being a student, being a teacher, being me, hopes, Passionate Readers, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student Engagement, teaching, Writing Identity

Creating Passionate Writers – Next Masterclass Kicks Off Tomorrow

Moving to America at the age of 18, gave me a whole new education. An education in privilege, in control, in power, and how to know your place. To pursue your dreams but only if others see you as worthy of that dream.

Becoming a teacher in the American public school system has been one of my greatest joys but also one of my biggest frustrations, my biggest moments of failure, of regret. The power handed those of us with teaching degrees is immeasurable; I can continue the systemic inequities of the structures we work within, or I can learn, listen, question, dismantle, disturb, and create an education that is truly for all kids. I didn’t know that when I started as an educator, my own privilege awarded me blinders and ear muffs. But 10 years ago I started to wake up, a little at a time, although not fast enough, and I recognized that how I used control as a way to ascertain my power in the classroom meant that not all kids could thrive, that not all kids were cared for. That my classroom might have said “Welcome” but those were shallow words. And it was echoed in the curriculum we did and how I helped students grow, how I used choice, how I used rewards and punishment.

And so I started to change the way I taught, the way I thought of education, of my own power within the classroom. I immersed myself in the expertise and wisdom of others who have been on this journey so much longer than I have, I started to ask my students questions I should have been asking from the start and I started writing this blog; sharing my thoughts out loud, inviting others on the journey as I stumbled through and tried to create an education that might work for all kids. A shared experience that would center on the identity of each child rather than the curriculum. It is the work I continue to do and will for a long time. I continue to stumble through on this journey, I continue to share on here, I continue to learn and grow from others while offering my own journey up and now I have been invited by CUE and Microsoft to share through their channels as well as a way to invite you into the journey.

And so I invite you into a conversation surrounding the writing we do in our classrooms with students and how we can use storytelling not just as a way to teach standards but to help students examine and find power within their own identity and story. To come along with me as I share the questions we discuss in our community, the writing we do, and also the resources I have learned from so perhaps you can learn from them as well. So if you have space in your life or a desire to go on this journey with me, please go here to register

The Masterclass will be three parts much like the other masterclass I have done this summer, you can join live or access the recording when it is posted here. I will also be finishing up Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice. part 3 this week, on Thursday at 11 AM PST.

Posting this today, I also know that not everyone is in a place for PD or perhaps that this is not the type of PD you want to immerse yourself in, this is okay. The world is rightfully continuing to need our attention and perhaps you are putting in your energy elsewhere or fully taking a break. I know I have been taking many breaks the last few weeks as I plan for actions in the fall and right now, but for those of you who want to learn with and from me, please know that there will be several offerings all the way through summer.

Live office hours will start up next week – my first drop in one is on the 22nd at 8 AM PST. This is a great opportunity for you to bring problems of practice and we can brainstorm together for an hour or so. If you participate in the Global Read Aloud, you can also use the office hours to brainstorm with me or just ask questions.

All of these sessions are free and the sessions are recorded (office hours are not) so even if you can’t or don’t want to be there live, you can access them later.

The schedule for the rest of the summer’s free PD from me looks like so:

Sessions:

  • 6/17 7 AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt1
  • 6/18 10:30 AM PST – Choice and Voice Pt 3
  • 6/24 7 AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt 2
  • 7/1 7AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt 3
  • 7/8 11 AM PST – Passionate Readers – stand-alone session
  • 7/15 11 AM PST – Masterclass: But They Still Hate Reading – Supporting and Developing Student Reading Identity Pt 1
  • 7/22 11 AM PST – Masterclass: But They Still Hate Reading – Supporting and Developing Student Reading Identity Pt 2
  • 7/29 11 AM PST – Masterclass: But They Still Hate Reading – Supporting and Developing Student Reading Identity Pt 3
  • 8/6 7 PM PST – Passionate Learners – stand alone session
  • 8/13 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 1
  • 8/20 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 2
  • 8/27 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 3


Office hours:

  • 6/22 – 8 AM PST
  • 6/28 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/2 – 7 PM PST
  • 7/5 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/12 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/19 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/26 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/29 – 7 PM PST
  • 8/7 – 8 AM PST
  • 8/15 – 8 AM PST
  • 8/16 – 8 AM PST
  • 8/23 – 8 AM PST

I hope I can be of service through these sessions. I hope to see some of you there.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. I offer up workshops and presentations both live and virtually that are based on the work I do with my own students as we pursue engaging, personalized, and independent learning opportunities. I also write more about the design of my classroom and how to give control of their learning back to students in my first book, Passionate Learners.

Be the change, choices, student choice, Student Engagement

How Do I Learn Best – Setting Students Up For Learning Success Beyond Our Classroom

How do i learn best Design

I never planned on teaching through a global pandemic. I doubt anyone did. And yet, here we are, two months to the date when I last saw all of my incredible students in our classroom as I told them, “Take care of yourself, thank you for today, have a great weekend…”

Had I known that March 13th would be the last day of our face-to-face school year, I would have done so many things different. Loaded them up with books. Made sure they cleaned out their lockers. Taken their questions. Created plans. Made sure they knew who to turn to and how to get a hold of us. Told them how much our community has meant to me every day. Hugged them if they wanted to. And yet, now, two months into whatever we are calling this kind of teaching, I am so glad that there were things that we did do all year that has helped us as we transitioned to fully online, to this independent study with support from teachers rather than what school normally is. There are steps that we took as a team all year that our students now say pay off as they sit at home, trying to navigate this online world.

For the past ten years, I have tried to create a classroom where students are given the space to shape their own learning, to discover how they learn best, to go past grades to reflect more deeply on their own needs as learners and as humans and then act on those needs if possible. To create ownership over their learning rather than have school just “be done” to them. I have tried to create an environment where students help plan the lessons, shape how they will be assessed, and also what and how we should pursue our learning. It means that every year there are parts of our learning specifically set up to to do this and it is these parts that now help us have more success in whichever way we define success these days.

So I thought I would give a brief overview of these parts, but also let you know that how to do this is the central question of my book Passionate Learners and that I do virtual and in-person workshops on it as well. (If you would like to have me do this work for you, please reach out).

Part 1: How do you learn best?

This central question is one that we pursue in all of our choices because it is not just that I want a child to be able to be successful in 7th grade English, I want them to take the skills and knowledge they have gained about themselves and apply it to their life after 7th grade English. I want them to be able to walk into a learning situation and know how to advocate for themselves as well as make smart choices that will lead to success. Perhaps too big of a goal but a goal nonetheless.

So how do you learn best applies to where you sit, who you work with, how you approach a project, how do you want to be helped, and even how do you want to be assessed? It applies to every part of how we are in the learning community and how we reflect on ourselves and then use that knowledge to create better conditions for ourselves. A small way of working through this can be seat selection; do I learn best seated on a chair, a yoga ball, a stool, on the floor, standing or lying down? How does where I am in the classroom impact what I can do? How does who I work with impact my learning? How do I approach new topics in a way that makes sense for me? We try out, we reflect on our choices, we discuss, and we draw conclusions in order to move along in our journey. We also discuss how this applies to our “regular” outside lives away from school. How can we speak up and advocate for ourselves and others in order to create change?

This question is central to everything we do. It is where I feel I see some of the largest growth in our year together. It is where I see a lot of engagement shifts for students, especially those where school has not been something they have cared for or felt safe in before.

Part 2: What are your choices?

In order for us to know how we learn best, we have to try out a lot of things. This is why choice in many different aspects of their learning is such a cornerstone of everything we do. Whether it is choice in product, choice in who they learn with, choice in how they learn something, choice in how they are assessed, or even choice in their setting, every choice they are are offered and then make will give kids further insight into how they learn best. Because even what may appear as a “bad” choice is something you can learn from. And so always providing students with choice in some aspect of their learning is part of my planning. If I cannot provide them choice in their product due to state or district standards, then I need to make sure they have other choices to use. They need to have a say in as many components as possible in order to feel proper ownership and also be able to make great and not so great choices. This goes for all students, not just those who have earned it. So this means that even if a child repeatedly makes not so great choices, that we continue to dialogue with them and help them make choices that will support their learning. This doesn’t mean they always get free range but that all kids need to have at least some choices at their disposal, otherwise, we cannot expect them to ever make great choices on their own.

This is one of the things I love the most about being a teacher; providing a safety net for students to explore many different options even if they don’t lead to the type of success they, or we, had hoped for. Our schools should be a safe place to make mistakes. Often kids – and adults – assume that if a child doesn’t complete work or doesn’t use their time wisely that they have failed in the learning, and yet the experience of not being able to do something well is rife with chances for exploration and reflection.

Part 3: What did you learn?

Rather than assume a child has failed if a product is not finished, this is the chance to discover what they did learn in the process about themselves. Did they discover that they need to work with an adult more closely? That selecting the teammates they did, did not work out. That they didn’t do their part and that led to group strife? Giving them built-in chances to assess themselves and the process of learning they have engaged in in order to see what they need to change is a powerful tool in learning and one that needs to be central whenever there is a natural end to a learning cycle. This is also a chance to celebrate any successes they have had; what worked well? What should they replicate in the future? What do they know about themselves now that they didn’t before?

We often assume that students will naturally take this time to internalize these reflections and know what works and what doesn’t, but in my experience this is not always the case. Often, we need to build in time to reflect so that the transfer of realization can happen for each child. We do this through surveys, reflection prompts, and conversations, whatever fits best for the moment. In the beginning of the year, the reflection is often fast and shallow but as the year progresses, I start to see further depth in their answers because we discuss what it means to know yourself. I also offer up more in class chances to share how they are growing as learners which then helps other students go through the process as well.

Part 4: How do you handle obstacles?

Throughout the year, we inevitably have a lot of failures and missteps, but rather than see them as such, they are only thought of as learning opportunities, both for the students and myself. Often these are small such as getting behind on a larger project, being distracted in class, or even just not using the tools provided in a meaningful way, but sometimes it turns into fully missed learning opportunities or complete breakdown in the learning. While this is frustrating for the student, and sometimes the teacher, when it happens there is so much that can be learned from these obstacles because inevitably students will face obstacles in the future that are similar. So rather than give up or assume that obstacles are out of our control, we work through them together and try to solve them together.

When I first started out as a teacher, I assumed that I had to solve every problem for a child, now I know my role as the teacher is to make sure they have an adult to help them solve something if they want to but that we solve it together. And also that sometimes a solution is not what we had hoped for but it will work for now.

Setting up opportunities for students to reflect on the obstacles they faced as well as how they navigated them is a powerful way to invite them into further investment into their own learning. It allows us, the teachers, a way to see which obstacles we have inadvertently placed in the path of students because often I find that it is one of my components or ideas that are causing problems, not just the choices or actions of the students. Sharing the ownership of the learning helps me grow as a practitioner in ways that are instrumental to the changes I make and seek out.

Part 5: Do you trust yourself?

I have to trust my students that they are trying. That they are giving me what they are able to give me in the moment. I have to trust that the feedback they give me is something that matters. That even choices I don’t understand are a way for them to grow. This also means that I have to continually give students chances to prove to me that they can handle further responsibility. That students constantly get a chance to try again and that I don’t narrow their choices because I think I know best and that they will not be able to handle something. Instead I state my concerns upfront and we come up with a plan.

So continually thinking about how responsibility can be shared comes down to how much we trust our students. Even if a child didn’t make a great choice the first time around doesn’t mean that they won’t now. And that is central to what we do; always resetting, always reflecting, always pursuing the learning that we need to do in order to grow as human beings and not just in English.

So you may ask; what does all of this have to do with what we are doing right now? Well, for us, it means lots of choices in their learning – 9 different learning paths options as we speak right now . It means that many students are able to reach out to get what they need or ask the questions they have in order to navigate the obstacles in their way. It means that students are giving me feedback on the learning we are doing and offering up ideas for how to make it better. It means that they are advocating for themselves or finding adults that can help them. It means that many students feel confident in English right now despite all of the format being differently because the independence and advocacy piece has been cultivated and grown all year. Even if that confidence leads to letting me know that the work is too much right now, because that is a win in itself.

And so as I look ahead at the potential for starting next year online, my mind is buzzing with ideas of how we will create the same conditions for next year’s class even if we do not start face to face. Of how students’ voices will be a central component to everything we do in English because that is what we do. Of how I can help guide kids through the reflections we need to do so they can disocver what they already are capable of and how they would like to grow.

The world may look different right now, but that doesn’t mean our philosophy has to change, just the implementation of it. And I am here to help if anyone needs it.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. I offer up workshops and presentations both live and virtually that are based on the work I do with my own students as we pursue engaging, personalized, and independent learning opportunities. I also write more about the design of my classroom and how to give control of their learning back to students in my first book, Passionate Learners.

being a student, being a teacher, questions, Reading, student choice, student driven, Student Engagement

Stepping Into Inquiry – How to Write an Inquiry Question

Last year, after we finished our first read aloud, we released our kids into their first inquiry project. While we had scaffolds in place, there was plenty of choice, and also specific lessons targeting research skills, my special ed teacher, Kelly, and I still stood back and felt like what we were doing was simply not enough. Or perhaps that it was too much. That somehow we were simply pushing kids through research and yet there were so many executive functioning skills and also simple research skills that we were assuming kids already had a handle of. And yet, they didn’t not all of the kids, despite the wonderful teaching that had happened before 7th grade. We saw it fall apart a bit when kids were really worried about the end product but not focused on what they were learning throughout the unit and they weren’t fully grasping the research skill lessons we were teaching because there was this larger pressure to produce a speech answering their inquiry question.

So this year, we knew we had to do something different. Rather than have students do a full inquiry project into a topic tied in with The Bridge Home, our read aloud, we wanted to create an inquiry project into the art of research itself, not worrying about a final product but instead walk students through specific research skills in separate modules. Sounds great, right? Yet what we quickly were reminded of was that the art of research itself is vast, which we knew, so we had decisions to make; which 7 or 8 research skills did we really want to focus on as a baseline for the kids as we introduced 7th grade inquiry skills.

Knowing that this was a great chance to cross-collaborate between other subject areas , we did just that; surveyed other teachers to see what they thought was important to establish a baseline in, as well as brought it up as a problem of practice in our consultancies with colleagues. The results were clear, we would love 7th graders to be able to have an initial understanding of:

  • How to write an inquiry question
  • How to take notes using the Cornell Method of notetaking
  • How to cite their sources using Easybib – MLA
  • How to avoid plagiarism and understanding what plagiarism was
  • How to use Google Search better
  • How to use our databases
  • How to potentially revise their inquiry question
  • How to use the C.R.A.A.P method to check for reliability
  • How to check for bias in their sources
  • How to find the main idea and supporting details
  • How to synthesize their information into original thought – a primer
  • How to evaluate whose voices are missing and how do those missing voices impact the validity of the research

But that’s a lot so how do we do all that without losing kids in the process? Enter in discussion with my new wonderful colleague, Chris, my fabulous literacy coach, Andrea, and also our incredible librarian, Christine. With the help of them I was able to synthesize some of the thoughts we had about what kids would be able to do as, well as look at which standards this would even cover because we would also need to find a way to assess what kids were doing. After looking at all 9 standards for the year, we pulled the following standards out:

  • Standard 2:  Draw and cite evidence from texts to support written analysis.
  • Standard 3: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  • Standard 5: Evaluate claims in a text; assess and express the soundness and relevance of reasoning.

Knowing this led us to creating 8 different modules for students to work on throughout the month of November. We knew we wanted choice throughout and also for students to feel supported and not feel ashamed if they wanted to work in a small group with the teacher and instead embrace the knowledge that they knew what they needed at that time to be successful.

So the final modules with their standards assessed became:

  • Module 1: How to formulate an inquiry question – Standard 3 
  • Module 2: What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – Standard 3 
  • Module 3: How to use Google Search better – Standard 3 and 2
  • Module 4: How to use our databases (taught by our librarian) – Standard 2 and 3
  • Module 5: How to assess the credibility of a source – CRAAP method ALSO Do you need to revise your inquiry question  Reg – Standard 5, Enriched Standard 2
  • Module 6: How to recognize bias – Standard 2 and 5 
  • Module 7: How to pull out a main idea and supporting details that tie in with your inquiry question – Standard 3
  • Module 8: How to synthesize information without plagiarizing – Standard 3

We launched the inquiry unit while still immersed in our read aloud, The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. While we did a lot of reading work, we also kept an I wonder page that we would visit now and again. We wrote down large questions we had about society as it tied in with the story we were listening to and moved away from predictions.

Sample wonderings included:

  • What do parents do when their children run away?
  • How does being homeless affect your mental health?
  • Who started the idea of landfills?
  • How can we reduce our waste as a family?
  • Which types of diseases affects children living on the streets of India?

Then it was time to launch our very first unit and what better way than to use a picture book?

Bringing us together with our readers’ notebooks we laughed at the whimsy within the pages and then I asked; what do you wonder about within the pages of our read aloud? As students shared, I encouraged others to write down the questions they also had as potential inquiry questions. I love when students nodded and agreed that they had questions about something similar. This also afforded me an opportunity to reiterate that their inquiry question should somehow be connected to the read aloud but should not be answered by the book, but that they instead needed to do research in order to come up with their own answer. We also stressed the importance of this being of interest to them, and while we had potential inquiry questions ready for those who refused or found it hard, we have found we haven’t needed them. This discussion then planted the seed for how to come up with a proper inquiry question.

Our next component of the day was taking notes on a video using a modified version of the Cornell notetaking method. We wanted to introduce kids to a way of taking notes that they can easily use in other classes and also encourage them to make them their own. Rather than do a stand alone lesson, my colleague, Chris, suggested having students take notes throughout as an integrated part of the units which is what we did. This has worked really well and much better than if I had done a separate unit on just note-taking. I explained how to set up their notebook and we watched the first video, How to Develop an Inquiry Question, uploaded to Youtube by Kansas State Libraries. The video was a good introduction to why developing a strong inquiry question was important before kids went any further with their work. We took some notes throughout as I paused the video and then introduced the final component; the reflection questions.

One of the things we discussed in our planning was that a major reason for this unit was for students to understand the transfer of these skills to other subject areas, and also to life outside of school. However, this doesn’t always happen without the proper time and reflection. Therefore, our students have four questions to answer every time they finish a module. They are collected in a packet that I hold on to for ease:

  • What do you think you will remember learning from this module?
  • How is this skill useful to you in life?
  • How is this skill you useful to you in school?
  • How could you use what you have learned in this module in geography/STEAM/or science when you have to do a research project?

After this, we released students into their student module 1 – note this was over the course of two days with 90 minute blocks of English and each student was given a copy of the slides to fill in. The student module 1 allowed them to watch another video that discussed the levels of inquiry questions, look at examples of inquiry questions, and then write different levels of inquiry questions. At the end, I asked them to please come up with a potential level 3 inquiry question that they would be interested in pursuing the next few weeks and then submit it to me. And then I held my breath, how would it go?

Reflection back:

After my first ELA block, I tweaked the student slides to make them easier for them to use and took out some unnecessary steps. There was general confusion between level 2 and 3, which I had suspected would happen and so we discussed as needed and I stressed that as long as they were out of “level 1” territory then I was happy. Some kids created much too broad or much too narrow questions and so I left them feedback or had conversations as needed, however, this is also something that will be assessed more in module 5.

One major thing we are still working on is overall time management, some kids are using all of their time well and thus working through everything with time to spare while others are not. Starting tomorrow, I will be asking students to join me in the small group to do the slides together in order for them to stay on track and not fall further behind.

I also tweaked my teaching slides, in order to get to their work time faster and not have so much talking from me.

Teaching Slides Day 1

Teaching Slides Day 2

The next module is Module 2 – What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – a one day module, hopefully.

I will continue to share as I work through all of this, the sharing helps me reflect on what I am missing and at times others share great resources as well, so feel free to ask questions or share resources.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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

being a student, being a teacher, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, Student Engagement

Creating Foundational Rights for Students Within Personalized Instruction.

A conversation I find myself having often with other educators is just what to do next for curriculum. How do we get everyone on the same page? How do we ensure that what we do is actually happening in different classrooms with different teachers? How do we ensure that the very kids we are entrusted with have somewhat similar experiences within our classrooms all while protecting the art of teaching?

You may think that textbooks with daily lessons are the answer, and for many it appears to be, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Dr. Allington reminds us, “…no
research existed then, or exists now, to suggest that maintaining fidelity to a core reading program will provide effective reading lessons.” (What Really Matters When Working With STruggling Readers, 2013) . Yet, fidelity has become a major selling point as we see many programs being touted to schools who are unsure what to do next. Fidelity has become a point of judgment; how closely aligned are we? Do we use the same texts? The same worksheets? The same words in order to ensure the same experience for all? I was once told by a well-meaning but ill-advised administrator that “I better be on the very same page of the textbook as my colleague next door” as he passed from classroom to classroom.

And yet if there is one thing I know about teaching, it is that our kids are not the same. From class to class, from year to year, the kids have needed different things. Have needed educators that are adept at adapting, that are unafraid to try something new, that know their research, but also know to seek out others for more ideas. Who know their own areas of growth so that they can provide better and better experiences year after year. Sure, use a program to start you off, but don’t forget about the very art of teaching that asks to be responsive to the very kids we teach, that require us to be disruptors of inequitable practices that have shaped the educational experience of so many.

I teach in a district that puts an incredible amount of trust in their teachers and fellow staff who support our students. Whose very core of teaching is autonomy, responsibility, and professional development. Who believes in developing teacher craft so that students can be vested in classroom experiences that speak to them personally and not just whatever the pacing or curriculum guide has told them to care about. Who believes in disrupting inequitable education experiences and providing the room to do so, supporting each teacher on their journey. But how do you then ensure that students aren’t unknowing members of an educational lottery where their growth is based on the experience and know-how of a single teacher? How can you create room for your teachers to personalize while still ensuring that certain experiences are in place?

The foundational idea is deceptively simple; create student rights together. A living breathing document that shows which experiences every child should have in every room, no matter the teacher. Live by it. Work by it. Discuss and change as needed.

But in practicality, how do you get there?

The first step is to have time to discuss what the experiences of students should be. What do we, as the practitioners, believe every child should have as rights in their English (Or whichever curricular area) educational experience? Reading books they like, having a librarian and time in the library, abandoning books, picking writing topics, a teacher that will confer with them, discussing relevant topics. Brainstorm as many things as you can. Group them to see patterns. And then step back.

What is missing? This isn’t something that is done quickly, after all, this will be a guiding document. Do research on best practices within your curricular area. What do you not know about? What do people like Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, Dr. Richard Allington, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Zaretta Hammond, or Dr. Louise Rosenblatt say about the experiences students deserve?

Then group all of the post-its or thoughts together. What are the clusters? What clearly speaks to all of you as a team? Try to come up with words that can tie it all together. Which patterns do you see? The right to read, to speak to one another, to have texts and materials that reflect their experience and the experience of others? The rights to connect with others? To free write? To skillful instruction? Again, pay attention to your own gap areas, which parts of instruction are you not thinking about? Do these potential rights mirror an entire experience or only parts of one?

Then translate the goals into actual experiences, such as if your team believes in student choice in reading, what will that actually look like? When will there be guaranteed time for that? How often do they get to choose? How will you support their choice? Who else will support it?

Then it may look something like this…

If students need…Empowerment – then we will commit to giving them choice throughout their time with us.

How: Choice in their independent reading book, choice in their topic of writing when possible, choice in who they work with, choice in who they share with, choice in how they work through learning. Space to reflect on their experience, speak up about it, and shape the teaching that happens.

If students need to read and write every day, then we will commit to giving them dedicated independent reading time every day and writing time every day.

How: Start with 20 minutes of independent reading focused on developing their relationship to reading and reading identity. An emphasis on free writing when not otherwise steeped in their own writing. Planning reading and writing experiences every day.

It may end up looking something like this then.

Go through each foundational right as a team and then commit to it as a team. Bring it up throughout the year to see whether you are actually living it. What are the opportunities for the students throughout the year? What is missing and needs to be added?

Having a foundational understanding of what the experiences should be for every child provides us with a guide of which direction to go while also being able to see our own gap areas. Where do we need to grow as practitioners? What are we not yet providing for students and how is that impacting them? How do our choices in our learning tie in with these rights?

So often we look at curriculum and think that is where to start with any changes when really what we need to do is step back and look at the foundational beliefs and rights that support and determine the curricular choices we make. Because those beliefs are what shape every single experience kids have with us. Because those beliefs sometimes hurt the very endeavors we are trying to accomplish. While I know our documents and guiding beliefs are not perfect, nothing ever is, it gives us a place to start when we discuss what we are working on, what kids need, and the disruptions that need to continue happening for all of our students. Perhaps these guidelines can help others as well.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.I . f you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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.     

new year, student choice, Student Engagement, talking, writing, Writing Identity

Setting Up Writing Circles in Middle School

This summer, I read the amazing book, Comprehension and Collaboration, 2nd Edition by Stephanie Harvey and Smokey Daniels as I knew I wanted to focus more on building true inquiry into our classroom.

One of the ideas mentioned in the book briefly was the idea of using writing circles, think lit circles but for writing, with students in order for them to gain a more long-term writing community, as well as a more developed relationship to their own role as writers. I loved the idea immediately and wanted to make it work for our kids., as having my own writing circle of trusted peers has helped me tremendously whenever I write books.

To start us off for the year, we discussed positive and negative aspects of writing by brainstorming. The question was based off of the work we have done with reading and followed the same format, rather than post-its, though, they did it in their writer’s notebook on a t-chart and then created a group response at their table. We then discussed as a class and created our writing rights together. These now hang in our room as a reminder of the type of writing experiences we would like to have.

Image result for pernille ripp writing rights
This year’s writing rights, the yellow post-its are my notes from their group discussion.

Then I wanted to introduce the concept of writing circles to students using something I knew they were familiar with; lit cirlces. How are writing circles like literature circles? I showed my students this side-by-side comparison to help them get thinking about the potential process and benefits waiting for them.

So first, what are the components of our writing circles?

  • Students choose peers to be in their writing circle – 3 to 4 people through an interview.
  • They write together, physically, as well as at times, actually in the same project.
  • They can write on the same topic but in different formats.
  • They share their work, discuss and encourage each other.
  • They serve as editors for each other providing critical and constructive feedback.
  • They serve as long-term writing partners and will, hopefully, develop further skills from each other, as well as develop a more natural writing relationship.
  • They build accountability toward the group and the group is an immediate circle to turn to for help.

The first step toward establishing their writing circles was to reflect on their own writing identity once more – see the screenshot below. This was a continuation of the discussions we have had where they have reflected on how writing intersect with them as human beings, that started with their writing survey for the year.

After they had reflected, they then interviewed seven other people in order to hear more about their writing identity. This was on the same sheet and looked like this – very similar on purpose. To see the full survey, go here.

Why seven? I wanted them go beyond their friend zone and knew that for some that would take a few people. Once they had interviewed seven people, I then asked them to reflect on the following questions.

  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may strengthen your skills as a writer? Note, these are people who have DIFFERENT strengths than you.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may not be a good fit for you because you share the same areas of growth or skills.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may you help grow as a writer? Compare your marked areas of strength to theirs.
  • Choose only three peers who you think may be a good fit and who will help you grow as a writer. Go outside of your comfort zone if it will help you grow.
  • If you want, you can add peers who you do not think will be a good fit, this is only for strong reasons, not to list all of the people you don’t want to be with.

Once they had reflected, they handed the surveys in to me and the puzzle began. I told them I would try my best to have at least one “wished for” peer in their group but also knew that some kids may benefit from other peers than the ones they selected.

The following day, their writing circles were revealed. We told them it would be a test run to see how they did with each other and that we would reassess as needed. While almost all groups worked out beautifully right away, a few needed minor tweaks which we handled within a day or two.

After the reveal, we asked them to find a designated spot that would always be their meeting spot. While many chose great spots, a few didn’t, and after a few days we did create new spots for some groups that allowed them to work better together. The main culprit was having space to speak to one another and space to have their materials and with 29 sudents it can get a bit tricky. Then inspired by Tricia Ebarvia’s Jenga games to start off the year, we had them play Jenga with each other in order to get to know each other. Here are her original questions, here are the questions we ended up using, some new, many of them hers. I had bought 5 Jenga games and split them into 9 games with 30 tiles each and it worked out perfectly. not only did it allow us to see how the circles would function as a group, but they also got a chance to get to know each other more. Thank you so much, Tricia for sharing all of your work around this!

Then, it was time to actually write something. And so we have been. We have been doing small prompts that they have shared with each other, they have read personal essays and memoirs and discussed them, they have written 6 word memoir, and most importantly they have shared their beginning writing with each other. As the students just submitted their first draft of a memoir or a personal essay, upcoming usage of their writing circle will be:

  • Navigate the feedback we have left – what does it really mean? Where do they need to start?
  • Be peer editors – we will be working on specific revision skills in order to help them edit each other’s work better as this is not a skill they are ready to just take on. As I model my own revisions, they will be doing the revision work on each other’s.
  • Search for “simple” mistakes such as conventions of writing that their own eyes may miss because it is too familiar with the writing.
  • Challenge them in their writing, hold them accountable to create better writing than what they started with.
  • Assess each other’s writing using the rubric and comparing it to their own self-assessment.

On Monday, as we start a wonky week where the only academic day we have together is Monday, they will write a group story as we have been discussing components of great stories. They will then act it out. So far, having this built in writing community has benefitted us in a few way:

  • They already know who to be with when they are writing and since they are mostly peers they have chosen there is a more natural collaboration happening.
  • They have each other to ask when they are stuck, when they are fleshing out ideas, as well as when they think they are done but need someone else to look at it.
  • They don’t have to wait for the teachers to look at their writing, they can go to each other first and then when their time is for a conference with me, they can come right up rather than waste time.
  • The students really seem to like it, no groans or moans when we ask them to get with their writing circles.
  • There is a lot more talk surrounding their writing, which was the main goal. We wanted to work on the social aspect of writing and to offer the kids a way to know that they are not alone when they feel burdened by writing.

I will continue to share the work of these writing circles as they will be a year-long endeavor, but wanted to share this for now. If you have any questions, please ask, I am just learning myself.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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.

being a student, being a teacher, new year, Student Engagement

Space

I have been thinking a lot about space lately.

Not the kind that surrounds us on a dark night, but the kind that surrounds us as individuals.

Perhaps it is because I have been flying more and as a woman, I constantly find my space taken by white men sitting next to me, refusing to even share an armrest.  I am so used to it, I have found I slip into patterns to make myself smaller in order to not encroach on their space.

Perhaps it is because in my thinking work this summer I keep coming back to how white my professional space is within my district, reflective of the lack of diversity of so many districts here in Wisconsin.  How can we change this to be reflective of the kids we teach?

Perhaps it is because I see the critical conversations surrounding education online and how often it is silenced because people say we need to speak nicely to each other, to not make the space unwelcoming or unkind.  We use these platitudes so often to silence the voices of those who have been silenced for so long that we fail to recognize the same destructive patterns.

Perhaps it is because I see my own daughters apologize for the space they take up at times as we remind them to be nice, to be kind, to speak appropriately, whatever that may mean.  Even as I cringe when the words slip out inadvertently, taught to me by many years of public socialization where we are taught which type of women should be heard in this American society.  And I can tell you from experience that the minute you raise your voice, you are deemed angry as if anger is a bad thing.

Perhaps it is because I feel like as a white woman I am often afforded more space because of my skin color than I really deserve.

Space, and how much space we are given, seems to be crowded with well-meaning intentions and misguided constraints.  Space and what we do with it also seems to be dictated by those who feel their space encroached upon and who must make a decision of whether enough there is enough space for us all.  (I think there is, but that is for a different time.)

I think of space when it comes to our students, how for years I have discussed student voice on this blog and how I have attempted to create an environment where students can speak up no matter what they are saying.  How for a long time, through my personal reflection, I have implored others to give students’ voice without recognizing the inherent problem in that statement; students already have a voice, they come to us loudly, yet, it is within our pursuit of calm and compliant that we silence them for the benefit of “learning for all.”  And so I come to the natural conclusion that my work is not about giving students a voice but instead about space and more specifically, giving them back the space we took from them in the first place.

And that starts with the very first day, the inequity of our voices as we go through our day with kids we don’t even know.  How many of us talk about those first days as exhausting because our voices are constantly heard?  How many of our students feel drained not because of all that they had to do but instead all they had to listen to?  How many of us plan out to the minute what we will be doing in order to “Set the year up right” without a care for how welcome or even safe students may feel in our rooms? Perhaps what we need is a little bit of silence, more them than us, more we than I.

So as I plan for those first of many days, I am thinking about the space of my voice.  The space of me within the room and how it needs to be balanced with the space of others.  How I need to think of my voice, the adult voice, as something that also takes up space and therefore needs to be weighed in order to give back space to others.  And not just in the classroom, but in life.  After all, we get one chance to start off right with these new kids, why not get our priorities straight from the get-go?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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.