Oh, the Learning in One Well-Chosen Sentence

51 Most Beautiful Sentences -- Buzzfeed

First, we read like readers. We talk about meaning. We talk about the story if any students have read the book. Many have. The Perks of Being a Wallflower never stays on the shelf for long.

I see several students flip to the back of their writer’s notebooks and write the title on their To Read Next lists.

Next, we read like writers. “The writer does a few things interesting in this sentence. What do you notice?” I ask.

We talk about starting a sentence with and, which leads to a discussion about sentence structure. We talk about the word infinite, which leads to a discussion about the word moment.

“What? That’s a contradiction,” someone says.

“Uh huh,” I nod and listen as little conversations bubble up around the room.

Then, from the back, a student says, “Do you see the three we’s in that sentence? Do you?”

I cannot help but grin.

You see it, don’t you?

Oh, sentences. Lovely sentences. Oh, the learning in one well-chosen sentence.

I cannot even imagine how much I would have learned TALKING about sentences all those years ago instead of diagramming them.

Do you have a favorite sentence you like to talk about with your students?

This Buzzfeed article has 51 Beautiful Sentences. I mention this piece in my post tomorrow, too. And if you haven’t visited Notable Sentences for Imitation and Creation, you’ll want to find some time to read it.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

6 Ways to Confer in the Crowded Classroom

“My biggest struggle right now is that I have 36 students in each class (60 min periods). There’s not an empty seat in the room! Any ideas?”

Maybe this sounds like you. I’ve been there –trying everything to make workshop work in my over-flowing freshman and sophomore classes. Last year I had 38 sophomores in my 8th period. Talk about ending the day exhausted.

My principal said at the first of this year: “40 is the new 30″ regarding class sizes. Most teachers I know deal with bulging class sizes every day. We have to adjust to the new normal.

In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Last week I read this English Journal article from 2000 (timely with Nancie Atwell recently winning that awesome teaching award), and I was reminded of how Atwell talks about the tension in a workshop classroom.

I’ve said it many times before:   readers and writers workshop is constant motion, and sometimes the tension becomes a tight rope under my feet as I try to provide my students with the best instruction possible.

I believe it’s student conferences that steady the bouncing rope, but how do we confer with all of our students regularly when our classes are so large?

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about reading conferences in high school. Mrs. Thompson wrote that plea at the top of the page in the comments. I’ve thought about it ever since.

These are black board speech bubble brooches. How cool is that? See gadgetsin.com

These are black board speech bubble brooches. How cool is that?
See gadgetsin.com

I am fortunate to have small classes this year, but balancing the tension is still not easy. Below I share six ways I confer with students. I had to be inventive to confer with those rowdy 38 sophomores. Maybe some of these ideas will help my friend Mrs. Thompson.

1. Start before the Bell. Several of my students enter my room two or three minutes before the bell rings. When I am behind in my conferences, which is more often than I’d like, I can talk to a few more students a day when I begin before the bell.

2. Go to Them. My students sit in small groups with their desks clustered in fours and fives. When I want to speak to students individually, I go to them and kneel beside their desk. We talk in hushed tones for a maximum of two and a half minutes. If a student wants to talk longer, before the end of class I pass her a sticky note with an invitation to come in during my lunch. Sometimes she does.

3. Bundle Them Up. Instead of speaking in hushed tones, when I know the topic of the conference will benefit all students in a small group, we speak a little louder. This way I can easily turn to the other three or four students and invite them into the conversation. “You might want to try that, too.”  or “Do you have a question similar to Mark’s?”

4. Make it Voluntary. I know I am not the only one with students who need to talk before they’ve really even started. When I begin conferences with an invitation — “If you’re having trouble getting started, meet me at the sofa, and let’s talk” I can spend five minutes with five to six students, often clarifying ideas or validating their thinking. Once I model how to talk about their work, students learn to effectively give one another feedback. I can leave them talking and confer with a few other students. Five to ten minutes later, I return to the couch. More often than not, these students are now ready to work on their own. They just needed some talk to get them started.

5. Group Them through Feedback. I learned this one from Penny Kittle. Say you are reading through student drafts, and you see the same trouble spots over and over again. Make a note on the bottom right corner, maybe a code like TH if you’re seeing not-so-powerful thesis statements. Then during conference time, ask everyone with a TH on their paper to meet you at the center table. You save time by re-teaching or doing a mini-lesson on thesis statements only with those students who need the refresher. (This works for reading conferences with my most resistant readers, too.)

6. Keep it Silent. Sometimes I get more information about what my students need when they write it out instead of talk about it. I’ve learned to give some of my quiet students the option to confer most often in silent conversations. I leave them notes. They leave me notes back. This is similar to Chris Tovani’s conversation calendars, which when I tried to do with the whole class, challenged my ability to be consistent. When I make the notes optional, those students who want this type of conference take advantage of it — and I can read student notes and respond after the class period.

Do you have other ideas for conferring with students in large classes? Please leave a comment.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

How to Teach Writing


I might have actually reblogged this post before today, but I was searching through the TTT dashboard and found a draft I’d written reflecting on it. I miss conversations with Tess Mueggenborg, one of the best teachers I know. She pegs my thinking here, exactly. I don’t even need to share my reflections, but I would love to hear yours. Please leave your thoughts in a comment.

Originally posted on Prof. Mueggenborg:

Want to create successful writers?  Want to raise them from seedlings, make them strong and resilient and capable of writing oak trees of essays, not saplings of deadwood?  The key has nothing to do with writing.  If a teacher wants to help their students to become successful writers, they must make their students into successful readers.  If a student isn’t a reader, they’ll never be a writer – no way, no how.  The reading should be both academic and for pleasure: students need to bask in the glow of words for fun, and struggle with a snarling sentence when needed.  They should delight in diction and syntax, but never be quite satisfied with them as-is – every student should always ask, “why this way?” and “why not like this?”.  And no, they probably don’t need to know what “diction” and “syntax” mean: we don’t need to understand the nuclear reactions…

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Shelfie Saturday



I love Monday mornings.

Monday signifies a new week, new possibilities, and new literature!  At the start of every week, I take time to display different books on each themed shelf.  This provides readers an opportunity to explore new titles on an ongoing basis.  Some books are brand new to Room 382 while other books have occupied our shared space for years; yet feel fresh and enticing when they are uniquely displayed.

Students (and guests) are continually gazing at our Francis Gittens Lending Library and enjoy, not only the vast array of literature to choose from, but how easily accessible it is to find what they are looking for. Gone are the days of ‘genre shelving’ and in are the days of ‘theme shelving’.  Whether students are just emerging into the world of literature or they are deeply rooted in their love for reading; our scholars need to feel supported.  By clustering books via theme, students (regardless of their comfortability with literature) know exactly where to go to get more of what they want!

Many students find their heritage fascinating and want to explore it beyond their current ideologies, beliefs, and familiarities.  So, they peruse the shelves in which they see themselves; racially, culturally, geographically, athletically, and so on.  They find comfort in exploring the lives and stories of those they’ve met before in history class or via conversations taking place within their homes.  They also take pleasure in learning more about who they are within the context of society, and on an even larger scale, within the world; simultaneously honing in on their more localized and individual existence.

All adolescents are searching.  They search for identity.  They seek to understand.  They thrive on building connections.  They strive to be enlightened.  And many times, students stumble upon exactly what they didn’t know they were looking for!  I love that.

Be it non-fiction, fiction, poetry, fantasy, science-fiction, auto/biography, graphic novels, screen plays, what have you; genre holds much less weight when the stories, characters, and settings transcend our students into a world full of exploration.

Here, our ever growing and ever evolving “Roots” shelves allow us to embark on a genre free yet culturally rich journey!

Some of our collective favorites include: Mumia-Abu Jamal, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, Dr. MLK, Jr. and his lovely wife


Join the conversation by posting your own shelfies!  Share a shelfie with #shelfieshare and let us know if it’s a #classroomshelfie, #bookstoreshelfie, or other miscellaneous find.

G. Neri’s Yummy




In this award-winning graphic novel, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s life becomes interwoven with other true events from a period in time where Chicago’s south side was running rampant with gang activity and violence. The year: 1994. Yet, its relevance still holds weight today in urban communities throughout our country. Unfortunately.

Narration and Writer’s Craft

Through third person narration, eleven year old Roger, guides us through the ongoings, thoughts, chaos, family ties, brotherhood, fears, ponderings, love, realities and insecurities most young adolescent males experience.

Roger lives on Normal Street.  He addresses what many readers are already thinking:  But I guess “normal” is different to different folks.

In studying craft, this one liner opens up dialogue, the use of language and repetition, and the importance of quotation marks in varying situations.  Throughout the entire story, you are greeted with on-point vernacular, literary devices, and a storyline that pulls at the heart strings.  (Just ask my students.)

Additionally, the incredible illustrations allow us the luxury of experiencing Yummy’s journey through his eyes, Roger’s eyes, and the eyes of all of those that take part in the journey.

It’s pretty loaded.

 Essential Ideas and ThemesYummy: The Last Days of a Southside Short

This gritty exploration of Yummy’s life forces readers (of all ages) to question their own understandings of good and bad, right or wrong, yes vs. no.

It searches for truth.

It provides us with the inner-workings of [the downfall of] self-worth and naturally asks us to question it.

Ultimately, we are challenged to think on a macro level about society; why are so many of our youth feeling forced into a life where statistics are alarmingly glaring?


Yummy is a piece that everyone needs to read.  It’s important.  It’s relevant.  It affords us a window into the lives of so many of our youth.  No wonder it has won just under 30 honors and awards.  This is one piece of literature you cannot afford to miss.

For more books by G. Neri feel free to visit his website: http://www.gregneri.com


Yummy Time

Here is the cover of TIME Magazine’s issue detailing the story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.  Tragic and important.

Today We Draw

A Five Day Checklist:

Chancellor visit. (Check!)

Superintendent visit. (Check!)

A posse of outside principals observing. (Check!)

Our CBO (community based organization) pulled out = no counseling…or any other services…for students.  Teachers are now ALL of that. (Continual check!)

End of the Cycle (think semester) and the accompanied wildness. (Checking…all week long!)

*THIS WEEK.  Yes, in one week.  And, it’s Wednesday only.


The above is an email I composed to Amy, Jackie, and Shana in one of our most recent communications. In response, Amy wrote:  You’ve got the world on your shoulders this week, E!  And, it wasn’t until I was greeted with this affirmation that I realized it most definitely felt that way.  I was too busy moving through it to take a moment’s pause and acknowledge the intensity of it all.   The. Weight. Of. The. World.

It got me thinking.  If I felt this way, I couldn’t imagine how students were feeling as they were the reason for all of the visits.  They were the ones ‘on display’.  I just kept it business as usual with our Readers Writers Workshop flow; rigorous expectations, Writer’s Notebooks being utilized, Independent Reading occurring, questions being raised; chuckles here and there.  Yet, it felt off.  As I looked around the room, it occurred to me that students have taken on the weight of the world too.

They’ve been trying to articulate their thoughts wrapped around their chosen literature when the Chancellor asked them about their favorite books.  They’ve tried to be loyal to our collective work and answer the Superintendent’s question about rubrics (aside from the thought provoking work they’ve been creating) knowing that we are currently exploring with our pens and ideas sans a rubric.  They have tried to find comfort in their movement over the last six months, but these pressures have made them second guess themselves.  And the reason I know?  They’ve told me.

Yet, their resilience astounds me.  So, I dug deep.

We needed a collective breath.  With all of the tension and uncertainty swirling about Room 382, we needed a class period full of calming zen.  I channelled my extraordinary experience at #UNHLIT13, as I was guided by Penny Kittle in sketching an already created piece of art.  Aside from my internal voices loudly telling me that there was no way I was going to be successful at this; I tried.  And regardless of how my sketch came out I knew the most important lesson is that I didn’t give up.

Calmly, yet intensely, sketching.

Calmly, yet intensely, sketching.

So, today we draw.

The weight lifted immediately and you could feel the energetic life seeping back into 382.  Students were riddled with questions: Wait.  We’re just going to draw today?  You mean, no writing?  We can do that?!  

And, while some questions made me laugh and others prompted me to reflect, students were back.  So, everyone grabbed their newly sharpened pencils, chose the drawing that spoke to them most, and got to it.  I mean, really got to it.

Hoodies up.  Concentration in full effect.

Hoodies up. Concentration in full effect.






It was important for me to voice my intention: Folks as we partake in this together, I need you to know that I am wildly uncomfortable with all things drawing!  For the last six months I have asked you to find strength and courage in reading and writing that has challenged you to the core.  Today, I do the same.  (Deep breath)  Here I go…

While students zoned in, I followed their lead.  I sketched under the document camera so students could watch me struggle…and I mean struggle.  Yet, while drawing/sketching isn’t my forte, I needed students to watch me play with a level of discomfort they are not used to observing.  Students engaged in non-literacy conversation (as Shana brilliantly suggests here) while honing in on their focus.  Students approached me to lend their expertise on how to curve lines or align measurements or see the artist’s sketch with a different perspective.  It was exhilarating being the student!

Some of our masterpieces!  My attempt at creating a balcony.

Some of our masterpieces! My attempt at creating a balcony.

All said and done, here’s what I know.  The RWW is about so much more than always reading and writing; it allows the space to explore, mess up, build community, redefine rigor, and just enjoy.  On this given day, the latter is my favorite.

How do you find ways to calm the tension within your learning environment using the Readers Writers Workshop model?



Four Ways to Formatively Assess in Workshop

dtrfyguhujSometimes I wake up in the morning, thinking about what I’ll be teaching and learning that day, and feel like a rebel.  That’s right–I think to myself, feeling inexplicably cool–I teach workshop. Yeahhhhh.  Even though this is the most research-based, data-driven form of instruction I’ve encountered in my teaching career, a successful workshop is still such a rarity that I feel like I’m breaking all the rules by employing it every day.  I’m a rebel with a cause.

Still, when I stop feeling like James Dean and reality bites me in the butt, I know I need to be practical and follow the rules by putting some grades in the gradebook–once per week is the suggestion at our school.  If I had it my way, I’d go gradeless and celebrate the myriad acts of literacy within the confines of a classroom.  That’s not possible right now.  I needed another solution, and I think I found it in Amy, right here on this blog.  She writes powerfully about formative assessments in this post.  Her thinking mirrors mine:

I know when I am learning a new skill, I want to be able to practice–free from judgment–so that I might build some confidence before I am formally evaluated.  The same is true for kids.  We should give them opportunities to practice and build confidence.

One grade per week, when I’m grading to evaluate, is impossible.  We don’t master a different skill every single week.  Mastery requires practice.  So, I’ve focused lately on formative assessment for eight out of the nine-week grading periods, and summative for just one.  Here are the four categories I see formative assessment broken down into, and how I put them in the gradebook.


Un-gradeable, amazing writing

1. Writer’s notebooks – I collect writer’s notebooks every two weeks, and students can receive up to 20 points per collection.  If all of our prompts and exercises are present, and I can see the student’s effort, he or she gets the full 20/20.  I also ask students to mark for me anything they’d like feedback on.  I check to see the status of their to-read, wondrous words (vocab), and cool craft (quotes) sections, but I also look for a telltale pink sticky note.  If I see one, I read the marked piece and write back–just feedback.

2.  Reading logs – Our reading logs are quite messy; you can see one example here.  There are arrows everywhere, new reading rates scribbled in, and tons of titles being read every week.  When students complete their reading goal of two hours per week–determined by individual reading rates–they get 10 points, every week.  Reading logs show me the big picture of a class’s progress, while conferences help me go deeper.  The reading log lets me know, at a glance, who’s soaring and who’s not–helping to give my conferences direction.


Word play

3.  Vocabulary – I still remember my orange Sadlier-Oxford vocab books from high school.  Those well-worn paperbacks were the source of many a cramped hand and a frantic fifteen minutes of homeroom before English class.  I know from personal experience that I don’t retain new words by completing fill-in-the-blank exercises–I learn by reading widely.  So, I ask my students to maintain a “wondrous words” section in their notebooks, writing down unfamiliar or unknown words as they read.  Then, I give them a different activity to complete with those words every two weeks.  The activities are worth 10 points each, and run the gamut from writing stories using the words to drawing pictures illustrating their meanings.

4. Honest self-assessments – When we finish a unit of any kind, usually about once a month–a writing unit, a reading unit, a book club, a challenge–I pass out a half-sheet with self-assessment questions on it.  I begin each half-sheet with a disclaimer:  “Be honest.  There’s no judgment here.  I just want to know why you were as successful as you were with this unit, and to know how I can help others be successful in the future.”  Students answer very truthfully, sometimes humorously so.  If their answers are thorough, they receive 15 points.

These four formative assessments total about 115 points per month.  With 9-week grading periods, students’ grades therefore are made up of about 2/3 formative assessments (230 points or so) and 1/3 summative assessments (100 points or so).  Well over half of the formative assessments are credit for the simple acts of doing the assigned reading and writing–no evaluation of those acts, just credit for the effort.  I value practice and process over product–and this grading system reflects that.

How do you handle grading, formative assessment, evaluation, etc.? Please share in the comments!


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