Tools for Changing the Grading Conversation

While I have tried to move away from giving grades over the last seven years, I have been a failure at it.  Those pesky numbers or letters keep popping up in our classroom, whether I want them to or not.  That seems to be what happens when you work within a public school system that has made the grading decision for you.  And let’s face it; assessing students through grades is easy; put a number/letter on it and it tells the whole story for you, or so we think.  Put a number/letter on it and surely a child, or a parent, will know exactly what we are communicating and how they are doing.  And yet, that is not what happens within most traditional grading; kids don’t know why they get what they get, they feel they have no control, and parents aren’t aware of the full story.

I have to come realize that while I can pine for a gradeless system, where we do not place children into such boxes, in the meantime I can work within the confinement currently presented and change the conversation itself.  So rather than focus on trying to remove grades completely, I can make sure that the ones I am in charge of giving are actually meaningful, as well as controlled by the students, providing us with another tool for giving the learning back to the students.

We start by breaking down our learning targets whenever possible, and while this sounds incredibly formal, it is more of a pointed conversation.  What are we learning and why are we learning it are questions that students should be able to answer, even if the answer to why is to be better human beings.  Students have a hard time taking ownership over their learning process if they have no clue where they are headed.

We then discuss ways to get there.  As often as possible, students need have to different pathways to reach their learning goals.  While full personalization of product would be lovely, I am not able to provide that for my students at all times.  We then look to the five tenets of choice as ways to incorporate more personalization.

Students must know themselves.  We have two central questions we pursue as an English class all year; who am I as a reader and who am I as a writer?  Both of these lead to the self-reflection and discovery that students undertake.  After all, I need each child to know themselves well enough to know how they actually need to grow and also to find the motivation to become better.  That will not happen if I make the same goal for each child. It is also telling that many of my most resistant learners do not know who they are as learners.  How can we expect them to grow if they don’t even know who they are?

We know what the end assessment will be.  We have to discuss with students and help them understand what our grade level work reads like or presents itself as, otherwise we are asking students to shoot their learning into the dark and hope it sticks somewhere.  So actual student examples, modeling, and shared conversations have to be present during our learning as guides to the students.  Make it accessible without your direction so they can access it at any time.

We change our language.  Two years ago I adopted the “Best draft” terminology from Kelly Gallagher and have not looked back.  Often students will hand in their “best draft” rather than their final product.  Final product means exactly that; final, no need to revise, revisit, or rethink.  But “best draft” means that it is unfinished, that there is still work to be done, that even if the assessment is attached to it, it is preliminary at best and can be molded by their own efforts to change their learning product.

Students assess themselves first.  For big projects, (and I need to do it more) I will not assess it unless a child has first.  Otherwise, my voice is what they will conform to rather than their own reflection on where they are on the learning journey.  I need them to do the hard thinking work of breaking down their own skills and then seeing what their strengths are and how they need to grow further.  They, therefore, need to understand the rubric, the terminology used, as well as how they CAN grow.

They come up with a next step.  While I focus my feedback on the one next step, they also need to focus on what they are working on next and how else they will grow.  It is not enough for them to place themselves into an assessment category and then do nothing about it.  Every child needs to set the next step goal for themselves and then come up with a tangible plan to pursue it.  This will be a major focus for me next year as I am still trying to figure out how to do this best with teaching 130+ students.

They direct their learning.  Part of our learning journey is figuring out how they learn best within the confinements of our time, our environment, and the curriculum we do need to explore.  So who do they work best and where in the room do they work best are parts of their self-assessments, not just a number or a letter grade.

They take ownership over their assessment.  While the number (we are standards based) is not the description of them as a learner, it becomes part of our conversation.  We must go beyond handing out numbers or letters so that students can understand what it means to create work that is at a “2” or a “3” and then move beyond that even.  Making the number or letter something that is in control of the students changes their own classification.  No child is a “2” in our classroom, the specific work may be at a “2” level; there is a big difference there.

They want more.  My students know that their score, which is often selected by themselves, is just a part of their assessment because they are consistently provided with feedback either through a rubric, written out, or a conversation.  Very rarely, except for on our spelling packets, are they just given a score with no further explanation.  That means that they know that the number is merely a symbol of something larger and not the only designator.  They know that there is more to the story.  In fact, they get so used to this that if feedback or reflection opportunity is not provided that they ask for further clarification.  This is an indicator, in my eyes, that they see how little the actual number/letter symbolizes and need more information.

The thing is with grades, they are a tool like any other.  It is when we let them dominate our conversation when they become the only thing we discuss that we lose kids in the process.  Grades were not meant to be easy, they are meant to be a conversation starter and so it is up to us to start having those conversations if we want students to truly have ownership over their own learning journey.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

8 Ideas to Make the End of the Year Race Better

Have your students told you yet how many days that are left?  While it has been awhile for me, I can still feel it creeping up, sneaking up, whether we are ready or not; for many of us in the Northern hemisphere, the end of the year is near.  And if your students are anything like ours, then there may be excitement in the air mixed with a special kind of exhaustion that is threatening to derail even the best-laid plans.  So what can you, along with your awesome students, do to make these last few days or weeks better?  Here are a few ideas.

Make it matter.  And by this I mean; make it meaningful, make it count.  Now is the time to dig deep, to go personal, to make it something they will remember for a long time.  we end with out This I believe project, a student and teacher favorite every year and we work all the way up until the very last day.  I love how we end with something that ties us even closer together as a community, rather than just have us fade out in small to-do’s.

Teach with urgency.  This is not the time to slow down, instead, make every minute worth your time.  We start with reading, as always, and then we teach until the bell.  I want the days to go by fast, not drag on for everyone involved.

Increase student movement and talk time.  I love seeing the various projects our students are engaged in throughout our building, with many of them involving more movement and also more student agency.  Now is a perfect time to have students take the lead on projects if you haven’t before and also to incorporate as much choice as possible.  I was lucky enough to watch a PE class where students had to sit and write about their summer fitness goals, the kicker?  Every time they did a section they had to run and do other physical activities.  I loved seeing how even in writing, movement was incorporated.

Make memories.  Even if the students are ready to leave make sure you take the time to reminisce a little.  How has this year been?  What will they remember?  I try to have students write letters to the incoming 7th grade to offer them tips and ideas, these letters not only give me a way to welcome the new students but also to see what made a difference to my current ones.

Take them outside.  I used to shun the outside for teaching, after all, it was just so distracting.  Now we look for the days where we can get outside.  So far it has only been with my homeroom class for a quick walk, but the outside is calling all of my classes and I am thinking of a way to teach out there.

Survey them.  This is ripe reflection time for us as we start to look forward to next year so make sure you ask all of the questions you have.  While I have not finalized my end of year survey yet, last year’s told me a lot about which projects they loved, the ones they hated, and also how I could become a better teacher.  These kids know us so make sure you ask for their advice, after all, we have the best professional development sitting right in our classrooms.

Make plans for the summer.  I don’t think we should pretend that summer is not right around the corner, instead, we need to have some frank conversations about what their plans are and more specifically, what their reading plans are.  Many of my students told me today that they did not plan on reading at all, this is the reality many of us face, and yet I still have four weeks to showcase the most incredible books I can find.  Book talk with urgency and help them create long can’t-wait-to-read lists.  Partner with the next year’s teachers, partner with your school librarian, partner with those at home and help them remember to read.

Reflect on their growth.  I don’t think all of my students know how much they have grown, how much they can do, how much more they are now than when they began.  I think the is common for most kids, after all, growing smarter is a gradual affair.  So build in time for them to actual realize their growth, their successes, and also to goal set for next year.

Stay in the present.  Ah so that makes nine, but this one is so important.  It is so easy to get caught up in thinking about next year and even planning for next year, and yet; these are the kids we still have.  We are still in the current school year, so if we don’t stay in the present, neither will our students.  Love them, keep getting to know them, praise them, laugh with them, believe in them, and keep pushing them to strive for more.  After all, next year, you will miss them, we always do.  And just perhaps, if we are lucky enough, they will pop their heads in on that first day of school, just to say hi.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Ideas For How to Do Better Book Clubs in Middle School

In 2015, I wrote a post discussing how I was doing book clubs with my 7th graders and how their ideas had shaped our process to be more powerful.  Two years later, I look at some of those ideas and see how my thinking has changed and also how much more ownership the student shave taken.  I, therefore, decided to update that post with what it looks like now.

I knew when I moved to 7th grade that book clubs would be one of the things that moved with me.  That shared reading experience where students would get to just read and discuss is something I have loved having in the classroom the past few years.  I knew it would be a  different experience in the middle school classroom, after all , heir maturity would push their thinking, what I had not accounted for was also how my whole approach to the purpose of it would need to change to cater to a more critical mindset.  So what do book clubs in the middle school classroom need to be successful?

Then:

An honest conversation.  I would not have gotten student buy in if I had not had an honest conversation with them beforehand.  They needed a chance to vent all of their frustrations with book clubs in order to see how this time around they might be different.  They needed to know that their thoughts and yes, feelings, were validated and considered.  While most would have invested themselves in the process simply because it was expected, I didn’t want that type of buy-in, I wanted a genuine desire to use this for good, to enjoy the 4 weeks or so it would last.

Now:  

This is still how we start our book club explorations.  This one-day conversation is all about figuring out what they love, what they don’t, and how to make sure that they understand the bigger idea behind book clubs; having great conversations about a fascinating text.  This is, therefore, the first thing that happens as we embark on that adventure, after this, the kids start to figure out who they would like to have a book club with.

Then:

Choice in books.  I know it is easier to have a few pre-selected books for students to choose from so we can help facilitate the conversations, but with more than 100 students to cater to I knew I needed choice and lots of it.  With the help of my amazing library team, bonus points from Scholastic, and the phenomenal Books4school, I was able to present the students with more than 50 different choices for titles.  This way no group needed to share books and all students should be able to find something to agree on.  I also told them that if they couldn’t find anything, to let me know, we would find the right book for them.

Now:

This still holds true – the students all get to select their books and I now have more than 70 titles for them to choose from.  There is no overlaying theme between all of the books, although most, if not all, have a theme of perseverance.  This year, I have also added in some nonfiction titles and am thinking of adding more.  One thing that has helped me is by reading all of the books that I have as choices.  That way I know whether they actually have great things to discuss or not.    I also have this many books because I think it is important that the students can bring their books out of class, that way they can stay on track with the pages they need to read without worrying about access to the book.  Finally, one teacher shared the idea of having kids read individual books and then grouping by theme.  I find this to be a fascinating idea and may play with this next year.

Then:

Choice in who they read with.  Working with adolescents have made it crystal clear to me just how vulnerable they feel in these developing years and how much they value when their input is used to determine groupings.  So students are grouped together using some of their data, but also who they would like to read with and why.

Now:

I am adding an interview component to the process, as some kids do not realize how different their reading preferences, abilities, or ideas are from some of their closest friends.  This year they will, therefore, fill out this inventory and then interview potential people for their book clubs.  They will then hand in their sheet to me and I will group them together as best as I can to their preferences, but also including kids who may otherwise be left out.  For the first time ever, inspired by the idea of Kelly, one of our amazing special ed teachers, a few kids will also be given the choice of whether they want to do a book club with a chapter book or picture books that have to do with perseverance.

Then:

Choice of rules.  While I may have an idea for how a book club should function, I needed student ownership over the reading, as well as how their discussions would unfold.  All groups decided their own rules and posted them on the wall.  It has been powerful to see them guide their conversations, and yes, also dole out consequences to members within their groups that have not read or are not participating.

Students self-made rules hang as a reminder on our wall

Now:

I no longer have students post their rules, instead they just share them with me and I do periodical check ins.

Then:

Choice in speed.  All of my groups read at different paces, so they determine how many pages a night they need to read as well as when they would like to have the book finished by within our 4-week time frame.  One group, in fact, has already finished a book.

Now:

We now reserve three weeks for book club time, I ask them to pace it out so they finish with two or so days left of those three weeks.  They create a reading calendar and it gets glued into their reader’s notebooks.

Then:

Choice in conversation.  Book clubs should not function around the teacher, in fact, I have noticed that when I do listen in to an otherwise lively conversation the students immediately get timid in most cases.  I have learned to listen from a distance and only offer up solid small ideas to push their conversation further when they really needed it.  Too often our mere presence will hijack a group and students don’t learn to trust their own opinions and analysis.  Removing yourself from the process means students have to figure it out.  For those groups that struggle we talk about in our private mini-lesson.

Now:

While I still have students run their conversations, I do give them ideas of what to discuss in their book clubs so that they have a starting point.  They are also given an individual project to work on with their book (figuring out the theme and other literary elements) and so I tell them that they can use each other to help with finding the signposts (from Notice and Note) and what they mean.  This year, I will also be listening in to their discussion once a week and take some notes on what and how they are discussing hoping to work with them on their discussion skills.

Then:

Choice in abandonment.  I do not want students stuck with a book they hate, so some groups chose to abandon their books within a week and made a better choice.  Rather than think of it as lost reading time, I cheered over the fact that my students know themselves as readers.  All of my students are now reading a book that they at the very least like and that is an accomplishment in my eyes.

Now:

This still stands, except they now have to abandon it within three days.  I will also let students switch groups within the first week if they hate the book or the group dynamics do not work.  They, then, have to make up for lost time in the reading of their pages.

Then:

Choice in length and meeting time.  Students are allotted time every other day to meet in their book clubs and have 28 minutes to discuss and read some more.  While I have told student to try to push their conversations, I have also urged them to keep them under 10 minutes unless they are having a great discussion.  Students vary the length of their book clubs depending on what their self-chosen topic of discussion is and figure out how their group works best in the process.

Now:

Students are still given time every day to either read or discuss, they need to discuss every third day for sure and they can decide how long they want their discussions to last.  I do a quick check-in with them after their discussion to see how they did and how productive it was.

Then:

Choice in final product.  While our true purpose of having book clubs is to have a shared reading experience, I am also asking the students to do a book talk of some sort when they finish.  There are two reasons behind this; to assess the standards we are covering in the quarter but also for them to develop their critical thinking skills.  If the book they read is not suited for future book clubs then I need to know why.  I don’t want students to have a lengthy project because that is not what book clubs are about.

Now:

We no longer do the book talk, it didn’t work, it was too loose and the kids didn’t buy into it.  We now have two separate projects – an individual one and a group one.  The individual one is for the students to hand in a literary analysis of their book discussing the theme and the development of one of the main characters.  This is a typed paper, less than a page, that they hand in a week after book clubs end.  The group project is the 12-word book summary, detailed here.  They get two days in class to work on it.

While my method for integrating book clubs may seem loose at best, I have found incredible buy-in from the students.  They have been excited to read their books, they have been excited to share their thoughts, and the accountability that they feel toward one another is something I would not be able to produce through force.  Middle schoolers need a framework to grow within, they need our purposes to be authentic as much as possible, and they need to have a voice in how things function within our classroom.  Book clubs offer us a way to have these moments in reading that abound with deep reading conversations that I may not be able to have as a whole group, they allow even the quietest student to have a voice.  They allow students to feel validated in their thoughts and they allow them to share their knowledge with each other.  What have you done to create successful book clubs?

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

The Reading Identity Challenge

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At the beginning of the year, I asked my students to tell me how they felt about reading.  I do this every year as it offers me a baseline, a glimpse into their reading truths.  I was not surprised at the results, 25% told me they loved it, 50% told me they didn’t mind it, and the final 25%?  They told me they hated it.  Perhaps slightly higher than normal, but nevertheless, teaching 7th graders, I was not worried.  After all, every year it seems this happens and every year, children change their minds.

This year, though, some have proven to be stubborn.  Those kids that hate reading, they still were fighting me every step of the way.  Abandoning books, which we do embrace, every single day.  Refusing to book shop even.  Flipping pages aimlessly day in and day out.  Not having any desire to change their hatred, content with being part of the statistics of kids that don’t read.

So I created the Student Reading Identity Challenge.  Not just for the kids who still hated reading, but for those that needed a spark, those that needed to stretch their reading legs a little.  For myself to challenge my own reading life, nervously glancing at Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as two books I had no desire to read but knew I should.

A reading challenge for us all, so we all could get better, whatever better meant to us.  The concept is simple; over the course of three weeks or so students would select one aspect of their personal reading life and challenge themselves to make it better or change it.  Much like a personal goal; there was no right challenge, instead, it was based on the individual’s needs, the hopes for the future.   There was no limit to what they could work on and they would be given around twenty minutes every day to read, rather than our usual ten.

We started with this five-page survey; yes, five pages.  I needed students in all their stages of reading relationship to uncover new truths about themselves.  It needed to go beyond whether they liked to read or not and into their actual reading habits.  Where are they reading, what are they reading, why are they not reading more?  Where are their book gaps?  Where do they get book recommendations from?  All those little things that play into who they are as a reader.  It took the kids almost two days to fill it out because I asked them to please slow down, please really think about it, and then show your goal to me.

The goals varied; I want to enjoy reading again, I want to try a new genre, I want to read every day.  Some couldn’t think of one until we looked through all of their answers and something jumped out at us.  Whatever the goal was there was a reason, a personal one, that this was the one thing they felt would help them become a better reader.  Some kids even chose a read aloud with another teacher so they could have a shared experience around a book, trying to help them actually like reading more.  For every goal there was a story; a story of reading blossomed or reading gone wrong.  For every goal there was either excitement or reprehension; how would this actually change anything?  Once all the goals were in place, I asked the kids to somehow keep track – how will you know you are working on your goal?  Some chose a calendar to write down minutes or rank their reading of the day, some chose a peer to speak about their reading.  This is the one component I am still working on, I did not want it to be a writing experience, one where the students would have to jot down their thoughts every day, but instead, an organic process for them that helped them have a great experience, not one more thing to do.

So we began; some kids book shopped the first few days, having to find a great book as part of their goal as well,  others dove right in.  I taught a mini-lesson every day and then the rest of the time was for them to read.  I pulled small groups, conferred with students, and otherwise watched.  Were they actually reading?  Was this actually working…

One child told me she was so confused in her fantasy book and this was exactly why she never read fantasy because “It doesn’t make any sense!” and yet because of the challenge she read on, declaring at the end of the book that she couldn’t wait for the sequel. Another told me she was stuck in the boring part and this was always when she abandoned a book, but now because of the challenge, she read on.  A child who has yet to read a single book this year, no matter my support, is on page 60 of Hatchet, telling me yesterday that he read 20 pages in one day.

Whatever their goal, I saw it gradually start to happen; kids finding a way to make reading better for themselves.  Kids realizing more deeply who they are as readers, where they are on their reading journey.  For some, it has proven to be a huge revelation, for others just a small one.  But for most, it has changed something in them as a reader.  For most, there is a deeper urge to make reading enjoyable, no matter what they are reading.

So yesterday, I taught my first two classes, followed my lesson plan to the tee.  But in my 5th hour, the students asked if they could please read for ten minutes today, knowing I had only allocated ten.  Of course, I said.  When the fifteen were up, they asked for five more minutes.  Of course, I said.  When the five were up they asked if they could please just read the rest of the class.  As twenty-five students stared at me, seemingly holding their breath, I said, “Of course.”  And then watched the thickest of silences fall over the room as they each retreated into their books.  Even the ones who tell me they hate reading.  Even the ones who used to flip pages.  I did the same for the rest of my classes, and it didn’t change; silence, except for the pages being turned, and one child telling me triumphantly that they had read fifteen pages today – more than they read all of last week.

The reading identity challenge is not the end all be all, but it is another step in helping students uncover another aspect of who they are as readers.  It is another tool to help them become empowered in their own reading journey.  It is another step to tell all of my students that reading matters and that they control so much of their relationship with reading.  That new genres await, that it is possible for reading to be fun, that they can make it through the boring parts, that they can go deeper in their text.  That reading should be a part of who they are and therefore also should be something they mold and shape as they develop further.

As for me?  It turns out that Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were amazing books.  That I have realized that perhaps I should be looking at other classic children’s book gaps to make sure I am able to recommend them to kids.  That even though I love reading, I still have things to work on.  Just like my students, just like we all do.

PS:  Here is the reflection sheet I had them fill out at the end.  The standard referenced is one that measures providing evidence for their thoughts.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

We Don’t Just Teach Curriculum

My first year of teaching I don’t think I ever thought about the end of the year until the end came.  Taught every day as if this was the only day that mattered.  Taught every day with short-term goals in mind but was too overwhelmed to think about the whole year.  To think about how my 4th graders would have changed by the time they were ready for 5th.  I think this is common, it is part of the first year survival strategy.  One day at a time, sometimes it seems like one lesson at a time.  We keep the whole child in mind but really just teach the skills that we set out to cover and hope we do a well enough job.

Now, nine years in and counting, with the feedback given to me by my students, I keep an eye on the end.  Not to count it down, in fact the end always comes to soon, but instead to remember the big picture, the end destination; better children, bigger minds, more knowledge, more self awareness.

So while I teach to ensure equal success with our content, I also teach with a larger goal in mind, always propelling us forward; how to become better human beings.  How to walk away from 7th grade English and feel like they know themselves better.  How to adapt any learning environment to learn better.  How to have courageous conversations.  How to figure to figure out who they are and where they want to go.

So we weave in the small, but often missed, questions throughout our curriculum, throughout our explorations.  I ask my students what is their writing process, they often have little clue, and we revisit the question as the year progresses, so that they know that this matters to who they are.

I ask them how they adapt the environment to fit their needs.  Where do they sit to learn?  How do they learn best?  How does who they sit by affect the way they feel about our class?

I ask after every major unit what they grew on and what is next, how will they get there?  They always assess themselves on anything bigger before I do, after all, they need to have a part in what they have accomplished.  I ask for feedback on the things we do to make sure they matter to the kids.

I offer choice, of course, but not just in product, but in engagement, in assessment, in process, because sometimes product choice is not an option.  I constantly ask them to self assess, even those who cannot be bothered, so that they know that how they feel they did matters to me and to them.  We stop and discuss when we need to and adjust course when we must.

I ask them who they are, how they feel, and how I can be a better teacher for them, for the class.  Do they feel respected, do they feel this matters, do they want to come to class?  And I listen, and I do something based upon what they tell me.

We were never meant to just cover curriculum, we were never meant to just prepare kids for the test, for the next year, for college and career readiness.  We were meant to be the handlers of the future.  To guide our children to stay curious.  To protect the innate love of learning they come to us with.  We were meant to help create a better populace that can accept who they are and know that within them there are things that matter, things that still need work.

So don’t just cover the curriculum, don’t just go through day to day.  Embrace the amazing opportunity that comes with being in education; the chance to shape the future with the conversations we have now.  We are not just teachers of our subject areas, we are teachers in every wonderfully convoluted term of the word.  So ask questions beyond the subject, give time to reflect, to slow down, and to find  a pathway to being better.  Keep an eye on the end not because you want the year to be over, but because in the end, you know that what you did together mattered.  That those kids you were lucky enough to teach grew in more areas than one.  That is the promise we can make every day.  That is a promise we can keep.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

A Better Way to Write Fiction Stories

We have been immersed in fiction writing for the past three weeks.  I have been amazed at the focus of my students, at the need for creation,and also their creativity.  As always, the plans I started with now look nothing like the plans we had, and so I thought it only fair to share what writing fiction in 7th grade English has looked like for the past three weeks and what I have learned and remembered.

Create Something

I knew that I did not need them to create the same product, after all, my standards assessed involve organization, word choice, conventions, and plot.  Nowhere does it say that they must write a certain story, but instead I asked them to create something that would allow me to assess these things .  I have been enthralled with their creativity process; yes, many students gravitated toward a written story with a neat beginning, middle, end, but others stretched their legs writing Minecraft fan fiction, movie scripts, picture books and even choose your own adventures.  I have students co-creating stories from opposite perspectives, I have students writing free verse (it is harder than it looks).  I have tales from their own lives and ones they have invented with made up words of their own.  Because it has been their story, their way, they have wanted to work on it every day, excited to share it with others.

Few Lessons

I have spent most evenings leaving feedback to students, thank you Google Classroom for making my life easy.  I have spent most class periods meeting with students asking them to tell me what I should look at when I read their work and then helping them from where they are.  I have gathered information on lessons needed and tried to support each child on their own writing journey, with the help of the support teachers I sometimes have.  Always trying to move students one step further and helping them think about what they need next, rather than a broad lesson that could apply to all.  The few whole class lessons we have had have been brief and centered around reminders on paragraphing, dialogue, and consistent verb tenses.

Speak Up

I have asked the students to please speak to one another, to please share their stories, to find those they want to write with and use each other as I use my own writing friends.  I started with putting them into writing trio groups but since abandoned the idea, realizing that the stilted conversations they were having would never get them much further and instead asking them to find someone that will not only read their work, but also be honest in their criticism.  This is still a work in progress, but I have seen the improvements, I have seen the growth and know there is something there.

Best Draft

I have asked them for their best draft, not their final version, and I owe so much to Kelly Gallagher for this wording.  Gone is the anxiety over perfection.  Gone is the notion that they must reach an unachievable goal as they hurtle toward the end.  Instead they work diligently, trying to get it to the best of their abilities before they turn it over to me.  Before they turn it over for more feedback that will ultimately push their story even further.  They know the process is not done just because they hand it in today, because the project is called best draft, even though in reality, many of them have handed in amazing stories that need little more work.

Use the Space

I have asked them to please find out how they write best within the environment we have.  How they best can support their own writing process, how they can use the classroom in a way that helps them better focus and find their flow.  Kids have been in corners, moved tables, on bean bags and in the team area.  We have had music, gum, and conversation.  For some we have had headphones for quiet and spaces to concentrate.  Each child is now a step closer to knowing how they write best, even within the confinements of a typical English classroom.

Find the Experts

For the past three months we have reached out to those who have walked the path before us; the authors that inspire us to write better.  Using Skype we have asked amazing authors whose books delight us what their writing process is and how they edit.  Every class has had different conversations but they have all centered around the same thing; find your own way, there is no right way for all, just a right way for you.  Hearing it from the mouths of those whose books inspire us will always amplify the message we already teach; writing needs t be a part of you so find your way of writing.

So now what?  We rest a little.  We change our focus as our stories simmer in our minds and then in a about a week we return.  Once the dust has settled, we look at the feedback we have received and we try to make it better.  We speak of revision as if it is just one step but I know from my own writing experience that revising is ongoing, editing is hard, and that it sometimes means stepping away only to come back later.  I still have much to learn as a 7th grade English teacher, I still have much to figure out, but this process?  It made a difference in the last three weeks.  Who knows how they will grow as writers next?

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.