Why do we write? (Part 1)

Why do we write?  This has been the question circling my mind ever since I hopped onto a zoom link to chat with a 6th grader in my feedback group. I got that little burst of joy that comes from a one-on-one meet, and we quickly began by chatting about school, life, and her hopes for spring break. She talked about wanting to see friends but being unsure of what all of that would look like. She talked about reading and being lonely. She talked about what was in her heart and on her mind. And at some point, we moved on to her writing life.

“So, tell me what you’re working on,” I said to begin our feedback conversation. “What are you trying to do in your writing?”

For the next few moments, she explained her class’s study of some research writing. With just a few clicks, my eyes were on her shared screen and I was looking at her assignment. I listened as she  walked me through the work. On top of the page lay the prompt followed by directions on how to reword the prompt as the claim. Under that direction, the page became littered with boxes that broke down the writing sentence by sentence and led the students through exactly what to say. Color-coded paragraphs broken into a formula that left little room for thought or voice. 

Staring at that page, the question that came to mind was, Why do we write? I knew my answer wasn’t so that we could fill in the boxes or color-code paragraphs into the false structure of- topic sentence, supporting details, and conclusion…but what was it? I decided to dig into that question myself.

I write…

  • to uncover personal truths
  • to memorialize moments of change
  • to celebrate love and friendship
  • to realize new ideas
  • to lament over disconnection and hurt
  • to explore humanity’s relationship with nature
  • to teach others about our impacts/impressions on the world
  • to heal

I write because writing helps me understand myself, others, and our shared world. If I  am forced to write about a topic, told what to think and how to support it, and then told how every sentence has to fall on the page, I am not writing. I am not able to uncover, memorialize, celebrate, realize, lament, explore, teach, or heal.

Scaffolds are important. We’re all searching for the tools that will allow our students to try something new or find success. Sometimes those tools offer a structure, but when we go too far in our efforts to support, we may be wiping away true writing. In this series, we will explore how to fold scaffolds into our teaching through changing up components, offering strategies, and setting up peer based supports that will help students find success without writing for them.

Look for next week’s post on adding scaffolds of support through sharing the pen.

The Difference Between Joy and Gratitude

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What is one thing that you’re feeling grateful for right now?” This question often opens my profession learning sessions with teachers. Some may be wondering why I’d start with gratitude when our purpose is to study literacy practices. The answer is simple. Gratitude and success are directly tied. Shawn Achor, positive psychology researcher and one of my all-time favorite mentors, teaches us that practicing gratitude together connects us, moves us into a more creative space, and can help lead us to successful outcomes. Yet lately, this opening question has been met with long pauses and sometimes even a straight, “I can’t. Everything is just so awful.”

I get it. Things are hard right now. The season of mistletoe and jolly ho ho hos definitely has more of a humbug vibe this year, but that doesn’t mean that we can be grateful. The trouble is that people are mistaking naming joy with the practice of gratitude. They are not one and the same.

Here’s are some of the things that I am grateful for this holiday season:

I’m grateful for those that I miss dearly this Christmas because it means that my life is full of people that I love deeply.

I’m grateful while hanging a wreath on my father’s gravestone because years of laughter, generosity, Friday night dinners, and calls to check on my car mean that I was one of the lucky ones who had a father that adored her. I miss him, and I am grateful.

I’m grateful for those who are comforting the sick and dying in our hospitals right now. The realities of this year may mean not having your family at your side during your last breath, but I know that amazing health care workers are not letting people pass alone.

My list can go on and on, but I’ll stop here for the moment. If you’ve read it, you can see that it is not necessarily representative of joy. Joy and gratitude are different. Our joys are our highlights. Our gratitude is our appreciation of the beauty and complexity of life, even the pain that comes with living it. Hopefully, we will get back to joy, and may even find moments of it through the challenges of this season. However, for now, gratitude can live on.

Hey Teach… My Writing’s Not For You

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For the last ten years, most of my professional life has focused on supporting teachers. On most days, I love it. I love being a nerdy explorer of new possibilities. I love being an admirer of a teacher’s craft. I love being a reflective thinking partner. And yet, there are moments when the classroom calls to me. I miss having my own crew of young learners to teach every day, so I decided to creatively scratch the itch. I set up a regular meet up with a few students, and set off to create my own little literacy crew.

Like most teachers, I too feel the need to be prepared, if not planned, for my online coaching sessions. To help myself get ready, I ask the students that I am working with to let me know their hopes and intentions for our study before each session.  One night, I found this message in my inbox.

Hello, Ms. Dana! I would like to discuss some out of school writing that I want to start doing. Online school made me stop having the urge to write, but I want to start again. Maybe we can discuss ideas or the characters? 

Ouch! I know first hand how much heart and energy teachers are putting into making online learning meaningful and inspiring, so this one hurt. After sending her a quick and encouraging message back, I committed to doing a bit of digging. I needed to understand exactly what made this enthusiastic writer pull back. In the end, what she shared had little to do with online learning, and everything to do with loss of ownership. 

The current state of our world has all of us feeling like control has slipped through our fingers. We are yearning for some sense of stability and may find that our longing to put our own lives back in order is trickling into our classrooms. I get it. I want that control back too, but pulling ownership away from our students is causing them to turn away from the joy of writing. 

So what can we do? Try to keep these tips in mind when working with your own young writers:

  1. One way that we might be taking control away from our students is by becoming the singular audience for their writing (and essentially the only feedback voice that matters). Be sure to make the choice of audience part of your teaching throughout the whole process, and commit to making the time and space for peer feedback. You are not the audience for your students’ writing.
  2. Remember that a piece your student shares with you is not your writing! Our goal as educators is to offer strategies as next steps, not tell them what to write. Check in on your own feedback chats. Avoid language like, “You should…” and “Why don’t you…?” Instead, try out phrases like, “One way you might try to… (name a skill) is by… (name a strategy). 
  3. Look for spaces to offer choice. In every unit of study there are going to be constraints. However, there are also places where students can and should make all the decisions. Before teaching a unit, name all of the opportunities for choice that are possible. Can we offer a choice of topic? Structure? Genre? Audience? Feedback partner? Goal?  

Our goal as writing teachers isn’t to make sure students get an A. It isn’t to make sure they’ve mastered the grade level standards. Our goal is to let them know that writing is something that can be used to explore ourselves, connect with others, and create change. Writers write for themselves and their readers. They don’t write for teachers.

How Do We Fit It All In?

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Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

It’s official. September has arrived, and whether it’s from behind a screen or looking out upon rows of desks marked six feet apart, in a matter of days we will be meeting this year’s crew. The idea of meeting our students always fills us with joy- but if we’re honest, this year, we’re all a bit terrified too! It doesn’t matter how many years we’ve been teaching, this is new terrain for all of us. We are all first year teachers. We know what we want for our students- but the abbreviated schedules, virtual classrooms, and figuring out Cohorts A, B, and C seem to be making it impossible to imagine how we can fit it all in.

We’ve spent our summers searching for that perfect schedule that will make it all work and we’re out of time. The bad news is that I don’t think that one pretty, color coded, blocked out schedule can answer our prayers. There are simply too many variables. However, I do believe that each of us can create something that will offer our students a joyful, engaging, and meaningful learning experience. All we need to do is start with our values and work from there. 

Step One- The way we use our time shows what we truly value. Start your schedule creation process by listing the things you value and want to create time for in your classroom.  Think of these as the building blocks of your schedule.  See my list below. 

  • Community and Connection
  • Explicit Teaching
  • Inquiry and Play
  • Practice
  • Feedback
  • Celebration

Step Two- Create a chart with four columns (Value, In-Person, Synchronous, Asynchronous) across and a row for each of your values.  Then, dream up ways that you can address each value in all three learning scenarios.  (You may ask why you should fill in all three columns if you already know the district plan. My answer… Life has been nothing if not unpredictable, and it’s better to have a plan for a change in direction just in case.)

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Step 3- Once you’ve dreamed up a list of ways you can bring your values to life in these different scenarios, build a weekly schedule that includes bits from each row.  This will ensure that all of the things we want for our students are at the core of how we choose to spend our time. 

Sample Hybrid Reading Block Schedule:

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In the end, we may not reach perfection.  Our schedules may not allow us to do everything we want to, every day. However, across the week, we know that we are touching upon all of the things we know in our hearts are right for our students, and that is enough.

Wishing you all a wonderful start to a brand new adventure.

Why “Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat” Doesn’t Work For Writing Teachers

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There is nothing quite like a teacher’s collection of mentor texts. As I run my fingers over the fraying spines of mine, lines rush at me like a flood.  From Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon“Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad, song.”  Then, Cynthia Rylant’s Fireflies “The moonlight and the fireflies swam in my tears, but I could feel myself smiling.”  I let the words wash over me, appreciating how each book has left a mark on me as both a teacher and a writer.  

These books and any we use as mentor texts can allow us to see new possibilities in how to lay out thoughts, invite readers into our self-created worlds, and play with language. And yet… something I’ve come to realize is that the mentor texts that matter most to my students  are not those beloved and perfect books.  Instead, the most meaningful are the flawed pieces that flow from my fingers each day, because they are crafted in front of my students. My young writers can see the messy thinking and clunky wording that are a part of drafting, and see that prose doesn’t begin with the high polish of published, literary jewels—it gets there. It gets to a brighter shine through work and revision.

The most valuable work of a writing teacher is to show students the process, decision making, and quest for honesty that writers go through in order to make their words have emotive power and sheen. In doing this we are vulnerable and real in front of our students, powerful states of being to model for children. To do this is to be a writer as well as a teacher, because we can not teach what we do not do. When Donald Graves was asked by an interviewer in the late 1990s, what is the one thing teachers need to do when teaching writing, he answered:

Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and we need to invite children to do what we are doing. You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself (Instructor magazine)

The tune of which Don Graves speaks isn’t always easy. Writing in front of your students is hard, like trying to master the oboe. And what I’d add to Graves’ insight is that writing with your students has profound power, because it brings you closer to learners. You and your students live in a place of sameness, which allows you to have writer-to-writer conversations that let students know, I work at this too.  Not one of us would want to take feedback or advice on our dieting from someone who’s been a size two their whole life.  To be all in with someone, we need to live the struggle ourselves, and share the secret that in writing all of us write awful drafts, all of us have moments when the words won’t come, and all of us feel that twinge of discomfort laying ourselves out on the page for others to see.

So, for those of you who are still leaning into the comfort of those well-loved favorites mentor texts,  think of this as an invitation to finally dare to write in front of students. Here are a few tips to get you going:

Tip 1: Zoom in on little bits of your work with one focus.  Yes, using our own pieces to model is key, but that doesn’t mean we are always drafting the whole piece at one time. The best way to keep students in tune with a strategy we’re sharing is to model that strategy only with just a bit of the piece.

Tip 2:  Show that the struggle is real.  When we’ve planned and rehearsed our lesson, it is easy to make the writing we’re doing seem effortless, when in reality that’s not the case.  Even when you have an idea of what you’re going to write, be sure to tuck some thinking pauses into your work. That will show students that writing doesn’t always flow.  We all need time and space to decide which words will actually land on our pages.

Tip 3:  Talk to make your thinking visible. Using our own writing to model how writers plan and then bring those thoughts to the page requires us to do more than just move the pen in front of our learners. It requires us to open our minds and name out what we are thinking through each step. As you write, make your process clear by sharing the how and why of each writing move you make. This sounds a lot like, “Hmmm… First let me think about…  I’m thinking… Maybe I can… Now I’m thinking… Next let me… I can try…”

Tip 4: Don’t play it safe.  If we are asking our students to write the real stuff, we have to as well.  Write the story that is hard to tell. Write the essay that taps into your truest beliefs. Write real for them because it is the only way they’ll write real for you. I often model with mom fail moments, the moment my father told me he had cancer, and moments that I’m less than proud of but taught me an important lesson. This type of writing makes me real to the kids, and can hopefully give them permission to share the hard parts for them too.

Be bold and vulnerable.  Plan and be messy. Let them see you sweat.  Write.

Growing Pains: Embracing the Discomfort of Learning

The details of my childhood are fuzzy.  I can’t recall with clarity the colors of the bike I rode around the block, or the face of my first grade teacher.  There are, however, a few memories that remain crystal clear. One is from when I was about seven or eight years old…    

It was late at night, what seemed like hours after my mother had kissed me goodnight- but who knows for sure.  I woke up to darkness and a painful heartbeat in my leg. Clutching my shin, I called out. Part of me cried from the pain.  The other part cried out of fear that there was something truly wrong with me. After a few nights with scenes much like this one, my mom took me to my doctor.

The diagnosis…

                                …growing pains.

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I think about those pains often.  Not because they were unbearable or because they were a significant part of my childhood.  I think about them because whether it is physical growth or professional growth, as my doctor said, “Growing ain’t easy.”

As teachers, we are in the business of learning.  However taking on a professional goal or trying on a new practice can feel clumsy and uncomfortable sometimes.  We’ll probably mess up… a lot. So I thought I might share a few things that I do to embrace the discomfort of learning:  

Forgive yourself.  Remember that mistakes are just steps toward understanding and innovation. We would never expect our students to master a new skill the first time around.  That is just not the way that learning works. But that can be easy to forget when it comes to the standards and expectations we hold for ourselves. We are students, too. We deserve the same amount of patience and care that we would give to our students as we continue on our own learning journeys.

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Take the time to reflect after something didn’t go the way you had hoped.  It’s easy feel embarrassed or ashamed when your teaching didn’t go well. The voice of that little devil on your should may sneak up telling you that you’re not good enough and you should stick to what you know.  Push yourself to put some tape over the his mouth and use the time to think about what parts of the work went well and what you learned from the experience. It is the moments of reflection that help us grow our practice.

Creating a true learning environment means that we must model BEING learners. When we show our students that we are learners too, we have the opportunity to show them that the process isn’t easy and that there are bits of uncertainty and messiness along the way.  Plus, when we model being learners in front of our students, they walk away from our classrooms understanding that learning isn’t something that disappears the moment a degree is handed over.  It shows them that learning is one of the joys of life, and we don’t ever have to stop.

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I’ve heard my friend Patty McGee say, “Be comfortable in the discomfort of trying something new.  That is where your most creative and innovative self lives.” We owe it to our students and to ourselves to continue honing our craft. In the end, isn’t it worth it so that our students have the best possible version of us?  

So as we embark upon a new year, as odd as it sounds, I wish you all a bit messiness and discomfort. In that wish, I hope you all embrace the experience and find beautiful ways to outgrow yourselves.

What do the kids think? Notebook Work Through Student Lenses

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a crier.  I’ve never once made through a Hallmark Christmas movie without choking up.  Heck, to be honest, most of the time I can’t even make it through one of those sweet newborn Pampers commercials. But what I never expected was to be sitting alone at my desk, on the last day of school, and sobbing as I stare at a computer screen…

Earlier this year, I wrote a post that was really a plea.  I was pleading with all of my educator friends to make consistent time for students to explore their thoughts in their notebooks.  Luckily, one of my most valued friends and colleagues told me that she was taking this plea to heart. She made a commitment to her students.  A promise that she would spare that golden thing in our school lives called time to let them write. Not just for their unit. Not just for a content area.  She gave them time to write whatever they wanted in their writer’s notebooks. Now the year has come to a close, she asked her students to tell us what they thought about the work they’d done in their writer’s notebooks.  That screen that brought me to tears was full of their responses.

Laid out in their words, here just a few of the things they said…

Choice

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“It felt good to write because I was able to write anything I wanted to and it did not feel like I had to do it as an assignment.  It felt like I wanted to do it.”

-Alexander

“It helped me express my feelings.  I could write a poem if I wanted. I could write a story.  I could team up with someone else to write something. Choco even wrote a rap!”

– Juliet

My friend, Tom Marshall, often reminds us of the distinction between the words choice and choices.  In our writing workshops we try to offer as much choice as possible. Kids can choose their topic. They can choose which ways they want to rehearse, develop, and play with their writing.  They can choose how they want to publish their work. However, whenever we are in a unit of study, choice is limited. They are still confined to one genre, a time limit, etc… These confines make unit writing feel a bit more like choices.  The one time in their school writing lives that they truly have FREE choice is in their notebooks. And it matters. We heard it loud and clear in EVERY student’s response. Choice matters.

Purpose and Ownership

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“Before, I saw writing in your notebook as an assignment.  Then, when I had a conversation with Mrs. Dunn about it, I realized that it was not about pleasing her, it was about exploring your imagination on a piece of paper.”

– Arabel

“My notebook lets me express myself for who I am.  I enjoyed writing in my writer’s notebook because it let me be me.”

– Zeynep

Teachers are always dreaming up ways to make the writing that happens in their classrooms feel more purposeful.  We mail their letters from our persuasive units and pray for responses. We partner with book stores during review writing so that their work has a real place to live on the wall and can persuade people to buy that book.  We will always do these things because we want our students to know that different types of writing have real power in the world. Yet, I ask, what greater way is there to give students this feeling of ownership and purpose than to allow them to be the one deciding what is important to write and how they will use that writing?  To explore who they are, what they believe, and what purpose they want their writing to have in our world. Notebooks do this.

Joy

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“I really liked writing because it was free, and it was what I think the story should be.”

-Choco

“I felt like notebook writing was a time of happiness and joy.  It made me feel good because sometimes I got to do it with a friend.  It was really fun.”

– Valerie

If there is one goal in the life of a writing teacher, or any teacher for that matter, it is to have his or her classroom feel joyful.  When students describe their classroom experiences as “times of happiness and joy”, and not because it is a movie day or field trip, there is no greater gift.  Notebook writing can bring joy to your classrooms and your students. By simply giving children time to express themselves, explore their thoughts, and see who they are on the page, we can make our classrooms happy places.

Community

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“When I wrote my stories or poems, I was proud of them.  At first, I didn’t want to share them at coffee houses, but then they became better and better so I shared them more and more.”

– Sophie

“I feel great about my writing because my pieces are valued.”

-Matan

Teachers often ask, What does it take to build a community of writers in your classroom?  Part of this answer may simply lay in giving them to time and space to write what matters to them, to write together at times, and then to celebrate.  Mrs. Dunn, that very valued colleague who did this work with her kids, made time for coffee house celebrations regularly. She’d set the scene with some music or a backdrop on the smartboard and let her kids share pieces of themselves from their notebooks.  Different than an end of unit celebration, these students had an experience similar to being on The Moth Radio Hour. They got to really see each other. To know each other’s stories. To appreciate each other’s voices. To value each other.  They built a community.

So, if my plea at the beginning of the year didn’t convince you, I’m hopeful that these messages from our students will convince you now.  

Give them notebooks.  Give them time.  Let them write.

**  A special thank you to Jennifer Dunn and all the other amazing teachers who gave notebooks their own special place in the classroom this year.

When Mentors Go Wrong: The Dos and Don’ts of Using Mentor Texts

Much of what I understand about writing today is thanks to the black ink that resides in the pages of my books.  While it’s true that I have had some incredible mentors, and I am thankful for them each and every day, what I have come to understand about growing as a writer is that sometimes the best teachers are hiding on our bookshelves.  Studying the beauty of one sentence over and over again can uplift, inspire, and open up possibilities that we may not ever have imagined on our own.  But here’s the catch; if we are not careful, a mentor text can stifle instead arouse, and our students will turn something beautiful into a formula.

So here are some Dos and Don’ts for the use of mentor texts in your classroom:

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Do give students lenses to study through.  Try using big, open-ended questions like, What part of this text speaks to you?  What did the author do that made you respond the way you did?  This will allow them to switch modes and read like a writer, focusing their reading on the craft instead of the plot.

Do give copies of mentor texts to each child and invite them to keep those copies close as they write.  Teach them that mentors are our forever writing companions and can help us set goals or intentions, work through a few draft possibilities, or go back into some revision work.

Do highlight that mentor texts can teach us more than just technique.  Reading mentors aloud can help our students experiment with the use of rhythm, punctuation, sentence length, etc…

Do let students borrow a line to get them started.  Sometimes a mentor can provide a word or a phrase that gives them fuel to get their pens moving across the page.

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Don’t let your students think that there is only one way to write well.  Overemphasizing a particular tool or technique that an author used effectively may accidentally send the message that all work must look that way as well.  For example, if students study a beautiful lead, name what the author did that made it so effective, but then start ALL of their pieces that same way, they have missed the point.  There are countless ways to begin a story well.  We don’t want to steal their voices and have our kids turning mentors into formulas.

Do use more than one mentor in your unit.  While many of us have one favorite text that we refer to over and over again in our teaching, limiting our exploration to one text may also limit the different styles and techniques that our students will see.  You may decide to zoom in on one text in your teaching but give students opportunities to study other texts and pick a few favorites during an inquiry day.

Don’t over focus on terminology.  There is a place for knowing the names of literary devices; however, the exploration of a mentor text is not about kids yelling, “I found hyperbole.”  Instead, it is about kids noticing what an author has done and defining for themselves why it is so effective.  Let them name their noticings first and try out what they see.  It’s the writing that matters, not the name.

Don’t always be the one leading them through the text.  A great mentor text can certainly give us loads of fuel for our lesson work, but we want to provide time for our kids to take the lead too.  Let them have time to explore and notice what they can pull from the text on their own.  You’ll see that it’s these noticings that stick the most.

In his book Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts, Ralph Fletcher (2011) says of mentor texts that they allow him to “shed my old writing skin and grow a better new one.”  May the texts you gift to your student allow them all to do the same.

Happy Writing!

 

 

What does this even mean??? Helping kids unpack complex texts

What does this even mean??   This question seems to pop up often in my reading life lately.   You see earlier this year I decided to take the plunge and jump back into university life in pursuit of another masters degree.  I knew that along with the joy of learning, there would be challenges.  I anticipated the late nights and workload that  would add to the already full life of a mom, wife, friend, and educator.  However, what I didn’t anticipate was how being thrown into high level academia once again would help me to support students as they approach the complex texts they’ll see on their standardized tests.

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For the first time in a long while, I found myself reading entire paragraphs and then realizing I had no idea with the author was trying to say.  Sitting on my couch with articles about curriculum theory on my lap, I knew I had to work out some ways to find the meaning in these readings. I had to push myself through extremely complex texts and use strategies to help myself make meaning. This is not unlike the work that our students have to do when they encounter difficult texts in their testing.

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So… here are some strategies that can help students work through the difficult and sometimes dull texts that they’ll experience in their assessments.

  • When you find yourself confused, reread that section aloud or at least mouth the    words. Hearing the phrasing aloud seems to help break the sentences down into manageable sections, and can help the reader make meaning.
  • Pause after paragraphs or sections that were confusing.  Ask yourself, “How does this section relate to the bigger ideas of the text?”
  • Identify parts that make sense within a section that might feel confusing overall.  Then ask yourself, “How does this part that is clear connect to this part (right before or after it) that seems fuzzy?”
  • Take your time.  The pace that you may be used to when your engaged and loving a favorite novel is not the same pace that will work for more complex texts.  You may need to slow your pace and allow thinking time more often to connect the dots.
  • When feeling frustrated, pause to take a few deep, centering breaths.  You may even want to use some positive self-talk like, I can do this.  You can’t let the feelings of challenge get you down.

Hopefully these strategies can help students find success in any text that they encounter. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t end with this last bit of advice for teachers who may be thinking about moving into a test prep unit.  In my grad work, I was reminded of how reading texts that are hard can steal the joy from our reading lives and replace it with feelings of frustration. DO NOT let test prep passages be the only reading kids do during a test prep unit. Preserve time for kids to read texts that they can understand and love.  Keep the joy in their reading.

 

 

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Fighting to Bring the Purpose Back

Boring….

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Is there a more dreaded word in world of education? As teachers, we all want our classrooms to be places full of energy, excitement, and flow.  So when I was working with a group of teachers earlier this year and heard their audible groans when looking at the upcoming unit, we took a time out to ponder the problems they saw coming.

“Literary essay is just so dry,” said one of the teachers.  “I can’t get my kids excited about it.”

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We begin asking ourselves…   Why couldn’t we get our kids pumped up to share their thoughts with the others?  Where did this draining feeling come from?  Why were our kids bored?  When thinking deeply about these questions, we came to a moment of clarity.   We couldn’t get our students excited about sharing their ideas because they didn’t see the purpose behind this work.  Their writing wasn’t talking TO anyone, so they were simply filling in the parts and pieces for US.

Then, out of our discussion a new idea was born.  If the work felt purposeless, we needed to find a way to bring purpose back to the kids.  And what brings more purpose and fire into our work than an argument, right?  So we lit a fire under our kids with the work of debate.

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It may seem like a risky move to begin a unit of study on essay without even mentioning the word essay, but we knew we needed to take a leap of faith.  Our first days revolved around immersing our students in rich short stories, videos, and picture books.  Then, we taught into taking stances and pushing ourselves to argue stances that were given to us.  We helped students to understand the protocols behind debate work, how to lean on those fighting with you, AND how to listen to the arguments of others to build up your writing muscles.  And while sometimes it was loud, and sometimes it felt messy, the fire was back in our classrooms.  Students were filling their notebooks and pouring over the texts they were using to find the perfect bits of evidence to prove their points.  The entries grew longer and longer until it seemed that students were writing naturally flowing essays to prepare for their debates.

 

While our essay work didn’t end there, this unconventional start led us to work that was full of purpose, energy, and life.  There are times in our teaching lives that we must take that leap of faith to bring the fire back.

 

A special thanks to Jen Dunn, Paul Levitan, and Norma Chorlian, who planned and developed this work, and were willing to jump with me.  I’d also like to thank all of the teachers who have been open to trying out this work in their classrooms.  I am grateful to teach and learn alongside you each and every day.