frustrate their teachers into leaving them alone to stagnate. My approach with these kids is a broken record question: “What is the first, small thing we can do to move forward?” I keep asking this. I may go away and come back. The question is always the same. I’ve come to learn that often, students are stuck on taking a step because the step feels too big. Writing an essay seems impossible. So instead, I cut it up into more digestible pieces. Depending on the student, he or she may need very small pieces. [ 1. Get out notebook. 2. Find a pen. 3. Write your name at the top of the page. 4. Write the title of the assignment. 5. Tell me about your ideas. 6. Let’s make a list of some of the ideas you just talked about. 7. Our first sentence should introduce the topic. What could you say? 8. Write that down. We can change it later….] Is it spoon-feeding? Yeah. But here’s the thing: kids eventually get sick of being spoon fed. When they rehearse the smaller steps enough times, they start to do it themselves. Small progress is still progress, and creates momentum to carry them through the task over time.

Some people feel that jealousy and comparison to others are good motivators when used correctly. I am not one of those people. I believe that one of the greatest keys to happiness in one’s life is to view the successes of others as sources of admiration and potential collaboration opportunities. This is a pretty big mind shift to ask for in our culture of individualism and competition, but I really try to foster it. So many times, I’ve heard someone say of a person who does well at something “I hate her” or “I hate him.” Hate? Really? A lot of the time, this hatred comes from the jealousy of how “easily” a certain skill seems to come to an individual. But this overlooks the work behind the scenes. Success comes from diligent work, so if I call out a student as a positive example in class, I focus on the process, not the product. I hope that this teaches students that they can imitate one another’s strategies for success, rather than believing that “good” students are just somehow magically good. I call attention to writing that has gone through several drafts, a student’s copious practice sessions before a speech, a meticulous set of index cards that indicates devoted studying. I give examples of people that I admire and imitate–even if my imitation is not as good as their example, it still makes me better! We all have strengths and weaknesses, and there’s much to celebrate together.

Thoughts on Why We Write

If you’re not an English teacher, you may not realize that we had a holiday recently: October 20th, which is The National Day on Writing. The celebration, created by the National Council of Teachers of English, is designed to promote writing not just as a literacy component, but as part of life’s essential story-sharing force. In case you missed it, you can catch up quickly just glancing around social media at the #whyiwrite hashtag, now nine years strong.

This year, I spent National Day on Writing Eve in the best possible way: with a colleague and a classroom full of young people who showed up to the inaugural meeting of our sparkly new writing club, The Young Authors. We wanted to create a very simple group for high school students, to honor that work of secret solo writing that so many engage in. What if, we asked, there was a meeting place for all those kids with stories burning inside them? What would happen if we simply provided a place to write together? As it turns out, (and as usual:) if you build it, they will come. In our first and second meeting, we introduced ourselves just by sharing what we typically write in our free time. Out it spilled: “I write poetry…. I’m working on a novel… I’ve been writing songs for the past couple years… I write dark and disturbing fantasy short stories… I don’t know what I write, but I know that I want to!” These kids are authors already, and now that they’ve been assembled together, I can’t wait to see their collective power grow. There’s a unique, quiet magic to a room full of people all scribbling and tapping away, bringing their inner worlds to life while working side by side. It makes me smile to see the people walking down the hallway past our room, peeking in curiously at a whole bunch of teenagers with focused expressions, silently immersed in creative work, while the late afternoon sun streams in and music seeps from the computer speakers. Sometimes I wave at them. They’ll know who we are soon enough.

This is the spirit of the National Day on Writing: the knowledge that more writing–and more support for it–is always a good thing. We are so excited about this new student group for lots of reasons. There are many plans down the road for things like attending writing conferences, creating commemorative mugs (!), and pursuing publication opportunities for these young writers. We want them to know that we are here to value and champion the words that they want to share with the world.

At the first and second meetings, we asked these students to submit a #whyiwrite response, and reading these really sums up everything about why fostering a love for writing in young people is so important. I leave you with a selection of them here.

I write because I am in control of what I create. There are no boundaries and no one can tell me what to write.

I write because it calms me down.

I write because I love playing with words.

I write because it helps me express myself artistically.

I write because it helps me cope with my depression. Writing is escape.

I write because it lets my thoughts and feelings play out on paper.

I write because I love creating new worlds out of nothing but my imagination.

These voices tell us that writing is so much more than whatever happens on a worksheet. Writing helps us connect with our whole selves when we do it right, and helping students get to that point is part of our cause as teachers.

I write because the fins of ideas are not meant to batter against the glass of a sealed jar.

How about you?

Tackling the Classics: Helping Students Adapt to Reading Literature with a Capital L

I love it when students share what they read with me. I encourage them to interact with each other (and me!) through Goodreads, where we can share recommendations, reactions, and reviews from our reading lives. Many times, students help me learn about cool new titles that I should add to my classroom library. On the other hand, sometimes they make me shake my head in a very special brand of English teacher sorrow. All I really need to share here is this pair of student Goodreads ratings from last year:

Fifty Shades Darker, 5 out of 5 stars.

 Hamlet, 3 out of 5 stars.


Now, please understand–I am 100% in support of student choice in reading. Our school’s independent reading program, which emphasizes volume and choice has done wonders for the reading culture and ability of our students. And if reading a little bit of what I would generously rate as garbage helps a student become a stronger reader who’s ready for more challenging things than they would be otherwise, I’m all for it!

But… I also have a deep love and respect for classical literature–I am an AP Literature and Composition teacher, after all! When I do teach a full-class text that comes from a more challenging place, I want to give students the best chance to adore it like I do. It’s not easy. Many canonical texts are extremely challenging. They use unfamiliar language structures and words, and abide by different standards for craft. There are old references, and types of humor that aren’t even common anymore. Is reading something like that as enjoyable as reading a fast-paced, on-trend piece of contemporary young adult lit? Maybe not. Or maybe it is just as enjoyable, just in a profoundly different way. Students often don’t understand why we ask them to wade something like Shakespeare’s works. It’s our job to help them see that something like Hamlet will not provide the same automatically visceral thrill as something written at their own independent ability level from their own time. But the mental challenge that it presents is absolutely sumptuous–if one knows to be looking for it.

I started this year with a discussion that I think will be really helpful for my literature students in learning to love Literature with a capital L. It’s about reading for different purposes and the different types of enjoyment we can get out of different texts. I’d like to share the notes from our discussion–maybe they’ll help you clarify reading for different purposes with your own students.

Reading for fun and entertainment

*Purpose: evaluating quality and enjoying emotionally

*Focus on plot, always asking “What happens next?”

*We look for thrill, suspense, and surprise, personal connections to characters, and happy or otherwise satisfying endings

*Texts are typically fairly modern and fairly easy to read

*We want to know… was it good? Did you like it? How did it make you feel?

Reading for analysis

*Purpose: exploring and uncovering mentally

*Focus on message, asking “What moves does the author make and why?”

*We look for craft and language choices made by the author, connections to social realities and philosophical questions

*Texts are typically older and fairly difficult to read

*We want to know… what statement does this text make about life’s big questions? What did this text make you think about?

I find it helpful, too, to talk about literature also in terms of fashion–styles that seemed normal in one era seem dated to us now… but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t cutting-edge and boundary-breaking in their own time. The literary fashion of today’s storytelling tells us that predicability is the killer of a good story. Well, tell that to Oedipus Rex. I’ve found that when students learn to judge literary texts with different tools of measurement, the ability to appreciate (and, yes, enjoy!) comes a little more easily.

Happy teaching!

P.s. Here’s a handy-dandy little graphic about the functions of literary reading to help seal the deal.

Beautiful Words and Community Building–Two Goals for a New Teaching Year

Happy New Year… new teaching year, that is! The restorative powers of summer vacation have worked their magic, and I am completely refreshed and ready for my ninth year of teaching to begin. I feel extra excited about this September because I’ve reached a point of joyful re-commitment to being a teacher after a couple conflicted years of quietly taking exploratory steps toward other career paths. Last spring, I abandoned that preparation with the help of wise people in my life who helped me arrive at the decision that working in education is really, really where I still want to be. I couldn’t be more sure of that right now, and that certainty has prompted a fresh passion akin to that of my first-year teacher self. I’ll freely admit that there have been some times in recent years where I had to remind myself that Younger Me would want to punch Current Me in the face for how cynical or powerless I was feeling about my teaching career. But that’s how life is–circles, cycles, death and rebirth. And here we are at a new beginning once again.

So I am READY TO GO. This new vigor is making new things happen. I even re-covered my bulletin board! I have big plans for unrolling cool new elements of my classroom that I’ve never attempted before, and I want to share two of the first ones I’m going to be trying out. Maybe they will inspire you!

NEW GOAL #1: Beautiful Words on the Superb Insights Board

I remember a workshop with Kelly Gallagher where he mentioned that he likes to begin or end his classes each day with what he calls “beautiful words”–a small snippet of great writing that can come from any source, including student work. That idea made so much sense to me. Kids write amazing things all the time, and while an individual may benefit a little bit from me writing “WOW–what a sentence!” on his or her essay, my whole classroom would benefit far more if every student could appreciate that awesome phrase or paragraph, thinking about how it was put together and what makes it so good. So I’m taking a simple step to showcase the beautiful words of my students with a display area on my (newly re-covered) bulletin board. It looks like this. [Click image to enlarge]

I have four different areas where I’ll be showcasing student words. I’ve preloaded it with examples I pulled from last year’s student work.

Beautiful language – poetic, lyrical, figurative language that sings on the page

Intelligent point – an especially smart or insightful observation

Words to live by – wisdom, wit, or humor

Now that is how to write a sentence! – impressive use of complex grammatical constructs

My plan is to update the board essentially constantly. Whenever I run across a portion of student writing that is particularly impressive, I’m going to type it up, anonymously share it with the class, and add it to the board. I think this practice will offer opportunities for micro-mini-lessons on writing, while also celebrating the successes of a wide range of students. (The students currently featured on the board were not all “A” students! But their voices all had something worthwhile to share.) Since any motivation to write is good motivation, I’m hoping that kids will start really trying to outdo each other to make it on the board!


NEW GOAL #2: Community Building with Class Newsletter 

A part of me has always wanted to put out a classroom newsletter–something similar to what my kindergarten teacher used to send home to my parents that covers what kids are learning in class, with updates and news. But I have never gotten myself together quite enough to make a classroom publication happen. I mean… who has that kind of time? Not me. Or do I?

As I was reflecting this summer, I realized that I can make this goal happen as long as I scale it correctly. While I do not have time to put together a frequent newsletter with photographs, excerpts of student work, and meaningful quotes from the authors that we’re studying, I do have time to send a succinct email every couple weeks. A colleague of mine blew my mind last year when she showed me how to easily mass email all the parents of my students at once. (How the heck did I never learn about that before?) I’m going to utilize this newfound power to create a bi-weekly email newsletter of sorts that covers just essential news from my junior class. Here’s the draft of my first message:

News from Mrs. Casey’s Communications Classroom

Hello, parents and families! If you’re getting this email, it means that your child is a student in my Communications III class. I’m trying something new this year and sending an update via email every couple weeks, so you can learn more about what is going on in our classroom. I promise to keep these emails short and sweet. You’ll see the following categories in each email:

What are we learning?

Any big projects or tests coming up?

 Ask your student more about…

Don’t forget that your student’s current grades are always available via Powerschool, 24 hours a day. Also, a full description of daily lessons–including homework assignments, announcements, links, and more–is featured on my Haiku page accessible via your student’s portal.

Best regards.

I hope that the newsletter will build community with my students’ families. Through my updates, I hope that they feel closer to what’s going on in my classroom, and that they are more likely to engage their child in conversations about what they are learning and creating in positive, interested ways. I find that during parent-teacher conferences, many parents feel like getting their child to talk to them about school is a shot in the dark. I think these updates will help shed more light, hopefully strengthening the triangle of communication and support between parents, students, and me. It will give me a chance to share awesome news about student success, and to help parents feel more connected and involved with our classroom work.

There are more ideas where those came from, but for now I’ll just say this–Happy New Year, teachers! Punch that inner cynic in the face and go do good work. It’s going to be an amazing year!


What to Do After the AP Literature Exam? The Make-Your-Own Writing Project!

Being an AP Literature and Composition teacher is awesome. It means that I get to challenge students at a very rigorous academic level, using sophisticated texts and thought-provoking classroom discussions. I get to teach The Greats–keeping the love of classical literature alive for the next generation. I get to interact with students on an intensive, one-on-one level as they work to master analytical academic writing. It’s a demanding course that attracts remarkable learners thirsty for a challenge. But the experience of an AP class does have its drawbacks when it comes to… well… freedom. All year long, we adhere to a laser-focused schedule, which is designed to prepare them for the AP exam in May. It’s a working system, but one without much wiggle room when it comes to individual interests and true experimentation. That’s why I love those three or four weeks at the end of the year so much.

After the exam, all bets are off! Many teachers come up with truly genius ideas for how to fill this time. (For instance, check out this amazing project from the AP English Facebook Page.) My approach is one that embraces the individual talents of my student writers, and grants them a daunting and magical amount of freedom to create. I call it the Make-Your-Own Writing Project, and it serves as the final exam for the second semester.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project asks students a simple question: What have you always wanted to write? Then, it enables them, with an instructor’s guidance and resources, to make it happen. Every year, it’s different for every single student. With focused mini-lessons on writing craft, technology, conventions, copyright, and even the publishing industry, I really try to push my students to adopt a true writer identity. For the first time all year, I’m stepping all the way to the background, watering the garden of their talents and watching it bloom. I conference with individuals, but they steer the process. Some students create websites. Some do academic research. Some make graphic novels. There are poetry collections, speeches, vlogs, blogs, novel chapters, short fiction pieces, journals, artist portfolios, and screenplays. It’s a festival of creativity and commitment, all with a 100% personalized spin.

The best part of all of this is that it creates a spotlight for any student to step into, to create something that they sincerely enjoy, all the while keeping up the momentum and challenge of the year until the very end. I’m always inspired by what they create and present.

Want to try it this year? I’ll post my guidesheets here to get you started.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project assignment description

Customizable Process-Based Rubric for assessment

Please feel free to use or modify my materials for your own teaching use, and tell me how it went in the comments. 🙂

Thanks, AP Lit kids of 2016-2017, for making this year another great one!

**All recognizable student images used with formal consent of students’ guardians  and/or student self-consent if eighteen.

Working on the Right Things: A Day with Penny Kittle

Here’s my department, grinning with joy on a full day of professional development in June. Why are we beaming with megawatt happiness, you ask? Well, it has everything to do with the tall, brilliant blond educator in the middle: the one and only Penny Kittle.

We’ve waited patiently for two years since first scheduling Penny to come do a literacy workshop with our district and surrounding area teachers. On Wednesday, June 21st, in the early morning, I got to pick her up from her hotel and–by way of Fiddleheads Coffee shop–escort her to the presentation site. Engaged and brimming with positive teacher energy from the moment she began, Penny delivered a beautifully curated tour through daily reading, writing, revising, and modeling with students. While there’s no substitute for hearing Penny speak in person, I’d like to share some of the most pressing, inventive, and inspired moments from the workshop, in hopes that some of you might also gain from this sunbeam of professionalism and passion.

A Dose of Truth:

I found myself nodding deeply at this opening statement about teachers: “We’re working hard, but sometimes I think we’re working on the wrong things.” Penny started the day by reminding us of some sobering statistics, which represent behavior that many of us see in our classrooms every day. Plainly said, American students are not sustaining the increase in reading volume and skills that they initially obtain in late elementary school–in fact, many finish high school without truly finishing a single book. Meanwhile, an average of 5,000 pages per year of reading are expected in the first year of college. No wonder so many who are admitted to universities simply drop out.  Students are not prepared for college, and it’s our problem to solve.

Today’s educational landscape is different–very different–than it was 50 years ago. Many well-meaning educators who are following a traditional model find frustration when they ask classes to tackle daunting schedules of lengthy whole-class texts throughout the year. Many students fake their way through a schedule like this and simply don’t read, relying on Sparknotes and YouTube summaries instead to skate by, get “right answers” on quizzes and achieve a conversational knowledge of the plot without actually experiencing the book. This kind of classroom practice can’t keep stumbling blindly forward. There’s no use in trying to cover oodles of high-level curricular content when kids can’t read longer material over sustained periods of time. Teachers will check off items in their syllabi, but not all students will learn. As Penny put it, “People get focused on teaching stuff, not kids.”

The first step to a better way is understanding the difference between what is essential, what is important, and what is nice to know. For example, while being familiar with Jane Austen’s work in particular may be nice to know, what’s truly essential is helping students learn to read more, read better, and (eventually) read deeper.

Classroom Practices:

So how do we build up our students and help them become readers? Penny quoted Richard Allington’s research, which provides a starting equation: engagement in reading + volume of reading = complexity in student thinking. Allington’s work makes clear that “older struggling readers will never become fluent and proficient readers unless volume is increased.”

Penny’s model of incorporating high volumes of independent reading into her classroom work helps build a foundational practice of reading, prioritizing choice as an initial motivator which leads to students building their own reading lists that grow in depth and sophistication through close conferencing with the teacher. Penny is adamant that there are no non-readers, simply dormant readers, and that any kid can find their own reading home, where books start to push them outside of their own environments and perspectives in life-changing ways. (You can read more about this in Penny’s Book Love.)

Penny’s message is that consistent, one-on-one conferencing with students about their reading is the ideal way to push reading skills and volume forward–constantly engaging with, checking in on, and making suggestions for students. I’ve seen this in my own practice… one particular student I worked with this year called himself “not much of a reader” in September and logged a measly 30 pages (if that) per week. After a whole year of dogging him with suggestions and asking about his reading progress every day, he ended up being the kid with quiet tears streaming down his face in the back of my classroom during silent reading, turning the final page of a 500+ page book. That’s Penny Kittle magic right there.

In addition to reading, there are a lot of other things Penny’s students are working on each day. Her daily classroom practices provide time for at least a little bit of each of these actions every day:






It’s a simple list of five words, but if you do them in the classroom every day, it adds up to serious literacy power.

Coolest resources:

In the section of the workshop that focused on student writing, so many useful and game-changing resources were mentioned. While this isn’t all of them, I’d recommend these in particular as truly cool resources for the writing classroom. Check them out!

Best American Infographics : this volume, published annually, is great for modeling argument in non-fiction writing, craft lessons, and a starting point for informational writing.

Flipgrid: video sharing in a bite-size, super easy format. Penny’s students make short videos to tell her what to focus on when giving feedback on their writing.

Penny Kittle’s website: resources to make all of this stuff I’m talking about happen!

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle: a place to start when thinking about how to teach conversation skills and academic discussion.

Moving Writers web community: home of a massive, categorized mentor text dropbox–a content area teacher’s dream.

Bottom line:

One of the most important ideas that Penny shared was that a school’s social capital lies in the connections between educators and the extent to which they share that knowledge. It’s a reminder that none of us is out here alone–we need to connect, share, and build knowledge whenever possible if we want to construct a powerful school community. Those of us in this profession need to stand fast and commit to practices that will move our students forward–into the world, into a life of reading, writing, and learning. It’s not always easy, but we can do it, because we know why we’re here. To quote Penny one last time, “Teaching well is an act of rebellion that is based on an act of love.”

We’re still glowing too, Mrs. Kittle.  Thanks for everything.