#FridayReads & Becoming (Twitter) Literary Critics

I am beat. My students are beat. I know you know exactly how that feels.

In an effort to lighten the mood but keep the idea of books and reading alive, my students and I had a little fun with Donald Trump. Now, it doesn’t matter what you think of the man or his politics, his tweets make pretty good mentor texts.

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I’m not the only one to think so — actually, I got the idea from someone Buzzfeed. Some clever writer put together a list of tweets, written as if Mr. Trump critiqued literature. Brilliant.

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So to have a little end-of-year fun, I asked my students to consider Trump’s sentence structure, and then write their own reviews based on the most recent books they’d read. Really, my only requirements:  a clear tone, but they didn’t have to be mean, and correct spelling and punctuation.

Here’s a few for your reading pleasure. Of course, the review makes the most sense if you are familiar with the books students refer to — I get that not everyone is as versed in YA like they might be the canon.

(Side Note:  To those who say students will never move beyond YA or ‘easy’ reading when it’s all about choice. Um, wrong again.)

What kind of end-of-year fun with books and reading — or anything else– have you had with your students? Please share in the comments.

Vulnerable Learning by Janet Neyer

My Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, wrote about taking a risk in sharing her writing with her students on the CRWP Teachers as Writers Blog. Her post got me thinking about how I do the same in my own classroom.

guest post iconI am feeling nervous, insecure, and uncertain as my ninth graders start to file into class today. We just started the new trimester a week ago, and about half of my students are still new to me — having come from a different English teacher first term. I remind myself that I am the adult; I am the teacher. Nothing to worry about, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

You see, I am about to give a book talk and admit to my students that I have no clue what the book I am reading is about. Truly. I just don’t get it. The book is a title I was eager to read — The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro — but I am 30 pages from the end of the novel and I don’t know what the real story is. In fact, all I really know is that an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, have undertaken a journey to reunite with their son. As Axl and Beatrice travel across the countryside, they meet knights, Saxons, river boatmen, and frightened citizens, but all have one thing in common: they cannot seem to remember much. Axl and Beatrice worry that the loss of their memories will be their undoing: “But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if, without our memories, there’s nothing for it but our love to fade and die.” The mist of this memory loss has the effect on me as a reader of clouding the truth in the story. In short, I find myself uncertain about what is real for the characters and what is fantasy.

I am about to reveal to these students that I don’t understand this book.

I don’t have the answers.

I don’t have a profound interpretation.

I am lost.

How will they respond?

The room settles in as I grab the book from my desk and turn to face them.

71yaTpRiJgL“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading…”

This is what I have been working on for the past several years in my practice as an English teacher: vulnerability. Through a great deal of reflection, professional reading, conversation with colleagues, and intention, I have been trying to practice what Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen in Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction, call “vulnerable learning: an inquiry-driven process that engages both intellect and emotion…” (34).  Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen explain that “Teachers who foster vulnerable learning create classrooms where “not-knowing” (Barthelme, 1997) is the norm…they create conditions in which students can claim and exercise their own power as learners, primarily because these teachers are vulnerable learners themselves” (36). I am trying to model for my students what a First Attempt In Learning (FAIL) means for me. I want to take a risk in front of them by acknowledging that I don’t have all of the answers, and, in fact, on any given day, I have many more questions than answers.

Every day when students enter my classroom, I want them to ask questions, to push back, and to wonder. I want to grow literate citizens who question what is happening in their communities and in the world. Students, however, often see school as a place where there is one correct answer, and in most cases, it is the teacher who has it. In addition, in most classrooms — despite teachers’ encouragement to the contrary — everyone knows that asking questions makes you look foolish. I understand this mindset, as I remember being one of those students as well. Though I wish I had, I did not take intellectual risks in my high school days. I let the teacher tell me how I might improve upon my writing or what meaning I should take from the novel. I wish something different for my students, though. I wish for them to acquire the tools needed to be independent learners — deep learners who are willing to take on challenges and see them through.

I recognize that I ask students every day to take risks and to be vulnerable in their learning. If they are to write something powerful and meaningful, they will have to risk putting it out there for their classmates and for me. If I am to find them the right book to appeal to them, they’ll have to risk telling me something about what matters to them.  If they are to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers, they will need to struggle and persevere. The reality, however, is that many of my students would prefer I just tell them the answer.  How can I expect them to be vulnerable if I am unwilling to take that risk?

It’s that simple…

And that scary.

In her short story “Eleven,” Sandra Cisneros writes in the voice of eleven-year-old Rachel, “…what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” And even though I am well past eleven, today I still feel all of those layers. As I stand in front of my ninth graders, I am feeling 14. I am the vulnerable one, hesitating to reveal that I don’t understand. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but one that is so valuable for me to remember as a teacher of 14-year-olds.

“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading because I am only 30-pages from the end, but I do not know what this story is about.” I show the students the book and the place where my sticky note holds my spot. I explain that I have read other books by this author and that I have sometimes had to hang on for a while before I understood what was happening, but never for this long.

“This is an author I trust, so I want to keep going, but I’m frustrated.”

A student in the front blurts out, “What’s it about?”

“Well,” I say, “There’s an elderly couple on a search for their son. And there’s a knight and a dragon and a lot of battles. The story takes place in ancient England, but no one seems able to remember anything very clearly. I feel like nothing in this book is as it seems, like there is something else going on here.”

“Why don’t you look it up on the Internet?”

I admit that I had thought about that, but reading this book for me has become like solving a puzzle. I really want to figure it out on my own. I have the chance today to talk with them about perseverance, about my willingness to stick with a text even if I’m unsure about the pay-off, about my tolerance for uncertainty. Essentially, I have the opportunity to remind even my most reluctant readers of The Rights of the Reader (Pennac). Yes, I have the right to leave this book unfinished, but I won’t; in fact, I might even exercise my right to read the book again after I finish it.

When one student asks, “Why would you want to do that?” I have the opportunity to explain what I gain from a second reading of a text.

When another asks if he can borrow a copy so he can help me, I have to tell him that this is my only copy, but I promise he can have it when I finish. I know he is excited to meet this challenge — to help the teacher understand a book. What better boost for a ninth grader?

This is one of the best book talks I’ll give all year — mostly because it’s a reminder that my students need to see me struggle with books, just as they might. They need to know I am willing to be vulnerable in my learning, just as I ask them to be.

In fact, tomorrow, I think I’ll share a piece of writing I’m working on — a blog post about being a vulnerable learner.

Post Script: If you haven’t read The Buried Giant, I recommend it. In fact, I gave it five stars on GoodReads. It was absolutely worth the persistence. After I finished the novel, I did turn to the Internet, and was comforted to find this New York Times review from Neil Gaiman in which he says, “Not until the final chapter does Ishiguro unravel the mysteries and resolve the riddles.” Whew. I’m glad to know I wasn’t alone in my puzzlement.

Profile PhotoJanet Neyer (@janetneyer) teaches English and psychology at Cadillac High School in Cadillac, Michigan, where she is passionate about incorporating authentic reading, writing, and research experiences into all of her classes. She serves as a teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project in mid-Michigan, and she is a Google for Education Certified Trainer.  You can find Janet’s Google Apps resources as well as her thoughts about teaching at upnorthlearning.org.


Garcia, Antero, and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, 2015. Print.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.

Pennac, Daniel, Quentin Blake, and Sarah Adams. The Rights of the Reader. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press, 2008. Print.

“Give me a speeding ticket…I am reading way too furiously to be within the law”

May can be a desperate time for teachers. We’re just…tired. Fall asleep on the couch after dinner, mainline coffee, bargain with the snooze button, barely recognize your own family, exhausted.

Just think, in the time that it takes to carry a human baby to full term (Baby Ruthie, I’m looking at you), most of us have carried somewhere around 150 (if you’re lucky) students through the year. To clarify this gestational metaphor – by carried, I mean taught. And by taught, I mean pushed. And by pushed, I mean (occasionally) dragged.

Amy wrote about it last week. The crack up. The point at which it all becomes too much and you start to question if you taught them anything. If they are better in any way. If you reached even one. If you’ve been talking to yourself for the last nine months. Because with the approach of graduation, and summer, and sweet, sweet freedom, the opportunities to make that difference seem to dwindle. Students are paying  less and less attention these days, to school anyway, and when coupled with the somewhat spent enthusiasm of teachers, the chances of academic magnificence begins to allude us. Which, unfortunately, makes us even more tired.

However, because we care, sometimes to our own detriment, we don’t give up. Amy, unwavering in her commitment to use every last moment, wrote about this too. It’s the moment where banging your head against the wall one last time means you break through instead of breaking down.

In my own effort to keep the spark alive, I have my students working on final projects that demand they keep reading and keep creating, right up to the end. Additionally, inspired by Shana’s brilliant use of former students as an engaging resource, I called in a heavy hitter.

Austin Bohn, graduate of Franklin High School in 2013, reached out to me a few months ago with the following email. What followed is an exchange of ideas that solidifies for me that our students often don’t truly see the impact that our classes can have on their lives, until after they’ve left us. Austin has always been inquisitive, insightful, and personable. As a college student, I see in Austin the exact type of young man that we hope our students become – thinkers who value where their reading lives can take them. 

Lisa, (because I get to call you Lisa now),

I just wrapped up a discussion post for my Philosophy 4336 course, “Applied Ethics for the Health Professions.” It was just one of those times when you feel as though you’ve hit all the right keys in just the right order. It reminded me of some of the reading and responding we used to do in your classroom. 
I’ve attached a short article and my—also short—post in response to it. In it, I draw on Saxton extensively so you’ll probably be able to navigate by just reading that one. There is another article (Connelly), but you’ll likely not need to read it unless you really want to. 
I hope that you’ll find it refreshing to read something from a former student, knowing you laid a great foundation that allows me to be able to crank these things out on a weekly basis. I really do appreciate your teaching—I’m only just beginning to grasp its value. You taught me how to think!
All the best,
Austin Bohn

Austin and I continued exchanging emails for several weeks, and when he expressed interest in coming to observe some of my classes and share ideas about college life, reading expectations at the collegiate level, and explore the possibility of teaching someday, I asked if he would like to come in and serve as a motivator for my AP classes,


Austin book talking Ishmael 

post test. Austin had been in my AP class and knew well both the project that my students
are working on and the difficulty to focus when the end is so very near.

Two weeks ago, we made a plan for Austin to come in, share some of his insights and experiences as they relate to college level work, chat with students and provide ideas as they craft their final projects, and observe.

What turned out to be the added bonus, and one that’s already had an impact on my classes, was Austin’s book talk on Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I wasn’t familiar with the text, (a book that details a man’s encounter with a gorilla who has all and none of the answers about life), but the impassioned argument Austin made for reading the book and what it can teach you about thinking, struck a cord. Specifically, with another young man in my AP Language class.

Bennett Dirksmeyer is a thinker too. A quiet, careful, deep thinker. When he emailed me the day after Austin’s book talk and told me that he went right out and bought a copy of Ishmael,  I was excited for him. To be honest, whenever a book talk “works” I get a satisfied nerd-smile from ear to ear.

So, three days later, when I received the email below indicating that Bennett had already plowed through Quinn’s text, I was floored.

The email below made me cry. Like, A Monster Calls, breathless sobbing (not because I’m tired, or not only because I’m tired), but because this is what we all want. Out of workshop. Out of teaching. Out of life. Out of the end of a long, hard school year.

And no, I don’t mean we all want the email exactly (though I would be lying if I said that hearing a student’s gratitude doesn’t feel amazing), but we want students to grow in their thinking. Challenge themselves, push themselves, take risks, stay up late reading, and come away with new ways of processing this crazy life.

Here is what Bennett sent (with some enthusiastic bolding by yours truly):

Mrs Dennis,

I closed Ishmael at 3:35pm today. After reading, with unexpected vigor I might add, I began to wonder why I plowed through it so willingly. Throughout my reading I thought, and thought, “Why am I liking this?”, “What is making me do this?” It is an important text. It deals with issues leading to very serious implications. It deals with very political and personal questions with very divided answers. New-different-not my-ideas. Ideas I am not accustomed to.

The last book I truly read and loved and finished was Paper Towns by John Green. I read the text with so much vigor, surprising vigor, at that.

I felt that same vigor and that same ‘give me a speeding ticket because I am reading way too furiously to be within the law’-ness, and that same ‘I’m gonna have to stop and get an oil change


Bennett – A “Pretty Cool Guy” 

for my head because the motor is running, but I’m not going to’-ality.

And I continued to wonder (sometimes aloud) – “What do I love so (expletive) much about this book?!”

I sat and thought about it.
And I thought.
And thought.

And it dawned on me.

I love this book. Not for its themes, or the author’s word choice, or the overall message contained between its covers. But for the reason that it caused me to start up that thing between my ears, and think.

I think I get it now.

And that’s pretty cool.

Thank You, for passing these skills on to me, so that I can do this with them.

I regret none of American Lit with you Freshman year (I read every word of The Scarlet Letter, and for me, that was scary-awesome), Brit/World Lit with Mrs Adelmann Sophomore year, and AP Lang with you this year. Thank you, you rock.

Books are cool.
I’ve always loved them.

But, now I appreciate them. And the pretty cool guy they’ve helped me become.


So let me try and instill (rejuvenate? invigorate? fuel?) a little hope in my worn and weary teaching partners around the world as this school year winds down and I know we could all benefit from a little love:

While we may be trying to merely survive until the end of the school year, to get through it in one piece in order to pick right back up and get ready for next year, teachers inspire. You, reading this, inspire students throughout the year. Even when we are tired, we inspire. With our passion for the written word, our desire to watch learners grow, and our commitment to allowing students choice in their exploration (with our guidance), we inspire.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to see it first hand, to hear about it, and literally embrace the students who let us know how they have been changed (I hugged Bennett on his way into class the next day. He seemed appropriately horrified). Other times, we never know for sure. But, as Quinn claims in Ishmael, we seek pupils to get them thinking, because careful thought can save the world.

The more we tell kids about the importance of reading, show them we are readers, put life changing books in front of them, and passionately share the experience through conferences and their written work, the more students we can reach on a deep and powerful level, because they know we care.

Yes, I’m tired. Really, really tired. But, Austin and Bennett (two pretty cool guys), have reminded me that all the work we’re putting in as a community of learners can really mean something. It can change, and maybe even save, someone’s world.

Most especially in May, when I might argue that many of us need it most.

What is helping fuel you at the end of this school year? Please comment below with your ideas on saving the world, one student (and teacher) at a time! 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Notebook Passes

While we’ve written often about the value of writer’s notebooks–how to set them up and establish them as part of a learning routine–I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of sharing notebooks, creating a community space for writing, and keeping the writing process transparent.  Similar to how revision is a daily part of workshop, peer feedback is too.  It’s key that we know how to open our notebooks to other eyes so that our writing can grow its best thanks to many brains.  This mini-lesson focuses on a low-risk intro to an open notebook and its role as a workshop norm.

Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, make predictions about a character’s actions and interpret  their actions thus far; create a response to a peer’s questions and inferences.

41Cx8mY2UNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lesson:  I love to introduce students to each other’s notebooks through a shared bit of reading.  Early in the year, we’d just finished reading a selection from Fahrenheit 451 about halfway through the novel, and were all intrigued by what in the world was going on with the variety of characters.  What was Guy’s wife doing with herself all day?  Was the fire chief good or evil?  Would Guy become a reader?  Would the mechanical hound eat everyone alive?  There were more questions than answers (as is the norm in workshop, I feel), so we turned to our notebooks.

“Today, we’re going to write a letter to a character we’re fairly interested in.  Maybe you find Guy indecisive and aggravating.  Maybe you think Clarice is a great role model.  Maybe you think Ray Bradbury himself is a genius for predicting so many of today’s technological innovations.  Whoever you’d like to write to, ask them all the burning questions you have and don’t worry about the answers!”  I turn to model on the board, writing to the main character’s wife.

“Be as real as you want–I’m going to write to Millie, who lives in this trancelike state all the time, obsessed with TV and media.  She drives me nuts!  I’m going to really hit her with some hard questions.  But know that we’re going to share our letters, so don’t get too crazy.”

img_0966We’ll take 6-7 minutes to write our initial letters, and I circulate the room as kids work to select and address a character.

“Okay, time up.  Sign your letter, and then I want you to pass your notebook to the person to the left of you.  Whoever gets your notebook is going to write you back–but here’s the catch.  They have to pretend to be the character you addressed.  So if you wrote to Millie, like I did, then whoever gets your notebook will pretend to be Millie and try to answer all of your questions.”

We take a few minutes to read letters, giggle, ponder a response, and then write.  After about 5 minutes of responding, I ask students to close their in-character letters, then return the notebooks to their owners.  When kids get their notebooks back, the volume in the classroom inevitably increases–everyone loves seeing someone else’s words in their notebook, and there are questions about handwriting and the veracity of a response and shouts of laughter at someone’s humor.

“Okay, take a few minutes to read your responses, then summarize both letters with your table.  As a group, talk about all the new insights you reached about these characters.”  The classroom gets loud as everyone shares at small tables.

Follow-Up:  Once small group sharing concludes, I ask for a few volunteers to share exemplars and we discuss those characters in depth as a class.  I love this lesson because it gets students to deeply analyze characters, as well as creates a norm for notebooks as a space for shared writing.  It’s a lengthy lesson–usually consuming the quickwrite and mini-lesson portions of my class–but one that’s worth repeating frequently to get students doing deep analysis and writing to one another in a no-risk way, which lays the groundwork for more vulnerable sharing later.

As we move further into the novel, I’ll ask students to revisit these letters to see if their predictions came true or their questions proved insightful.  Further, when I collect notebooks, I can check for deep understanding of the text with these letters.

How do you use notebooks to create a shared learning space or blend reading and writing instruction?


A Reflection to Reinforce Workshop Non-Negotiables

Establishing an authentic readers-writers workshop community isn’t easy for teachers or for students.  Our discussions this week–on student and teacher buy-in and how to get students to thrive–have focused on helping both teachers and students to grasp the many moving parts of workshop.  While they’re straightforward, these non-negotiables are unfortunately often ones that neither students nor teachers have experienced firsthand in a learning setting:

  • A reading community filled with a diverse classroom library, frequent talk about books, and time to read
  • A writing community centered on a writer’s notebook for play and practice, frequent revision, and constant talk about writing
  • Choice in all matters–in what to read, how to read it, and at what pace, as well as about what to write, how to write it, and at what pace
  • Choice for the teacher, too, in what units to design based on what all parties are interested and invested in
  • Talk, talk talk:  structured talk in the form of student-teacher and peer conferences; discussion about the day’s topics and mentor texts; and an atmosphere of frank honesty

It’s sometimes tough to fit all of those things in every day (or to conceive of how to plan for them) but when we can manage it, it pays off.  Below is a reflection from Carleen–whose thought processes I wrote about here, too–that illustrates her journey from English disenchantment to workshop engagement.  This reflection is from Carleen’s winter midterm, and helps reinforce the value of the non-negotiables of a strong readers-writers workshop.

IMG_1537In the past, I’ve always dreaded going to English class. It was always the same every year with grammar, vocabulary, reading classics that were really boring, and writing about subjects I could care less about. I especially disliked English last year because it was AP. That class always put me in a bad mood. Writing rhetorical analyses almost every day as well as working on the dreaded ORP, which consisted of reading a nonfiction book and writing 20 journal entries and an essay, almost killed me. That class kind of depressed me because I couldn’t understand any of it. … I just stopped caring about my assignments because I didn’t see a good end result. On the bright side, I got a 3 on the AP exam; however, my high school English experience was basically ruined because of that class.

This was a lot of pressure for you, Mrs. Karnes, because you had to deal with my bad experiences. Yet, you have made this class my favorite (out of all my high school classes) and made me actually enjoy English. This semester I actually feel like I’m learning and improving my writing skills, which I’ve always been self-conscious about. I have definitely been reading more and trying to challenge myself with reading books outside my comfort zone. You made me care about my work and in return I worked really hard on my projects and assignments.

I’ve grown more as a writer this year more than any other year. I looked back at my first one-pager, which was dreadful because my sentences were super choppy, and compared it to my recent writing. I found that over the course of the semester, I have become more confident in my writing and I started to really enjoy writing my fanfics. You gave us the freedom to choose what we write about, which helped my writing immensely because I CARED about the topic and I enjoyed doing it. I realize that I’m eventually going to write about things I don’t care about and I probably won’t enjoy doing it, however I have been looking at writing differently now. I don’t really see it as a chore. It’s just something that I do on a weekly basis and it’s become a habit. I no longer see writing in a negative way, which helped me grow as a student.

In the beginning of the year, when you told us that we had to read two hours every week, I got super excited. I was always looking for an excuse to read, which my parents restricted me from. You know I’ve been an avid reader since the beginning of the year and I probably have been reading the same amount since the beginning of the semester (which is to say A LOT); however, with your recommendations, I have read books that I thought I would never read. This class helped me expand my reading repertoire, and I’m really grateful for it. I’m always excited when I leave your “Karnes and Noble” with a new book.

Share your students’ stories of workshop success in the comments!

#3TTWorkshop — Part Two Student and Teacher Buy In

This post is the continuation of a conversation from the previous post in response to an email we received from our friend an UNH colleague Betsy Dye.

How do we help students understand what we mean by choice, especially when they’ve been given ‘choice’ before in the form of ‘choose from this list of books or topics.’?

Shana:  Again, I think modeling is key here.  I show students my roller-coaster of reading, including the trashy romance novels I indulge in despite my Masters degree in literature.  I show them my pile of abandoned books, for “life’s too short to finish bad books.”  I show them classics that I sort of wish I’d read, but never have.  And then I show them my notebook pages of books I’m currently reading or want to read.

It also helps that I have students complete visual and written reading ladders each year, and I show new students the previous year’s ladders to illustrate individualized choice.  And again, here’s where the class reputation comes in handy as well.

Lisa:  ^This. Our stories as readers and writers are gold, especially to some kids who have no such models in their lives. My students laugh at my copy of Don Quixote on my desk. I started it in September. I am 200 pages in. I’ve read over a dozen books since I unintentionally stopped reading that tome, and I had to promise some of my juniors that I would finish it before they graduate next year, but I’ve covered a lot of ground by not allowing myself to get weighted down. Yes, we must press students to finish texts and not become kids that drop book after book without really pushing themselves, but we must also remember that when they do find the one, it can lead to the next one (especially with our gentle guidance) and hopefully many more to come.

In terms of writing, it’s more modeling and the application of the skill each and every day. Sometimes, it seems, it really comes down to endurance. Many kids only write when they have to, which causes them to sit in front of a screen, pound out the required pages, and move on. However, when they get into the habit of writing, when it becomes exploration instead of a narrowly focused task, it becomes less like completing your taxes and more like picking out what to wear. One you do not only do once a year with heavy sighs and confusion because you are basically out of practice and unwilling to do more than the required work. The other provides you with an opportunity to choose, express yourself, and build confidence.

Finally, the classroom library comes to mind. Variety here is key. Students need to see that they aren’t limited by the short list they might receive at the beginning of the year in other classes. If your library has options and you talk about those options often, they will believe. If you build it…they will come.

Amy:  I’ll repeat Shana:  Confer. Confer, Confer. The more we engage in conversations with our students about what we mean by choice and books and writer’s notebooks and everything else in the sphere of workshop, the more they will understand and take ownership of their choices. We must be willing to admit that choice is hard when they’ve never had it, or they’ve only had tiny tastes of it. So many students are afraid of being wrong, afraid of “the grade.” It’s through our conversations that we have the best chance of eliminating these fears and helping students trust themselves along the way.

How do we open the library shelves to our seniors and help them move beyond the four to six novels they’ve read each year for the three previous years?

Amy:  I’ll start with stating the somewhat controversial:  I doubt most of our seniors read

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.29.37 PM

Not my students’ actual conversation but still.:)

all the required novels teachers selected in those earlier years. Every year I ask my juniors how many books they read the year before. Some say they read only the required books. Some admit to starting but not finishing them. Some tell me they didn’t read those books at all. If we are going to make all the decisions about the books we choose for our students, we have to be okay knowing that not all of our students will read them.

Shana:  Ha–I know that kids don’t always read what’s assigned, because little goody-two-shoes me didn’t read what was assigned.  And I loved reading.  In fact, I read John Grisham under my desk while my teacher talked about Catcher in the Rye.  I tell students that story, and show them the many weather-beaten Grisham novels on my mystery shelf, and ask them about their guilty pleasure reads, or their life-changing reads, or their escape-from-reality reads.  [Amy:  or their Wattpad reads] All of those discussions start a conversation about the possibilities choice reading might offer, and we go from there.

Lisa:  I asked. They don’t read. They tell me sweetly, but still, they don’t read. Students I had as sophomores will gladly share with me as seniors all the ways they worked to convince me they read The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

Amy:  Lisa, I had students publicly confess to not reading a thing in my class in a Facebook group I had several years ago. Stabbed me right in the eye because at the time I had no idea they could be so sneaky — and smart — and still make high grades in my class without reading the same American literature books you mention. It’s like they subconsciously deny the canon!

Lisa:  So…how do we open our shelves and help seniors move beyond the books they never read? By offering up a wealth of books they can read, telling them to look through the books at home they’ve always meant to read, sending them to book recommendation lists, talking with them about what they might want to do after high school and suggesting books in that vein, having them talk with peers who have kept up with reading and have recommendations to share.

I had a student who graduated in 2013 come back to observe some of my classes this week. He book talked Ishmael to my AP students today, and I just received an email from a student saying that he went to Half Price Books and picked up a copy tonight. 

The power of suggestion is strong. If I am surrounded by people working out, I might consider getting off my couch. If I am surrounded by people complaining all the time, I start to complain too. If I am surrounded by readers, I am going to see what all the fuss is about. Many of our students want to read, but they need time. We can provide it. Many of our students want to read but need suggestions. We can provide those. Many of our students want to read, but only what they want to read.

Bingo. Let’s start there and build on it.

How do we help our colleagues get started with workshop?

Lisa:  By inviting Three Teachers Talk to provide professional development! No, seriously. It’s how my team in Franklin saw all the possibility that workshop holds and how to actually make it work day to day. So that comes down to support. Comparatively speaking, curriculum in a textbook is easy. Curriculum you’ve taught for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years, provides comfort. Running off packets of study-guide questions isn’t too terribly difficult either. Building meaningful lessons from scratch is really hard work. I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen it happen at Franklin as we work to move our 9th and 10th grade classes to workshop. If we didn’t work at it together, it would be infinitely more difficult.

Shana:  Support is essential.  Whether it’s the kind of support one finds in a workplace colleague, or connecting with a like-minded friend via Twitter or a blog, workshop teachers are part of a community just as nurturing as the ones we strive to create in our classrooms.  It warms my heart and fuels my spirit to think of Lisa and Amy working on this craft in their Wisconsin and Texas classrooms, and it invigorates me on days I think I’d rather just run copies of a worksheet.  We’re all trying our best to craft strong, student-centered classrooms, and whatever guidance and support we can provide one another is a non-negotiable.  Pedagogical reading recommendations, webinars, and Twitter chats can all help our colleagues dive into workshop, and be buoys when we need them, too.

Amy:  Yes, to all that, and I can think of two other little things we can do to share this work with our colleagues:

1) invite colleagues to visit our classrooms. I am such a visual learner. When I see a strategy taught, over reading about a strategy in a book, I am much more able to use it successfully with my students. The same holds true for how workshop works. I read Nancie Atwell’s book In the Middle. It is a great book! But I could not imagine how I could make what she described work in my 9th grade classroom with 33 students. It wasn’t until I experienced writing workshop myself via the North Star of TX Writing Project Summer Institute that I got a vision of what workshop looked like.

Too often we teach like castaways on tiny islands, cut off from everyone else. Invite other teachers to walk through, sit a spell, engage in the same routines the students are doing. I think that is the single most powerful way to share the workshop philosophy with other teachers.

2) share student work, excitement, and testimonies. More than our own testifying to the power of workshop, it’s our students’ voices that move teachers. Do you remember the first time you watched one of Penny Kittle’s videos where she interviewed her students? Shana, I think this is the video we watched the summer we met at UNH. I love these boys.

Student voices = the sometimes needed push to fall over the cliff into this exciting workshop way to teach and learn.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here or in the comments. Thank you for joining the conversation.

#3TTWorkshop — Teaching Students How to Thrive in Workshop

#3TTWorkshop Meme

We received the following request from our UNH-loving friend and inspiring educator Betsy Dye who teaches in Illinois. She got us thinking.

Betsy’s email:

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?  What are some of the effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

While of course I’ve had students who have taken to and embraced the idea of workshop immediately,  I’ve had others who often fall into one or more of the following categories:

–students who have become so apathetic to what they’re doing because of no choice that they now prefer to be told exactly what to do which doesn’t require a lot of effort on their part
ninth graders who used to be enthusiastic readers and writers until middle school when whole class novels replaced independent reading and when whole class prompts were assigned for all writing and who’ve consequently lost their passion for reading  and writing
students who have been told they will have choices … but then have been pigeonholed when an actual assignment was given (‘you can write about anything you want as long as it happened in the 1700s in England’; you can read anything  you want as long as it’s a fictional historical novel’); these students don’t really trust me when I say I’m all about choice
seniors who have spent three years stuck in the whole class read/whole class discuss/whole class write essays cycle, and who have read only about 4 to 6 novels a year

I’ve also had a few colleagues ask how to get started and while I’ve been able to provide a few suggestions, I’d sure love some other input.

Amy:  First of all, I think asking ourselves how we get students, no matter their predisposition, to engage in a workshop-inspired classroom is something we should revisit often. Every year and every new group of students deserves our focus and best efforts so they have the best year of learning possible.

I have to remind myself that just because one group of kids understood and engaged well one year does not mean the incoming group of kids will the next. This year is a perfect example. I’ve wracked my brain, but I must have missed a core piece of the buy-in pie at the beginning of the year because many of the things that have worked in prior years have produced constant push back in this one. I’ve already got two pages of notes with what I want to do differently, or better, next year.

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?

Shana:  My strongest piece of advice is to make sure students know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it during each lesson segment in a workshop structure.  At the beginning of last school year, I had a student named Robert who was constantly angry with me for what he saw as workshop “catching him off guard.”  He didn’t know how to predict what we might do next after ten years of whole-class novel sameness.  He felt afraid that choice amounted to a trick, and that he wouldn’t be able to be as successful as he’d been in previous English classes.  

Robert reminded me that for many of our students, the workshop is wildly unfamiliar, and that for many teens, change is scary.  I had to be deliberate in my language, in our routines, and in my classroom organization in order to constantly reinforce for students what we were doing and why we were doing it.  I made sure to always have an agenda on the board, including a “what’s next” segment that showed how the day’s lesson related to the next class, and also made sure to review and preview during each day’s mini-lesson.  I found that once I reiterated to students that a day’s lesson was going to be used in a specific way, they began to make the connections between lessons that I only saw in my lesson design.

Lisa: Our district has been utilizing workshop for several years in the K-8 realm, but high school workshop is relatively new to our department, and completely new as the prefered delivery method. That said, I think the most important element to stress with teachers is that the enthusiasm they project has a huge impact on student willingness to buy in. This is true with or without choice, but when I am suggesting to my students that they be readers and writers, I need to model, live it, breath it, and love it.

Amy:  One of my first exposures to workshop instruction came from Marsha Cawthon who teaches in Plano, TX. She invited me to visit her classroom. Wow. The walls were painted deep inviting colors, and she’d moved out the ‘school-looking’ furniture and brought in home furnishings. The room welcomed something different. At that time, Marsha told me that when the room is different than what they are accustomed to — desks in rows and stereotypical school posters, etc — students know that the class and the instruction will be different. I started painting my walls, grouping my desks into tables, throwing a rug on the floor, and bringing in cast off furniture and book shelves.

Lisa:  Amy speaks about the impact the physical classroom has on this process. I think that makes a huge difference, too. Our enthusiasm shows in our classroom design. We as teachers know that we are selling a product. That means if we convey our enthusiasm through the way our rooms look, the level of excitement we project about a text through a book talk, and/or our sincere line of inquiry during conferences, students know if we really practice what we preach and use what we are selling. Let your enthusiasm for literature and writing, and in this case they are broad terms because they afford so many options, set the foundation for the year. Ask students a lot of questions, invest in their answers, and moving forward with confidence in what you have to offer them can, and in many cases will, empower them and change them for the better.  

What are some effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

Amy:  Of course, I tell students on day one that the teaching I do and by extension the learning they will do will be different in my classroom. I know they don’t believe me. I teach 11th grade. Talk about kids that are set in their ways. Some checked out of school a long while ago, and they are just going through the motions. Most hope to go to college though — that’s a plus for the AVID program in which all of my students are a part of. I have taught 9th, and 10th grade before though — often the students at these younger grades are even harder to convince that workshop instruction differs from a traditional approach where the teacher makes all the choices in reading and writing. Sometimes kids do not want to make choices. It’s sad, but they are way too jaded already. I know everyone who’s taught for even a little while already knows this. So what can we do?

Rituals and routines. I think that’s at least part of the answer. We set up rituals and routines that we stick through like super glue, and we do not waver or change plans if at all possible. We practice, practice, practice until the routines become the norm. We help students recognize the moments that work and work well. For example, my students read at the beginning of every class period. The routine is set:  walk in the door, get out your books, begin reading. When I am on my game at the beginning of the year, and I welcome students at the door and remind them to sit down and begin reading, I have a much easier time than the daily reminder I end up resorting to. We save valuable reading and instructional time when we get right into our books. Then, when students read, I confer. This routine is the spokes in the wheel that keep my workshop instruction thriving. The more I consistently confer, the more students read and write in abundance and at high levels.

Lisa: I will echo what Amy says with wild abandon. Routine. Use the precious minutes for, as Penny Kittle says, what matters. Again, with our students entering high school with a workshop background, I think the biggest challenge for our official move to workshop next year will be for teachers to learn/grow through experimentation and for students to see what the accelerated expectations are at the high school level. Though, I think for all students, whether they have workshop experience or not, the routine provides a normalcy that quickly unifies the classroom. When students know what to expect every day (time to read, book talk, mini lesson, etc.), expectations have already been set. Then those routines can be built on to encourage consistent reading, deep analysis, focused revision of work, collaboration, and ultimately, the community of readers and writers forms.

Shana:  Again, we are in accord.  Routines and rituals are essential to the workshop.  Once those student-centered practices are made normative, and students know that their risk-taking within a workshop community will not result in punitive actions like bad grades, it is then that we can encourage the freedom and autonomy essential to advancement in a workshop classroom.  In addition to all this, I’ll say that after a few years teaching at my high school, my class established a reputation, and students entered the room trusting my practice rather than questioning it.  Students talk to one another about workshop classes, and those who’ve heard about the concept come in willing to try it out because they know the gist of what it’s all about.

How do you help inspire learning and engage those students who seem to prefer to be told exactly what to do?

Amy:  Everyone on the planet loves to have choices. This includes students who seem to be so apathetic they wait until we make the choice for them. Of course, Don Murray said something like this “Choice without parameters is no choice at all.” Sometimes too much choice looms too large for students. Lighten the load. Lower the stakes. Instead of saying “Read anything you want,” say things like “Why don’t you try a book from these interesting titles?” (and set down a stack of five or six) or “Let’s talk some more one-on- one. I bet I can make a reader of you yet.” This puts the challenge on you instead of on the student. Interesting how many non-responders will respond. Sometimes it takes awhile, but we can almost always win the challenge of engagement.

Shana:  I agree–all choice is no choice.  That’s why I like to consistently model what choice in literacy looks like.  When students see my example–I know the kinds of books I like, and I choose from within those genres, or I know the kinds of writing topics I’m interested in and write within those topic frames–they begin to understand what choice might look like for them.  Lisa’s colleague Catherine wrote about intentional modeling here, and I think that’s an essential part of the workshop.  When students see my passion for creating my own path of literacy advancement, they begin to see what theirs might look like, too.  Oh–and never relenting when kids ask for the easy path helps, too.  :)

Lisa: What comes to mind immediately is how ironic that teenagers would ever want to be told what to do! In so many areas of their lives, like all human beings, we desire to forge our own path if we are truly given the resources and support to do so. Students often want to be told what to do when they are too afraid to take a risk or too trained to let other people think for them. Shana’s point about being a model is my strategy here too. Never be afraid to be geeky about your love of reading and writing.

Where I think I may have gone a bit wrong in the past is that I would try to translate my love of reading and writing through the texts that only I chose. This will hook some students, but without the ability to take a passion for reading and apply it to what they want to read, I was only ever hitting a few kids with each text. It’s like mushrooms. My husband, sweet as he is, has been trying to get me to like mushrooms for over a decade. Now, I do enjoy food, and I will gladly eat all day long, but I am never going to like mushrooms. In fact, when they appear, I am basically done eating (and yes, mushrooms just appearing is a real, hard hitting issue). Mushroom rants aside, we can’t take what we like and expect kids to invest.

We need to show them that we read and write, that reading and writing connects us to what it means to be humans (all humans), and we can all grow from it. Sometimes it takes a long, long, long time, but with the wide expanse of choice, we have a much better chance of reaching each and every student. And…bribe them.😉

How do we reinvigorate a student’s passion for reading and writing?

Amy: I hesitate to lay all the blame on middle school, but I do think something happens during these years that can often dampen a love of reading and writing in our students. I remember reading a text by Alfie Kohn wherein he said something like “Just when students are old enough to start making wise choices, we take the choices away from them.” I know some would argue that sixth graders are not very wise, but I’d argue right back. Sure, they are. They are wise to the things they like to read and the topics they like to explore in their writing.

My twin sons had a workshop teacher in middle school — the only two of my seven children who did — I think it was seventh grade. Both Zach and Chase learned to like reading, something that did not happen in middle school. They also learned to write. They chose topics like football and winning the state championship like their older brother. They wrote hero stories about saving their friends as they imagined themselves as soldiers surrounded by gunfire. My boys are now close to 22. Chase has spent his first full week at Basic Training with the Army, and Zach plans on joining the Navy when he returns in a year from his mission in Taiwan. They are both masterful writers and eclectic readers. I owe a lot of thanks to that middle school teacher.

Lisa: Show them you care about what they care about, and you care enough to push them to care about a wider and wider world.  That means meaningful conversations (conferring), opportunities to explore student interests (choice writing/reading), passionately sharing your own ideas and insights (book talks, selection of mentor texts), and subscribing to the motto that variety is the spice of life.

I’ve read a lot in the past few months that I would have thought was out of my comfort zone. For example, I read my first graphic novel, Persepolis. Ahhh-mazing. I’ll be honest. I was judgey about graphic novels before, but now, I am hooked! Once hooked, I book talked the text and shared with students the story of how wrong I was about graphic novels. We talked then about books, genres, and experiences with reading that surprise us. I think it’s good for students to be nudged (shoved) out of their own comfort zones sometimes. At the same time, they aren’t going to jump back in the game without those experiences that come from a place of pure passion and joy. So…we must really get to know our kids, make suggestions that speak to them as best we are able, and then give them time. Time is precious to all of us, but to teenagers, it would seem, they have little to no time to read. We must make time for them in class (give them a taste) and then work with them to make the time (even ten minutes at a time) to keep coming back for more.

Shana:  Confer, confer, confer.  When we talk to kids and find out what they are passionate about, we can help them see the connections between their passions and literacy.  Further, we can introduce them to important links between success in their interests and how reading and writing can put that success within reach–my vocation-driven West Virginia students aren’t interested in the literacy skills that college might require, but they do care about being able to read or write a technical manual.

We can also help students discover new passions through reading–after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air in tenth grade, I fell in love with Mt. Everest, and I still read anything I can get my hands on about it.

We’ll continue with part two of this discussion tomorrow. In the meantime, please add your comments. How would you answer Betsy’s questions? What did we leave out?


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