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 teacher, conferences, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity, talking

How to Be A Teacher Reading Role Model – Without Actually Reading In Front of Your Class

I was taught in college that to be a teacher reading role model, I should read infront of my students; not just read aloud, but actually sit down and read in front of them so they could see how much reading meant to me.  So when I embraced independent reading, I did just that; pulled my own book out and read diligently next to them.  It didn’t matter that I was not reading books they could actually read, but instead that they saw me in the physical act of reading.  Yet, something felt inherently wrong.  I was distracted by my own book at times, not picking up on what kids were actually doing.  I didn’t feel like I was actually teaching them anything during that time, and, most importantly; very few of my students actually saw me as a reading role model, which baffled me for a long time.  It turns out that simply seeing someone read does not make them a reading role model and so I knew I had to change my ways.

It turns out, though, that I was not the only one that was taught this method of teacher-as-reading-role-model; when the kids read, you read right alongside them.  I was reminded of this just the other day when a brand new teacher told me that when her kids were reading so was she.  I immediately thought, “What a waste of time,” but then also realized why this seems like a great idea on the surface.  After all, we  know that kids will read more when they see others reading, we know that adults as reading role models are a powerful tool, and it also legitimizes independent reading time; “See how important this is by me doing it as well…”

And yet; we need that independent reading time to meet with kids.  To confer when we can.  To do reading check-ins with as many kids as possible to further enhance our own instruction.  To build relationships and community.  To truly understand the learners that are in our care.  Not to work on our own reading.  So how do we establish ourselves as reading role models without physically reading in front of the kids?

We give it time.  The first step is to make sure there is time for independent reading.  After all, if we value something then we must give it the thing we have the least of; our time.  So every day we should find the time for self-selected choice independent reading for all of our students, no matter their needs and abilities.

We read aloud.  At all ages and whenever we can.  Kids will understand the importance of shared book experiences by actually participating in them and so we must model what it means to be a fluent read-alouder, what it means to be carried away in a text, to be emotionally connected to a piece of literature.  We do this by reading aloud stories, poems, and other pieces that move us and then invite students into the experience.

We speak reading.  My students know a lot about my reading life because I speak about it often.  I book talk books I just finished or abandoned, I talk about the latest book I cannot wait to read.  I talk about how I sneak books with me everywhere, how I trained myself to read in the car without getting sick so it would give me more reading time.  We speak books and how they matter whenever we can, not just on the days it is our teaching point.

We showcase our reading.  Outside of our classroom, I have a display of all of the books I have read so far.  My students know my reading goal and see the poster fill up as the year progresses.  My students can see that I spend time reading outside of class because they see the covers get added.  The visual representation is also a constant reminder as they enter our classroom that in here the books we read is something to be proud of, not something to be ashamed of.

We procure more books.  The first thing most people notice when they enter our classroom is the sheer amount of books.  The collection and its placements speaks to the importance of reading in our community.  Having books front and center means that reading is front and center.

We sometimes read with them.  If I cannot wait to finish a book, if the classroom is particularly still, or sometimes just because it is Friday, I will sit down and read with my students.  Not because I have to but because I want to.  It is not every week, we have much too little teaching time for that, but once in a while, they might see me reading, that is if they actually look up from the pages of their own book.

Being a reading role-model is something I take quite seriously, as do many of my colleagues.  Our schools speaks books because we feel the urgency with which we lose our middle schooler’s interest in reading every year.  So every minute matters, every minute counts, and while reading in front of my students would be lovely, that is not my main job in the classroom as they read.  Speaking to them is.  How have you become a reading role model in your classroom?

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.

being a teacher, new year, talking

How to Have Better Student Discussions

Today was the sixth day of school.  It has been a whirlwind of reading habits, book shopping, learning how to email, and today; how to actually have a decent discussion.  This may seem really simple but year after year I find that many students lack confidence when it comes to discussions, even when previous teachers have had them engaged in their classes.  So this year rather than just try to teach them throughout the year, we decided to create a foundation for it now, so what did we do? We combined a few tried-and-true strategies.

We fishbowled to start with. 

I invited four volunteers to come up and discuss an unknown text with me.  I had to follow the same expectations as them.  For the first few classes we did a poem with mixed results, for the final three we did an op-ed piece on why tweens should not have cell phones with better results.

So what was the set up?

  • Everyone gets a copy of the text, one classroom set,  so they do not have to share.
  • Everyone gets two cards or two of something else.
  • Groups either sat at whiteboard tables (tables covered in whiteboard contact paper – they are brilliant) or had a two-dollar whiteboard (take a shower panel and get it cut down into six pieces, they cost $2 a piece, I have twelve of them for collaboration).
  • Everyone gets a “Bounce card.”
  • Everyone gets an expo marker.

Expo marker and whiteboard:  After the text has been read (typically by themselves not out loud so make the text accessible for all.  This is not a reading strategy lesson per say but rather a discussion lesson), every child should take a few moments to write down their reactions or questions before the discussion starts.  That way everyone has a moment to think before the conversation ensues.

Two cards:   We used the tried-and-true way to get everyone to speak.  When a person speaks, they put their card into the middle.  They cannot speak again then until everyone else has also spoken and put a card in the middle.  This is to help everyone actually add their voice. I do two cards so that they all have to participate at least twice.  After the cards are used up, they can speak as much as they would like.

Bounce card:  Again, not my idea but from the book Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner via our awesome 8th grade team.  The Bounce card is a visual tool for kids to remember to “bounce” off each other’s ideas rather than just state their own opinions.  There are three different paths they can take, they can bounce, sum up, or inquire.  Having the card in front of them is a helpful reminder to how they should be discussing.  Here is what our cards look like.

Teacher role:  Coaching, not teaching after the fishbowl.  Our job is not to lad the conversation but to let the kids figure it out.

After the fishbowl, it was their turn.  I numbered students off so they would be in mixed groups and let them loose, all supplies were already set up for them.


I did not give them any questions to discuss because I want them to start thinking about their own reactions to text.  My students wanted me to but I did not, at some point they have to start generating their own questions so why not start today?

We kept this trial run short, around 15 minutes to make sure they stayed on track.  It worked pretty well.   As I walked around I loved seeing how engaged the kids were, how they were trying to help each other out and add their voice, and how they asked for people to “bounce off” of their ideas.

At the end of the class, I asked them to please reflect on themselves.  We spoke about how often we reflect on how others do in a task but forget to look inward and that we are the ones we need to be concerned with, not how others do.

On Monday, our follow-up lesson will be six different tables set up with three different types of topics.  Two tables are set up with wordless picture books (Unspoken by Henry Cole and Bluebird by Bob Staake), two are set up with op-ed pieces (why kids should have homework and why schools should have uniforms), and finally two tables will have poems (Langston Hughes I, Too and The Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser).  Students will pick which table they would like to be at but then have to select the other two formats the two next days.  Therefore all students will get to try discussing all three types of formats.  I am excited to see how this foundational skill will play out this year.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  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.


being me, classroom expectations, homework, talking

Flipping for the Flipped Classroom Seems To Be the Trend but Not for Me

from icanread

Hey Pernille, we watched a video on the Khan and the flipped classroom model today.  I think you would love it!

Oh, yes I am already familiar with it, why do you think I would love it?

Well, you love technology….

It’s true, I love technology for what it does for my students and I.  I love that we can grab cameras and document our learning.  I love that we can blog and start conversations with others.  I love that I send my students out the door with tools that others may not know about in middle school, thus spreading their knowledge and giving them options.  But I don’t love the flipped classroom, it’s not for me, sorry.

Sure, it is a cool concept.  Videotape your lecture so that it can be accessed anywhere and then use the class time to discuss and investigate and really learn more.  I love the classroom part.  I love the idea of not standing in front of students talking and instead getting to the actual work stage, the exploration, the stage that the kids so desperately want to get to anyway.  But the lecturing is not for me.  Sure, there are times when I have to provide background for my students, in fact, every day that happens, but the idea of taping a lecture and then forcing them to watch it on their own time upsets me.

When I do my background providing, or “teaching” in class, we have discussions.  The students ask questions, clear up misconceptions, and sometimes we end up in a totally different arena then we intended.  I know I need to keep it short, I know I need to keep it relevant so that we can do the work, so that the kids can have time to explore.  I know I could talk a lot longer if I had the opportunity.  Being on live in front of the kids mean I have to be a story teller, I have to be at my best so that they stay with me and stay engaged.  Sure, there are times I wish I had it recorded so that they could watch it again because they didn’t get it the first time, but then I realize that they didn’t get it because I didn’t do a good enough job explaining it.  And having a recording of me explaining it poorly is not going to do them any favors.

Then there is the homework aspect of the flipped classroom.  We expect students to use their time outside of school to watch all of these videos. Can you imagine how much time that would be if every class in a high school setting required this?  My teenage rebel self rolls her eyes.  I would never have been into that as a teen and in college I did my homework on my breaks at work, my breaks between school and work and wherever I could.  I didn’t sit in front of a screen, nor did I have access to it.  I worked full-time while going to school full-time and did much of my reading in my car.  Flipping my classes would have meant that was not an option.  Sure, times have changed since I graduated 5 years ago, students have more access to portable computers, yet we are still asking them to take their outside time and do the work in a matter determined by us.  We are still taking their time.

So I leave you with this simple question, why not skip the lecture altogether?  Perhaps we wouldn’t need the concept of the flipped classroom if we just stopped talking and got to the point?  Perhaps if we actually honed our craft as story tellers, not as lecturers, students would have the opportunity to get the teaching and the exploration all at once?  I know it sounds crazy but I think it can be done, we just need to stop talking so much.

attention, principal, school staff, talking

Dear Administrators – Will You Write to Me Instead?

Dear Administrators and Administrators To Be,
I know that some of you out there read this blog and for that I am very grateful.  I don’t often address you directly because I don’t feel it is my place but I have a simple plea as some of you embark on a new year.  An idea to plant, to spread and hopefully that can grow into a movement.  Something so simple, yet powerful, that we all should have realized a long time ago.

Many of us are in the midst of the back to school hustle in North America.  As excitement builds, time grows sparse and meetings pile up.  The other day I read a post from Lyn Hilt, a principal you should connect with if you don’t already know her, and something she stated rung so true to me that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.  She writes in her post about her in-service day “It’s Kind of Magical”

“Wait, Lyn, what about the laundry list of informational items you have to share with teachers on Day 1? Schedules, lunch and recess routines, important dates, blah, blah, blah?” I’m blessed with a faculty full of teachers who are capable of reading print.

See Lyn discovered something powerful.  We teachers can read, in fact, many of us are quite proficient readers and pay better attention to written information than to spoken words.  Many of us even tell our students’ parents that we prefer to communicate via email because it gives us time to digest, to process, and to reflect, while also providing a paper trail for all of our communication.  So what Lyn did, when she placed all of that important information for her teachers into a Google document was a huge step in the right direction; cutting out the time to tell teachers things that they can just as easily read on their own.

You see, people in education seem to be talkers, not all, but many, and so what happens at some of these meetings is that they drown in stories or longwinded explanations where really an email could have sufficed.

So dear administrators, as you plan for a new year or continue the one you are in, ask yourself whether what you need to say can be communicated in writing?  Can it be shared in a blog post for your school?  Can it be sent in an email?  A newsletter?  Or a Google doc for continued collaboration?  Can you spare your words and leave us time to collaborate instead?  Will you give your staff the gift of time to solve problems, share learning or even just cut out staff meetings (it has been done successfully)?  Will you go away from being the sage on the stage at meetings and welcome in more time for learning opportunities instead?

Lyn did it and so can you.   I wish you good luck and remember to keep it brief.



attention, being a teacher, new teacher, Student-centered, talking

Your Lips May be Moving But I Stopped Listening a Long Time Ago

A question I kept asking myself last summer was, “Would I like being my own student?”  Beside bringing back a flood of unfortunate memories of my own schooling, it also stopped me in my prep tracks.  The answer was a resounding “No.”  I would have been that kid rolling their eyes at the teacher (yes, that happened daily), groaning every time a new group project was introduced (I hated group work),  and refusing to do homework out of sheer principle of boredom (and then argue with the teacher as to why it was pointless). Yikes, I am still that kid.  And so when a tweet by Jeremy MacDonald asked

“How do we get teachers past the teacher-centric use of tech? Modeling? Should I make them let me teach 30 mins in their classroom?” 

my mind started to spin.  Would simply asking teachers to sit through their own type of teaching, stop them in their tracks?  Or would the response be a more nuanced reflection discussing the need for various learning styles and types?  Or would we hear the stagnant adult claiming that, “they went through it so that is just how things are and to suck it up?”  I love that “suck it up” like school is just meant to be survived and not lived.

So how do we get teachers to rethink the traditional classroom setting?  Why is it we tend to forget our own school experience and then repeat it as teachers?  Why do most teachers come to teach prepared to speak most of the time?  I have been actively trying to stop talking and let me tell you, it is hard! Our curriculum is not set up for a lot of exploration, but rather mini activities packaged with a lot of careful monologue.  What is it about our way of educating that makes question-answer seem like the best fit?

So I start my own quiet revolution, using less words and still getting to the point.  Using less teacher-focused and more student-directed learning.  I even started thinking about it all as a learning process rather than how I am going to teach something.  In the end, we have to realize that if we want just test-taking students, then yes, talking at students will get us there.  If we want independent thinkers who are also creative and confident, then we have to stop talking.  So how do we stop talking?