Category: Writing

Helping Students Know That Their Stories Do Matter

I’ve recently been working with my high school juniors on how to write a personal statement for educational or career-related opportunities. In the next year or so, they will all have to choose a path. That might entail college and scholarship applications. It might involve cover letters for career opportunities. It might mean joining another kind of program or apprenticeship. Regardless of a student’s aspirations, being able to write about one’s self is an important skill to open all kinds of doors. The stories that reveal the qualifications and experience that they bring into potential opportunities are stories they need to be able to tell. So we begin to practice now. And I start seeing a pattern that I often see whenever personal writing pops up in the classroom.

The confident students forge straight ahead, eager to envision their futures and tell the story of their potential. Many others approach with reticence, but slowly work their way through with the help of mentor texts, modeling, and one-on-one instruction. I’m not worried about those kids–they will all be fine. I worry about the ones who freeze–the ones who look at this assignment and refuse to put words to the page. These are the students who say things like, “I can’t do this. I can’t write.” Or “Nothing about my life is interesting.” Or the worst one (which I still get every year): “I really don’t have any positive traits. There’s nothing good about me.”

Moments like this touch something that a standardized test can never measure–the inextricable link between personal writing and self-concept. These are the students who, somewhere along the way, started believing that their stories don’t matter. Maybe it’s because of some aspect of who they are. Maybe it’s because of something they are struggling with. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe that anyone will listen to what they have to say. These students are often evasive or belligerent. But they are so important.

We cannot allow kids like this to give up. We need to show them that someone is listening. Every student’s story matters, and helping them learn to tell it, if you ask me, is possibly the most important aspect of my job as a teacher of writing.

So how do we do this? It’s a problem I’m still working on, one that I certainly haven’t completely solved. However, I’ve got a start, and as I’ve been applying this method this past week, I thought it might be helpful to share. Here are some things that I rely on to lift these students up and show them that their stories matter!

1. Double-check your teaching for culturally responsive practices. Culturally responsive pedagogy is too complex for me to explain in depth here, but it is something that every teacher should be familiar with. At the most basic level, remind yourself that the reason a student may be struggling may have something to do with a lack of inclusion or understanding related to their home culture, language, or socio-economic status. For teaching something like the personal statement, think about the various versions of success that can be presented in the written examples that you provide to them. Are all students presented with an example that they can relate to? Or does a homogenous definition of success end up excluding students of certain backgrounds, sending the message that this kind of writing doesn’t include people who look, speak, or live like they do?

2. Find something in common, and model from there. Talk to your students who won’t write. Divert the conversation away from the writing task and toward what they care about. What do they do with their spare time? Where have they lived? Where do they work? What are they most proud of? Who do they love? I talk with my students about these things, sometimes writing down brief notes on our conversations to hand back to them. Often, that organically provides a starting point–maybe a student suddenly realizes that she emulates her mother’s determination, or that she can really talk to lots of different types of people with ease… those are wonderful, marketable traits that are great to write about. Point that out! Help them see the good that you see. So much the better if you as the teacher can find something similar in your own life and say, “Hey, that’s kind of like me! So here’s how I would set this piece of writing up if I were doing it…” Show them how to put it down, and it quickly becomes less scary.

3. Minimize pressure — Just talk, then just write… Do everything you can in your classroom culture to emphasize that writing is messy, experimental play that can be twisted and flipped and cut and expanded at will. Even something as high stakes as a personal statement starts as a draft. Spend less time saying things that send the message of “You will fail in the future if you don’t do this well.” Spend more time saying, “Write a half of a notebook page about what’s most important in your life. Don’t think about making it good. It’s ok if it’s terrible. It just needs to be on the page.” Initial writing should be able to just blurt out onto a highly destructible piece of paper. Once there’s a draft, that polished essay is within sight. Then it’s time to teach revision!

…But that’s for another post. 🙂  Happy teaching!

P.s. An extra tip from my colleague Mrs. F.  For students who still get stuck on that first line, try giving them a sentence starter to get the pen moving. (Ex. “I feel good when I’m skateboarding because _____.” Sometimes that’s all they need.)

“How to Enjoy Poetry” by James Dickey: Timeless Advice from 1982

One of my colleagues was deep-cleaning her room this summer, and left this gem in my mailbox:

It’s a two-page article from 1982, written by the late James Dickey–you may know him as the guy who wrote Deliverance. At the time that this article was printed, he was also the poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. While I’m sure that Mrs. F’s motivation for sharing this piece of paper with me was partially the humor of the quaint title and the very pensive portrait of Dickey even so far pre-Instagram, I did take the time to read it seriously, and it is seriously so good!

In the world of Internet everything, sometimes it feels like we’re trying to re-invent all of our material and approaches all the time, but reading “How to Enjoy Poetry” made me remember that such things are not always necessary. Poetry is as eternal as the human experience, and Dickey’s way of explaining it is incredibly accessible and accurate. Before you throw all your paper-based binders away, make sure to mine them for gold!

I’m definitely going to use this piece with my classes this year, and I’ve scanned it into a digital copy so that you can too. I’ll put a link to the .pdf at the end of the post. But first, I want to share some of my favorite moments from the article.

“The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun–everybody’s sun; yours, too–you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.”

Find and fall in love with the full article here, and enjoy your own pursuit of the path! How to Enjoy Poetry

5 Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom

Sweet, sweet structure.

When we talk about writing, it’s easy to think of it in terms of what we’re saying. That’s the most exciting part, right? The stories of our lives, the new discoveries we make in research, the opinions we’re burning to assert… Those are our reasons for writing in the first place. But what about the craft of writing? What about making sure that those messages we so dearly want to get across are actually heard? There’s an answer for this, and it comes from a component of writing that is rarely prioritized in the high school classroom, but I’m going to try to prove here that teaching it well needs to be a bigger deal.

Structure! It’s a word that we don’t typically hear kids use when they talk about their writing, but it’s my new favorite writing focus with my teenage students. 

Before I get into telling you all the great things about teaching student writers about structure, let me clarify what I mean when I use the term, just in case it’s different than the way others may think about it. For me,

STRUCTURE =

*order of information  (There should be reasons why certain pieces are ordered first, before/after other things, or last.)

*overall organizational vision (What sections does this project have? Is it moving in a linear or nonlinear way?)

*where breaks and white space occur (Where are the shifts in topic, tone, or time? What lines or sections need emphasis?)

I started looking more closely at structure this year when I noticed that my students increasingly tend to write in big unorganized blobs of text–no paragraphs, no headings, no discernible order… just one big blob. The case of the missing paragraphs sent me out to teach structure directly, and it resulted in a slew of unintended positive side effects! So in case you’re not convinced yet, read on…

Five Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom

  1.  Better close reading skills. When I teach writing, we work with mentor texts quite a bit. The idea is to understand a professional writer’s “moves” so that we might imitate them. But whereas strong imagery or repetition are things that students notice easily, they sometimes need prompting to find structural choices. When intentionally bringing attention to things like paragraph breaks, reasons for segmenting/sectioning writing, and watching for shifts in topic, tone, or time, students get a better sense of the specific impact that structural choices can have on readers. It also makes them more effective analyzers of text overall–they start noticing these moves in other reading contexts, too.
  2. More rigor in creative tasks. I love the freedom of poetry and narrative as much as my students do, but sometimes it leads students to believe that anything creative that they write on the page is beyond evaluation just by virtue of the fact that it’s creative. I recently had a conversation with an advanced student who is working on a poetry collection. She asked, “Since my poems are kind of all just my personal thoughts, is there really any way to tell if they’re good or not?” “Yes,” I told her, because while nobody can tell anyone what to write, there definitely is such a thing as good and bad creative writing. Part of my solution for this student was to examine her structure, because strong creative work uses it very intentionally. I advised her to think about her stanzas–why were they in that order? Why did she shift to a new stanza or a new verse when she did? Why did the stanzas have five lines each? Even young writers who do implement structural moves in their writing sometimes don’t have any actual reasons for them. Working with structure is a great way to challenge students to gain greater control and nuance in their creative writing.
  3. Huge impact on revision quality. Writing in any form can be completely transformed when it is purposefully reordered or even just when paragraph breaks are used well with intention. I try to help my students learn that paragraphs are units of meaning, not length–I still sometimes get students who wonder “how many sentences should be in a paragraph?” Of course, they should be evaluating that themselves, paragraph by paragraph. This is a great time to teach how and why we use breaks to help our audience understand that we are moving–maybe we’re changing the topic. Maybe we’re moving from a present narrative to a past memory that’s connected to that narrative. Maybe we’re isolating a one-line paragraph with white space because that line is really, really important. A structural revision can really transform a draft for the better.
  4. The “organization” category in standardized writing scores. I won’t spend too much time on this one other than to say that the ACT Writing Rubric allots 25% of its scoring to the organization category. Blob writers cannot score well, even if everything else about their writing is on point.
  5. More effective arguments. It’s a pretty simple premise that when you’re trying to convince someone of something, you need a very strong opening point to gain the audience’s consideration, and the strongest possible closing point to seal the deal. Yet, I have many students who organize their argumentative writing simply in the order that they thought of it initially or in the order of the sources that they discovered, with no real thought to why certain pieces are placed where they are. Working with students to strategize about the most convincing order of ideas can be a game changer in the impact of their argumentative writing. It ends up feeling far less like an endless stream of “And you know what else?!” and far more like a cohesive, crafted persuasive piece.

The school year is almost done! Maybe for some of you lucky ducks out there, it’s already done. However, if you’re a writing teacher, take some advice from me and jot the word “STRUCTURE” somewhere in the early September days of your 2018-2019 planner. I think you’ll find that it will make your students’ writing click into place in new, exciting ways.

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

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.

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?

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:

READ

WRITE

STUDY

CREATE

SHARE

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.

If You Build It, They Will Come: Thoughts on Green Bay’s UntitledTown Book & Author Festival

A little less than a month ago, I attended the inaugural UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, Wisconsin. When a few friends and a former professor initially told me about the concept for a weekend-long, free-to-the-public celebration of reading and writing, I geeked out. When I subsequently learned that Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood would be speaking in the closing keynote, I had a full-out geek attack. A whole weekend with readers and writers everywhere, teaching and learning about how to read and write with more passion and prowess? Be still my ink-dripping English teacher heart!

It’s easy to wane in enthusiasm in late April and May, when so many of us have to put on a tough face to keep kids (and even ourselves) motivated about learning. This year, though, attending UntitledTown was exactly the reinvigoration I needed to finish the teaching year out with gusto. I spent the whole weekend thinking, “I remember! I remember why I love  teaching about the written word so dang much!” It was a downright gift, and one that’s too good not to share. So, in hopes that some of my inspiration overflow may find its way to you, fellow teachers, I’d like to share my top four takeaways from my weekend at UntitledTown.

On teaching writing – Good storytelling comes down to details and human understanding. In her session “The Art of Truth,” author Blair Braverman put it so well: “The structure and principles of telling stories are the same in fiction and non-fiction. The most important thing to make writing vivid is your eye for rich, surprising detail that reflects human decisions.” She encouraged those who wanted to write compelling stories to sit down and talk with others–even strangers–at length, because to write is to also understand the thoughts and experiences of others. In an author panel entitled “Thrills and Threats and Tenderness,” Larry Watson encouraged writers to not think so much about technique, urging instead to “Think about people.” Ben Percy offered his variation on this theme as well, saying “Narrative progress and emotional progress are equally important. Transformation is essential for good writing.” Great reminders for the writing classroom, especially when we need to get back in touch with why we do what we do.

On the power that language holds over our lives – The word that ends the argument in a moment. Sherman Alexie speaks the way he writes, with a hectic, hilarious, sweeping energy that can draw laughter and tears with equal ease. In his talk on his upcoming memoir, he told a story about his own mother and father arguing in a dying tribal language that he didn’t understand; he remembers rarely hearing his father speak it, but when he did, he could bring the room to silence. “That’s the tragedy of losing a language,” Alexie said. “You lose the word that ends the argument in a moment.” Preserving words, using them, and respecting them is a way of harnessing power. Why teach a high school kid to read Shakespeare? This is why.

On the importance of the humanities – Engaging human wholeness. Margaret Atwood is a mage of modern English language literature, a tour de force of a woman. In speaking about her celebrated dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, she made the point that in the totalitarian regime of the book, there are no novels, no poems, plays, or shows–it is a world where women aren’t allowed to read, and nobody ever has to get offended by art. In her talk, Atwood gave nothing short of a battle cry for protecting the humanities in our own world: “Who are we? The humanities answers this question differently than science…. not everything about us is the sum of our biological parts. Any educational system that ignores this is not engaging human wholeness. We are art-making beings. We are story-making beings. Through art, we not only express, but we explore and question.” I cried.

On reading and writing communities – If you build it, they (the readers, the writers, the lovers of words) will come. The whole concept of this festival was an unproven one, and the board wasn’t completely sure what to expect–would the little city of Green Bay really be enough of a destination to attract enough speakers and attendees to make the vision possible? The answer is yes. Even in the cold, dismal weather, the city was hopping. Events were packed, and people were buzzing with excitement. Several times over the weekend, I thought to myself, “Seriously, where did all these people come from?” People of all ages, shapes, and styles who wanted more chances to read and write. They were everywhere. It spoke to the fact that our communities are full of people who are (often quietly or secretly) hungry to write and read more. How fortunate that, in Green Bay, they could come together and find each other!

The writers are out there. Someone had to put the first book in their hands. Someone had to tell them their stories were worth telling. Someone had to show them how and why to love language. We teachers are the headwaters of that stream, the keepers of that flame. And it makes me proud. Thanks, UntitledTown, for reminding me that my teacher-writer-reader spirit is not (even close to) alone.

English on.