2017 - Room 213

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Get Student Self-Evaluations for Parent-Teacher Conferences

Do parent-teacher conferences cause you stress? Have you ever faced a parent and drew a blank on what to say? I have and it's a scenario I never want to live through again. It happened, not because I didn't know the student, but because it can be hard to know just what to say about each of my ninety students after a very long night, exhausting night of talking with parents. 

The reality is that as much as I wish I knew everything about my students, I don't. Most of the teachers in our school see over ninety students in their rooms each day. We do our best to know exactly where they are academically by parent-teacher conference time, but it's not possible for us to know everything. We can't always tell how hard they've been working at home or if they are really satisfied with their progress or not. We only know what we see from the outside looking in, and that's not the whole picture.

Self-Evaluation is such an important part of the learning process. When students take time to reflect on their goals - and their progress with reaching them - they need be accountable for their work and you get a rich resource to use with parents.

Tomorrow, in preparation for our parent-teacher conference, I'll be giving my students these forms to fill in (grab them for free by clicking on the link). The editable forms ask them to reflect on: 

-Their strengths as English students

-The areas that they need to work on

-The amount of effort they have been putting into the course

-Their thoughts about their progress and suggestions for improvement.

I've done this in the past and have always been very impressed with how honest students were, especially as they knew I would be showing the evaluations to their parents. Most were bang on. It was a great exercise because the kids had to reflect on their progress, and it gave me a powerful tool to have when I met with their folks. I was able to discuss my observations of their children and then I gave them the forms their children had filled in. Make sure you grab them here!


Three Ways to Beat Grading Stress

Do you love teaching English, but the grading is dragging you down? Me too--if I let it.

I had a bad week last week, but I learned (re-learned, really) something that I thought I'd share with you. 

In my "wisdom", I had two different classes pass in major essays, and I needed to get them graded for report cards in less than a week -- and I was feeling sick.  Each day, I approached the pile of papers with dread. I ploughed through them angrily, cursing my job. "I HATE grading papers!" I complained to my husband--and anyone else in earshot.

By Wednesday, I knew that something had to give. I wasn't making much progress and I was feeling miserable. But suddenly, I realized I was holding my breath. That realization snapped me out of it, and made me remember three important things I've learned along the way. And you know what? They are very simple things that make a  big difference. 

Here they are:

It gets me every time. I know that I hold my breath when I'm tense. When I do that, my stomach clenches, as do the muscles in my neck and shoulders. Basically, I become a ball of stress. And all it takes to loosen up that whole mess is a few deep breaths and attention to my breathing as I complete the task. It works every time, and yet, it's amazing how often I forget to just breathe.  Now before you say, "Thanks, Captain Obvious," think about it, and notice if you do the same when you're doing a job you don't like to do. Then, take deep, slow breaths and see if you notice the change.

I did, so after some more cleansing breaths, I went back to my digital pile of essays, and started to apply the next two tips:

Over my two decades of teaching, I've used up gallons of ink writing on student papers.  This is something I changed a few years ago when I realized how many students didn't read my painstakingly made comments.  I've come to believe that it was a very ineffective way to feed my students forward and changed my grading habits.  So why was I spending so much time commenting on my students' essays -- especially after I'd given them a lot of formative feedback already?

Old habits die hard, especially when you're already stressed. As I said above, I was feeling sick and the report card deadline was looming large in my head. Instead of thinking about what I was doing, I just started mindlessly diving into the work, pointing out every missing comma and run-on sentence. It was taking forever and I was deviating so far from what I know to be true. No wonder I was miserable!

Another cause of my misery was the task I was setting for myself each day. I knew to make my deadline I had to get ten papers done each day. So, each time I sat down, I was telling myself I couldn't get up until those ten papers were done.  It wasn't working; each day I was coming up short, unable to read one more.

I know fellow English teachers who put a chocolate or candy after every fifth essay as a little reward for making it to the next goal. I do love my chocolate, but I find a better, more effective goal is to take a break. Like the candy-buriers, I divide my papers into piles, but when I finish each pile I get up and do something else, even if it's to wash the dishes or pack my lunch. One thing that works well for me is to take a quick walk around the block or do some stretching - something that gets the blood flowing and helps to clear my head. Then, I come back to the next pile somewhat refreshed.

Once I started doing these three things, the rest of my week was so much better. My pile reduced at a much quicker pace because I commenting less, and feeling so much better about the process. 

Sometimes all it takes is a little attitude adjustment and a deep breath. 

Do you have any tried and true techniques for making grading less torturous? If you do, please share!


Author's Purpose Jigsaw Puzzle Activity

When we discuss theme in my classroom, I often compare it to doing a jigsaw puzzle: when you do one, you shake out all of the pieces, then look for the corners and edges to make a start. Next, you use the picture on the box to guide you as you fill in the rest. When you try to figure out the author's overall purpose or message in a text, you are doing the same thing -- without the picture on the box. So, when we look at texts in my room, we think of the different parts of a story as the pieces that we need to put together to get the whole picture.

I love teaching The Merchant of Venice because there are so many pieces to the puzzle--and many of these pieces are seemingly contradictory: the play has all the elements of a comedy, but there's also evidence that it's a tragedy. Shakespeare relies on the some of the Jewish stereotypes of his time, but he also explores Shylock's humanity while emphasizing the negative character-istics of several of the Christians. It leaves one wondering: what is Shakespeare really saying with this play? So, as we discuss the scenes, I point out to my students that a certain aspect is one of the puzzle pieces we are collecting (Yes, Portia is a wise woman, but she's a hypocrite as well. What is Shakespeare doing with her? Where does that piece fit?) 

When we finished the whole play, I grouped students and told them to brainstorm a list of the puzzle pieces that we had discussed. After their list was complete, they had to decide which of the pieces were the corners and edges; in other words, which elements of the play were the most important ones in understanding Shakespeare's overall purpose? Then, I gave them a pile of these ledger sized sheets, each with a blank puzzle piece on it.

Each student chose one element of the play to focus on. For example, one girl was looking at the intertwining plots in Merchant. Her task, for homework, was to record information about these plots on her puzzle piece, then to make a conclusion about how they might contribute to the overall purpose of the play.

The next day, the groups were given more paper. This time, each group got two copies of a smaller page with linked puzzle pieces. They wrote the conclusion of each student on one of the pieces on the yellow sheet, and then had to discuss what they saw when everything was put together, and come up with an overall conclusion. This was the hardest part for them, because it required a great deal of critical thinking. But as I circulated, I heard some amazing discussions and debates. If I felt they were stuck, or going off in a bad direction, I'd stop and join the conversation. We'd discuss whether or not an element they chose was a piece of the puzzle --did they need to discard it? Use another one? At any point, they could make that decision.

Next, they started the whole process again on the green sheet. This time, I told them to look at it from a different angle and try to come up with a different conclusion. For example, had they been looking at the evidence and seeing Shakespeare as presenting Christians as superior, what would the puzzle look like if they were to argue that they were all very flawed? 

Finally, each group was given chart paper, scissors, markers and glue sticks so they could create their final puzzle. They decided on an overall conclusion, wrote it on the top of the paper, then arranged their puzzle pieces underneath. They hung their sheets on the walls of the classroom and did a quick presentation to the class about how and why they had reached their conclusion. Students walked around the room to look more closely at what other groups had concluded with their own copy of the sheet with the multiple puzzle pieces. That night, they were to create an outline for an essay that discusses Shakespeare's purpose in the play, so I wanted them to have their own sheet to refer to as they worked on it.

This whole process took three classes, but it was time very well spent. The kids are going into this essay with a much better understanding of the play than I think any class has before.  I'll find out for sure when I get that pile of essays in next week!

If you'd like a summary of the process, plus the puzzle pieces and handouts, click here. This was a process I did with an advanced group of high school students. If you'd like something similar, but a little simpler, check out my Discovering Theme Learning Stations.  I've also just posted some collaborative placemats for discussing theme, character and significant passages in The Merchant of Venice.

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Teaching the Speaking Process

middle and high school public speaking lessons

It's something I've been guilty of for many years. I'd assign a speech or seminar and teach students about how to create content only. I would remind the kids that they needed good pace, volume and eye contact, but I didn't devote any time to allowing them to practice their delivery. 

The irony of this is that I've always put so much emphasis on the learning process in my classroom. I'd devote hours to showing kids how to think and read critically, and the steps of the writing process were always a given with any assignment. But public speaking? Nadda.

middle and high school public speaking lessons
So, last week, I decided to really focus on the process a student should follow when writing and delivering a speech. I decided to start with a rant, a satirical look at something in human nature that is silly, inconsiderate or rude. I chose this genre because most students get the shakes when we mention public speaking, so I wanted something that they would engage with -- and what teenager doesn't have something they can rant about?

The lesson began with a quick-write: what grinds your gears? What are some things that humans do that drive you crazy? Why does it? Students wrote for five minutes and then I asked them to find a partner to share their ideas with. However, this went beyond the usual turn and talk. Students were given a rubric and, as they listened to their partners share their pet peeve, they had to give them feedback on their ability to explain their ideas, their eye contact, pace and volume. I kept it pretty simple so they could concentrate on the basics. Several of them wanted to form small groups rather than partners, which worked just as well. In fact, the groups ended up having some heated discussions about their pet peeves.

middle and high school public speaking lessons

Next, we discussed the concept of a rant and learned about verbal irony and sarcasm -- and how to use it constructively rather than critically. We watched a few, then students were guided through a pre-writing process that had them think about how they could use their pet peeve to write a rant. Once they had a draft, they submitted it to me on Google Classroom. They had to highlight two places where they used verbal irony, two uses of strong verbs and one area where they felt they needed help.  I looked at the highlighted areas only and gave them feedback -- a process that didn't take very long.

middle and high school public speaking lessons
The next step in the process was where most of the learning happened. Students paired up and had to listen to each other deliver their rant. The student who was listening used their partners phone to film the rant, and also used another, more detailed rubric, to assess their content and delivery. Then, after the rant was finished, they watched it together and discussed the feedback. I let them spread out through the classroom. Some went in the hallway, while others went to the various stairwells in the school. All of them got a chance to practice their speech in a low risk situation.

Yesterday, I began to assess the rants. Because it's their first speaking assignment, they delivered them in groups of five. While each group was with me, the other groups were discussing themes in their independent novels. After each group finished their rants, they rotated back into the novel discussion groups.  

The end result? I was very impressed. The students wrote very effective and entertaining rants and their delivery was quite good for their first attempt. I noted that they did a much better job of using their voices and body language for emphasis, but the majority need to improve their eye contact. That's clearly the skill we will need to focus on the next time we do a speaking assignment.

If you'd like to try this assignment in your own classroom, I've got it posted and ready to go for you in my TpT store.


Teaching Teens to Read and Respond Critically

Teach secondary English students to read critically

The longer I teacher, the more I come to believe that the slower we take things, the more our students learn. Because of this, my students now create fewer "good copies" than they have in the past, so we can spend more time on the process of learning. One process I've been spending more time on is critical reading before a written response, and I thought I'd share something that worked well:

In the past week, my students have been working on responding to non-fiction texts, and using quotations from them to back up their opinions.  They had passed in a response on the topic of failure and growth mindset, and their work was less than stellar. There was little evidence that they had reflected on the articles they were given to read, and many of their responses were shallow and lacking detail. I realized that I hadn't spent enough time teaching them the process I wanted them to use before they actually write the response.

Last week, we started a short unit on the pervasiveness of social media. We did some personal writing in our writer's notebooks and looked at several mentor texts during writing workshop. Students then had to read two more articles from a choice of five, and write a response to the question: how has social media changed our lives? Their response had to use at least two quotations from the texts they read.

This was the same assignment they did the previous week, but this time, I talked to them about the process of critical reading and required them to show me their process as part of the assignment. They had to choose four quotes from each of the articles they chose to read.  I instructed them to cut and paste quotes that made them think as they read-- something they agreed/disagreed with or that they could relate to. Then, they had to record their initial reaction to the quote. They didn't have to worry about their writing at all, just their ideas.  I wanted them to show me their thinking process as they read.  Then, they had to spend time reflecting on the ideas they collected in their notes and write their response. (The photo above shows one of my student's notes).

I knew that just telling them that they had to show me their thinking process as they read was not enough, especially when many of them do superficial readings of the texts we give them. So, I went through the same process I was asking my students to follow, and created my own Google Doc as an exemplar. Before class, I selected the quotes that I wanted to use and projected the doc on my screen. Then, I did my reflection on these quotes in real time so the kids could see my thought process in action.  I wrote the rambly kind of notes that come when you're thinking something through. I wanted them to see that the response to the quote as I read is very different than the focused, well-developed one I wanted at the end of the process. In short, I was teaching them to think as they read, and not just whip up a response after a quick read through the articles.

After I finished that, I talked through the process I would use to write my actual response. I looked over the notes I had made, found connections and decided on a focus for my response. I did this all out loud, as they followed along on the screen. As they worked on their notes, I wrote my response and shared it with them.

When I started requiring kids to use my feedback to revise their writing I saw huge improvements in their skills. The idea of doing this used to scare me, because I envisioned myself chained to my desk, grading into the wee hours of the morning. However, it hasn't turned out that way. That's because I ask them to focus on one or two things, rather than an overall revision. I give them one or two opportunities to work on a skill with short, formative assessments before they get a summative mark. With this unit, I was focusing on idea development. When they did their first response on failure/growth mindset, I highlighted two areas on their response where they could add more detail. They resubmitted their response with their changes highlighted, and it took be about half an hour to do a quick check of all thirty-two responses. I wasn't reading the whole response again, just checking to see if they added the detail I had requested.
After I did the critical reading exercise (which I should have done the first time), they passed in their social media response for a summative mark. The results were so much better. The excerpt on the left is just part of an excellent response from a student who had passed in a very superficial one the week before. She slowed down, focused on the process, and used the feedback I had given her to write a much more thoughtful and well-developed response to the articles she had read.

We spent much more time on this than I have in the past, but I know that the students are better readers and writers as a result.  Yes, I'll have fewer assignments checked off at the end of the semester, but the ones we do will be of a much higher quality.

And that's what matters.

If you'd like to check out my social media unit, click here.


The Metaphor Challenge

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.

Last week I took my twelfth graders outside for an activity. It was called a writing scavenger hunt, and they had to go to different locations around the school grounds to "find" inspiration for an assignment. For example, one task asked them to sit by the soccer field and personify its thoughts. Another asked them to write an extended metaphor to capture the feeling of having a class outdoors on a hot afternoon. They were engaged and having fun, but I got a lot of questions about how to write a metaphor. (Click here for a link to the scavenger hunt).

I was actually a little shocked. We've discussed metaphor in class. They could parrot back the definition and, for the most part, identify them in their texts. But, clearly, they weren't as confident with writing their own.  So, on my walk home I came up with a challenge for the next day. 

Here's how it works:
Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.
I started with a slideshow that presented them with some very common metaphors. I wanted to start easy, with something that has clear connections, to teach them the process that writers use when they create an original metaphor. The slideshow took them through a series of ones they would already have some knowledge of, and as we went through them, students had a chance to brainstorm the similarities between each word. For example, they came up with ways that a stage and life are the same, and then I showed them Shakespeare's famous quote. Next, we looked at the wise words of another sage man, Forrest Gump, and brainstormed that ways that life is like a box of chocolates. You get the idea.

Then, we moved onto the challenge.

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.
I created a bunch of word strips and had each student grab one. Then, they worked in pairs to create a metaphor that compared each person's word with the other's. I gave them a sheet and each partner had to brainstorm ways that the words were similar. Then, they worked together to experiment with metaphors.

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.I was very pleased with the creative connections that many of them made. I did discover, however, that quite a few were writing similes. Another quick lesson taught them that all they need to do is drop the like and they will have a metaphor. For example, one pair wrote that family is like duct tape; when things start to fall apart they use their strength to stick together.  I showed them that all they need to do is cross out "like" and they have Family is duct tape.

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.I hope my lesson is duct tape too; I want it to stick, so next week, when the kids have their first big writing assignment, they will be able to use metaphor as a way to develop some of their points. We'll have to see.

If you'd like to try this lesson too, I've got it ready made in my store. Just follow this link, then print and go!


The Writing Process: Teaching students the habit of revision

The writing process is all important for learning, as is the thinking process. Make both a priority in your middle and high school English classes.

Despite what many of our students believe, writing is not all about that end product, the one we take in and grade. "Good Copies" are often whipped up the night before they are due, and passed in full of errors and lacking thought. Sometimes, though, this is the result of our own practice. Rushed to complete our checklist of must-do's, we don't always devote enough time to the process of writing.

However, if we want our students to be better writers who are critical thinkers and life-long learners, we can't ignore that all important process. We need to teach it to them, show them the benefits of a thoughtful look at their work, and build in time for them to revise. I can guarantee, it's time very well spent.

But how do we find the time when there are so many other things we need to complete?

The writing process is all important for learning, as is the thinking process. Make both a priority in your middle and high school English classes.
There are multiple ways we can make process part of the daily routine. Let's look at prompts and bell ringers, for example. We use these techniques to settle kids at the first of class and to get them to think critically and/or creatively. Once these activities are finished, ask kids to re-read what they have written, and look for one or two ways they could improve their response. You might ask them to strengthen weak verbs, add transitions or more detail. The key is to ask them to complete one or two tasks that they can do relatively quickly, so the process doesn't take too long. 

For example, after I ask students to reflect on point of view in their independent novels, I have them take a moment to re-read and then add more detail. On days when I'm tight for time, I ask them to just highlight areas that need revision. Regardless of whether they actually make the changes, or just look for places that need them, they are build-ing the habit of giving their work a once-over, and looking for areas that could be stronger. You can get some of these activities ready made in my Writing Prompts for Independent Reading, and Writing Prompts for Building Stamina and Skill.

Early in my career, I did a lot of assuming. I believed that my twelfth grade students came to me having been taught the skills they needed to be successful in my class. However, after a lot of trial and error and research, I've come to know that no matter how skilled students are, they need to be shown what to do. We need to practice what we preach about showing, not telling,  and model our own process. 

When you want them to close read and annotate, project a short passage on your screen, and model the thinking process you go through as you read it critically. Show them the actual annotations you would make. This works really well with poetry especially, because students see that we don't automatically get it on the first read. It's a process that takes time and effort, even for us.

This can be a very effective lesson when you want your students to revise their writing. Again, project a draft of something you have written, and show them what you would do to make it even stronger.

If process and revision is important, then we have to show students that. Build it into your daily activities as I suggested above, but also provided students with time to do the process for longer assignments in class. It would be lovely if our teenagers would all go home and spend hours pre-writing, revising and editing, but we all know that's a bit of a pipe dream for most of them. When we build the process into our lessons and activities, then they are much more likely to do it. However, even more importantly, they will see that process is something we value. 

Writing and reading workshop allows for a lot of time spent on process, but even if you don't use that approach, you can still emphasize it. For example, before I switched to workshop, I would spend two weeks, in class, on the writing of the first essay. We broke the process down and focused on it one step at a time. Yes, it took time, but the end result was exponentially better.

If you haven't figured it out already, I am a huge believer in the power of process. When we make it a priority and allow students time to build the habit of focusing on the process, rather than just the end product, their work will improve. And, we are teaching them a life-long skill that they can take with them when they leave our classrooms.


Blending Reading & Writing Workshop: A Closer Look at My Lessons

Yesterday, I shared my long range plans for assessment and the weekly schedule for my blended workshop. Today, we're going to get into the nitty-gritty. (I will also be mailing out a lesson plan as part of my Five Days of Workshop Freebies, so be sure to sign up for the mailing list.)

Every Monday, I will be sharing a weekly goal with my students. During the week, I will choose titles for book talks that demonstrate the skill we are working on and all my mini-lessons will focus on it as well. I will do quickie conferences all week to see what students already know; then, my one-on-one conferences the next week will focus on assessing the students understanding of the topic and attainment of the skill.

Tips and tricks for blending reading and writing workshop in the secondary classroom.
Let's look at that a little more closely. One of my first weeks of workshop will focus on word choice, how writers use diction for effect. I will book talk two different novels that demonstrate how authors do this. One of these books will be Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. As I give a synopsis of the book, I'll read some quotes and point out how the wording is important. For example, I will project this sentence, and ask them which word(s) are important in creating meaning in this sentence:

“I was trying so hard to find the single pivotal moment that set my life on its path. The moment that answered the question, 'How did I get here?'" 

If they don't point it out themselves, I'll ask them about the word pivotal and how it affects the sentence. We will also talk about the use of the word path and why Yoon would choose to use it. Then, we will talk about Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, and I'll project this passage: 

“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right. Maybe.” 

We will discuss why she chose to say that people "like us" become hashtags and why she chose the word maybe. With both quotes, we will spend some time discussing how a different word would change the context of the sentence. Then, I'll ask them to look in the novels they are reading for places where the author used words deliberately.

Next, I'll do a quick lesson on tired words and active verbs and instruct the students to look for places where authors used strong verbs and avoided a tired word like good, very, nice, etc.  After they have time to do so, I'll have them share what they discovered with a partner. Then, I'll give them some exercises that allow them to practice using strong words. After they've completed the exercise, they will get to work on their own writing. During this time, I'll circulate with my clipboard and ask kids to show me the sentences they identified in their novels. We'll wrap up with a sharing session.

We'll repeat this process on Tuesday with different texts and more skill building exercises on tone and  connotation. Wednesday will be similar, but I will use non-fiction texts to illustrate how these authors also use their words effectively. During silent reading time, students will select non-fiction texts from my collection (or on their e-devices), and use those as mentor texts during mini-lesson time.

Thursdays and Fridays will be devoted to the students having more time to read and write. They will get a longer period of time to read, then I will be using stations to get them to focus on the writing process.

If you're looking for some help with all of this, check out the following products:
Word Choice Lessons -- Chock full of lessons to teach students about the power of words.
Short Mentor Texts - Sentences and short passages that ask students to note and mimic the techniques used by the writers.
Writer's Workshop Learning Stations and Reader's Workshop Stations--Focus students as they work on their reading and writing.

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Blending Reading & Writing Workshop: Organization & Assessment

Yesterday, I wrote about the reasons why I'm going to blend my reading and writing workshops this year. Now, as promised, I'm going to share more of the specifics for how I'm going to do that (be sure you're signed up for my newsletter so you can receive the freebies that are associated with this post).

Let me start at the end. Before I can get too far in planning my blended workshop, I have to know where I'm going, what I want students to be able to do, and how I am going to assess their progress and success. Our department does not have a final pen and paper exam; instead, students complete a final assessment that focuses on all of the strands of our curriculum - speaking and listening, reading and viewing, writing and representing. This final assessment, a mulit-genre project, will be worth twenty percent of the final grade, with the other eighty coming from their classwork throughout the semester.

Final Assessment: the multi-genre project: 

Tips and tricks for blending reading and writing workshop in the secondary classroom.
This project will actually begin early in the semester with an inquiry question that students would like to explore. They will choose a question; then, attempt to find answers for their inquiry question in the books they read and use these ideas as a jumping off point for their own writing. At the end of the year, they will complete a multi-genre project that will illustrate their exploration of the question. This will require that they explore the ideas in non-fiction, poetry and other texts as well as their novels. It will also require that they experiment with various types of writing as they explore the idea. Students will pass the completed assignment in to me for assessment, but they will also present a portion of it as part of the speaking component of the course.

The remaining eighty percent of their mark will come from the following: 

1. A final portfolio and conference: 
During the final conference, students will show me the work that they choose to put in their portfolio, work that represents their growth as a reader and writer over the semester. They will need to show me evidence that they have attained (or are working on) the skills we focused on during the semester. The portfolio will include their top three pieces of writing, ranked from one to three, along with a corresponding form that explains the reasons for their choices. They will also have a checklist of skills that we have worked on, and they will need to show me, in their writing, evidence of their success with each skill. I will already have graded or seen all of the work in the portfolio, so this is not about me assigning a "good copy" grade; instead, the portfolio and conference are about putting the responsibility on the student to show me that they have learned and grown as a writer. It's important that you give students time to do this and clear instruction about what you want the final portfolio to look like. For example, they should arrive at the conference with annotated writing, so they can quickly and easily show you their skills. You can find an editable checklist of skills in my Writer's Workshop Bundle.

During the semester, they will be assessed on the following:

2. Their Notebooks: 
Every two weeks or so, I will take in the notebooks. I will do a quick look to see if the students have been keeping up with them and that the required entries are there. Because there aren't enough hours in the day to read everything, I will ask students to use post-it notes to mark two entries: one that they are most proud of and one that they'd like some feedback on. They will write their questions and comments right on the post-it note. They will also use highlighters to indicate passages for me, so I can easily locate them. These strategies will allow me to get through the notebooks more quickly and them to get some direct feedback. This feedback is the primary purpose for me taking in the notebooks. I don't assess the students based on the quality of their work, only that it was completed.

2. Conferences: 
While my kids are writing, I will be circulating with my clipboard, doing Quickie Conferences. Student will be told what skill I'm looking at and will be ready to demonstrate it for me. For example, I might be focusing on a writer's use of figurative language for effect. Students will know they will have to find a passage in their reading and/or writing where this occurs and have it ready to show me. I'll circulate and have a sheet with everyone's name on it and stop at each student's desk. They will show me the passage; if they are bang on, I'll check them off. If they aren't correct, we'll have a quick conversation about it. These checklists will go in a binder for later reference. My longer conferences will require that I sit down with students one-on-one. I use this time to focus on skills that take a little longer to demonstrate, or to do some instruction, based on the deficits I found during the quickie conferences.

3. Annotated Good Copies: 
When I asked for good copies in years gone by, I wanted perfectly edited and formatted assignments. I still do. However, now good copies come in with words, phrases, and even whole passages highlighted or underlined. There will be writing in the margins. If the work comes in electronically, students will use the comment section of Google Docs to make notes.  This is because I'm putting more responsibility on the students for their evaluation. I want them to do the thinking necessary to illustrate that they have learned the targeted skills for that assignment. As a side bonus, this process makes it a lot easier to grade because the student has already pointed out the elements that you are looking for. They will also be required to write a short reflection about the piece and the process they went through to create it.

4. Speaking & Listening Assignments: 
Reading and writing is not the only part of my curriculum, so we will also be working on speaking and listening skills. Students will get formative and peer assessment based on the talking they do during conferences and small group discussions, but they will also have several formal speaking assignments throughout the semester. Most of these will occur during the later half of the course, when I actually add in two full class studies: Macbeth and Animal Farm. I believe there is benefit in doing full class study and you can read about my reasoning here. This year, instead of dividing up the week, we are doing just workshop until November when we will do the full class texts together. At this time, students will do several speaking assignments, including a rhetorical speech and a debate. These go very well with Macbeth and Animal Farm, as we take a close look at the power of language with those texts.

Class Organization
Now that I have my assessments planned, I can zero in on what my days will look like. This is the plan for now:

Monday-Wednesday (focus on skill building)
There is no one-size fits all approach to workshop, but, generally, teachers who use workshop will include silent reading, book talks, mini-lessons, independent work, collaborative work and sharing. The length of time devoted to these elements will vary, based on the age of your students and the length of your classes. I have high school students for seventy-five minutes a day for one semester. That's a long class, but if you have a shorter one, you likely have your kids for the whole year. Therefore, you can allow less time for each segment and just take longer to get through the lessons.

1. Silent Reading for fifteen minutes (this will usually be at the beginning of class, but sometimes I'll start with a prompt; On Wednesdays students may be asked to choose to read something from another genre*).

2. Book Talk & Mini-Lesson (10-15 minutes)

3. Skill Building Exercise (10-15 minutes)

4. Independent Writing Time (conferences) (15-20 minutes)

5. Sharing Time - students will share their work with others to get feedback (10 minutes)

6. Closure (2-5 minutes)

* Genre reading -- Students will primarily be reading novels during workshop. However, I need to expose them to other genres, like short stories, non-fiction, poetry and drama. Therefore, on Wednesdays, they may be required to choose from collections I will provide for them in the classroom, depending on the focus for the week.

Thursday-Friday (focus on writing process)
On these days, I want students to dig in and work.  They will get a longer silent reading period (20 - 25 minutes) and then with they remaining time, they will move through stations, as necessary, to work on the areas that they need to focus on. During this time, I'll be doing individual conferences or small group instruction.  The conferences will focus on the student's attainment of last week's goal and the small group instruction will be based on the needs I've been noticing during the quickie conferences. and/or notebook assessment. For example, I might group the students who are struggling with transitions to do a short reinforcement lesson with them.

So there it is, the plan for 2017, semester one. Since I began using workshop, no semester has been the same, as I keep tweaking it to make it better. I am by no means an expert, so I'd love to have you share your great ideas so others can learn for them too. And stay tuned, as I'll be sharing more specifics all week.  Make sure you're signed up for the newsletter, so you can receive five days of freebies for your workshop!

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5 Ways to Blend Reader's and Writer's Workshop

I get a lot of questions about the best way to balance reading and writing workshop; it's something that I've struggled with myself on my journey with this approach. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder: why do we want to separate them at all?

Reading and writing are closely entwined. That's obvious. And yet, we tend to teach them as separate entities, even during workshop time. However, whether students are reading beautifully written language, or experimenting with it themselves, they are learning to become skilled readers and writers. It's all so inextricably linked.  

But, the question remains, how do you combine reading and writing workshop? Let's start with a look at some of the common core standards for reading literature in grade nine and ten:

Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

And now, check out these standards for writing in the same grades:


Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

Even though the wording is a little different, each standard is basically asking the kids to focus on the same concepts, so why not ask them to do it all at once, rather than during separate lessons? That's exactly what I plan to do this year. As always, it'll be a work in progress for me, but I will share my successes and failures as I go, as well as some of the tools I will use to blend these two workshops. Make sure you sign up for my newsletter above to get some freebies in your inbox this week!

Here are four ways that I plan to blend reading and writing workshop:

Tips and tricks for blending reading and writing workshop in the secondary classroom.
1. Book Talks:
Book talks are an essential ingredient for a reader's workshop. We use them to spread the work about great reads, inspiring the kids to pick up a title they might not otherwise choose. However, if you are more deliberate with planning your book talk, you can use it for a writing mentor text at the same time. For example, at the beginning of the year, I always talk about the methods authors pull their readers into their stories. I want my readers to be able to identify and evaluate these techniques. I also want my writers to be able to craft engaging openings to their texts too, whether they are writing a narrative, a description, a poem or a non-fiction piece. I will gather a variety of novels with great openings, as well as some magazine and newspaper articles. We will evaluate them as readers, and then, during independent work time, students will use some of them as mentor texts to experiment with in their own writing. 

2. Student Novels as Mentor Texts 

When we do writing prompts and/or skill building exercises, I will ask students to use the novels they are reading as mentor texts. In the example above, after I show them the openings from the texts I have found, they will evaluate the effectiveness of opening lines of their novel, either in writing or in a conference with me. But, they will also be expected to use it as a model, and to try some of the writer's techniques themselves. If I'm teaching them about variety in sentence length, they will be tasked with the job of looking for examples in their novel and again, use them as a models. It's so easy to make that link -- and it's easier for the teacher, because you don't have to spend hours looking for mentor texts. It puts more responsibility on the students to do the thinking and the work, and it is an activity that blends reading and writing skills, as they have to be able to identify the technique in the novel (reading) and use it in their own writing.

3. Reading/Writing Notebook
I don't see any need to have two separate notebooks for reading and writing workshop, especially if I'm combining lessons as I explained above. The kids don't need another thing to keep track of (nor do you) and, if you're linking reading skills and writing skills, it only makes sense to link the notebooks as well.  Whether they are writing about the book they are reading, using a writing prompt, or using their own ideas, the end result is the same.  

4. Inquiry Questions

Inquiry questions are a staple in my classroom. I use them to approach everything we do, so I can link what happens in my room with what's happening in the students' lives. It makes them see the relevance in what we do and increases engagement significantly (you can read about how it works in Room 213 here). This year, instead of giving them the question, I'm going to open it up and let them choose their own. In the initial weeks of workshop, I want the kids to think about big questions that they'd like to find answers for. Then, they will attempt to find those answers in the books they read and use these ideas as jumping off point for their own writing. At the end of the year, they will complete a multi-genre project that will illustrate their exploration of the question. This will require that they explore the ideas in non-fiction, poetry and other texts as well as their novels. It will also require that they experiment with various types of writing as they explore the idea. 

5. Conferences

Conferencing is another essential component of the workshop approach, as they allow you time to instruct and assess your students. These provide another easy way to blend your reading and writing workshop. If I have a conference to assess a student's ability to understand how authors use language for effect, I'll ask them to show me examples from their novels and their pieces of writing. Not only is this "one-stop shopping" for the teacher, but it's a process that makes sense. Separating reading from writing is kind of like separating multiplication from division in math. Yes, they are separate skills, but students use them simultaneously in math class. 

Keep following for more details on how I blend my workshops, including the assessments that I plan to use. More posts coming soon.  And don't forget to sign up for the newsletter, so you can receive free products to use in your classroom.

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