Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

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New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

In 2008, I first used bell ringers to sneak in a few ACT strategies before the regularly scheduled curriculum, but I liked them so much I began using them in every class to prime the class for whatever learning objective was on the table.   They have been lauded by everyone from Fred Jones to Harry Wong, and they serve as an effective way to set the tone and smooth the transition from the bustle of class change to an academic environment.

The utility of the bell ringer is myriad.  During a unit on the argument, I might post two short blurbs from opposing views on a controversial topic for a quick bell ringer debate. During a literature class, I might use the bell ringer to take a quick formative assessment to test for retention of a concept or skill from the previous day.  During a study skills class, I might introduce a free time or money saving app and have students try it out on their cell phones.  During a project-based writing class, I might use a quick Google form to check in with each student’s status and their goals for the day. During film units, I might show establishing shots or clips of dialogue or one scene and ask for a quick analysis.   Bell ringers can be used for introducing, reviewing, reteaching, or building on a skill or concept.

  • They need to be relevant. Don’t slap a bell ringer on the board just so you can take attendance in quietness.  Make sure the bell ringer is relevant to the skill or content you are teaching.  Ideally a bell ringer previews or taps into prior knowledge of what you are teaching that day or connects to an essential question that drives a larger part of your curriculum.
  • The transitions need to be smooth. One of the main reasons bell ringers are popular is they create a good transition from the bustle of the hall to the academic environment in the classroom, but the transition from the bell ringer into the main lesson needs to be equally seamless. Bell ringers that require a lot of moving parts are cumbersome and the cost-to-benefit ratio decreases when that is the case. The strategy should increase, not decrease, classroom efficiency.
  • They need to be time-bound. Don’t allow the bell ringer creep. This is sometimes difficult, especially if your bell ringer involves discussion or debate, but I use the online stopwatch and project it onto the whiteboard to make sure the bell ringer stays within the time limit.  Some teachers play music and the bell ringer is finished when a single song is over.
  • They should be diverse. Having a writing prompt every single day can get stale. Using a variety of  bell ringers will keep the practice fresh.   A quick poetry analysis or a visual rhetoric inquiry using a video will create the necessary change of pace, but also include inquiries, grammar, journaling, vocabulary, silent reading, even mindful meditation, breathing and stretching– all great bell ringers.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 11: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Broadening a student’s vocabulary is important and critical to her academic success.  Having a comprehensive vocabulary increases a student’s ability to read with clarity and to communicate both orally and through writing with precision.  Students who are competent and independent readers often absorb much of their vocabulary from reading, but direct instruction augments that word pool even more. However, vocabulary instruction needs to be embedded and experienced multiple times for students to actually learn and use the words.  By introducing words once, then quizzing kids over the list and moving on, the skill developed is memorization and test taking, not literacy and word acquisition. Vocabulary unrelated to an actual personal, social, cultural, or literary context doesn’t stick in the brain.

Good teachers use a variety of strategies to teach vocabulary in concert with one another. Here are 15 Vocabulary Strategies in 15 Minutes   You will also find teachers using word walls, word journals, word maps, keyword methods, flash cards, vocab Bingo, Pictionary or Jeopardy.  Some strategies involve using the vocabulary words to write songs, short stories, or poetry. One of my favorite vocabulary trends was a call and response script – I can’t even remember the patter now – but it called for kids to clap, rap, and spell out the words and define them orally with me sing-songing and beating on my podium too.  It was fun, but I was still only asking kids to define and memorize words in isolation

About five years ago, I noticed several kids in one class were using some of the words from our vocabulary list during discussion.  I discovered these words not only were on their vocabulary list, but they had appeared somewhere in their reading that year, and—this seemed to be the key— they were words I used all the time.  The one I remember specifically was “truncated.” I love that word. I still use it all the time.  I realized that students were using it in their Socratic discussions and debates in class.

Why? Because they saw it and heard it more than once.  I used it all the time; they saw it in their reading; they knew what it meant, how to pronounce it, and how and when it should be used.  They had assimilated it into their lexicon.

From then on, I began to teach fewer words, but teach them more deeply.  I created a context for the words and allowed students to make connections with the words through discussion, reading, semantic maps, games, or even drawing visual interpretations of the words. I also read Bob Marzano’s great book Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary  which provided me with many great strategies.  You will figure out what strategy scratches your vocabulary itch, but here are three broad conceptual stances that I suggest you develop:

  • Use a rich vocabulary yourself. Just as you must be a reader and writer to teach English Language Arts as a practitioner, you must also have a robust vocabulary and use it.  When you are leading a discussion, when you are describing something in the reading, when you are conferencing, or even lecturing on a concept, use precise, exact language.  You don’t want to use $50 words for the sake of using them; you want to use the specific and accurate word because you are articulate and have a range of rich, complex words to choose from. Develop your ability to speak with depth, nuance, and sophistication.   Describing something as “small” sometimes isn’t sufficient; sometimes that small thing is actually trifling or trivial or insignificant or inconsequential or negligible or nugatory (what an insanely fabulous word!) or infinitesimal.
  • Tap into the emotional shading of words. When you teach vocabulary, suck the marrow out of those words.  Ask kids what emotional baggage a word like “hysterical” channels.  Ask kids to chart the words on a positive to negative cultural continuum.  Ask kids how different generations might perceive a word.  The dictionary definition is flat and static, but the connotative meaning of the word is rich and varied and often dependent on culture, regional geography, and social class. Turn kids on to both the social- and psycho-linguistic power of words.
  • Be a language freak. Create a culture of language in your classroom.  In the words of my colleague Bob Howard when he calls on kids to analyze art in his Art History class, “Remember, we use big words in here! Big, huge, glorious words!”   Point out especially dizzying words in the reading.  Share new words with your students that they won’t be assessed on, just words you have discovered and fallen in love with.   Have a Word of the Day calendar and use it.  Assign this as a job to a kid.  Start your day off with language, maybe challenge kids to use that word throughout the day.    Show kids how to use the online OED

New Teacher Series/ Question 9: What are the best strategies for novels?

In the landscape of English-Language Arts, there are different camps for how to best teach the novel, so as with anything, you should read widely about strategies and find the ones that work for you and your students. While I’m a great believer in the power and beauty of classic literature, I believe reading should be a joy and a pleasure, and for some students, particularly what teachers call “reluctant” readers, the classics can be torture.  They become just one more irrelevant thing foisted on them by teachers.

Kids who don’t read well may not like to read because they haven’t mastered the skills to tap into the wonderment and magic of a novel. Maybe they didn’t have positive early literacy experiences; maybe they can decode the words but can’t comprehend the meaning; maybe they were forced to read boring texts and associate reading with suffering and agony. The list goes on and on.  But I firmly agree with J. K. Rowling, who said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet.”

Outside of an AP curriculum, where choices tend toward classic lit, I am a proponent of both the canon and the contemporary – whatever gets a kid to become a crazy-mad reader – comic books, graphic novels, genre fiction, poetry, whatever.  Reading is a skill, like writing, that improves with practice. The more a student reads, the better she becomes at reading.  The better she becomes at reading, the more she will enjoy the experience and become more proficient.  But the first step is hooking the kid, and that hook should be baited with a juicy bite. As he grows as a reader, his tastes and abilities may change.  There’s room for all levels and likes at the table of literacy.  But how do you get kids to willingly join you?

Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Read whole novels, not just excerpts. Teaching students how to analyze and read closely through the use of excised novel passages of no more than 750 words, about the length of a reading passage on the ACT, has become a trend. This practice is not teaching reading; it’s teaching the skim/scan/chunk method of test prep, and it should only be used in addition to reading whole novels.  This practice is like asking kids to appreciate a seven-course dining experience, but only giving them the soup.
  • Teach reading and analytical skills explicitly.   Using To Kill a Mockingbird to study social justice or civil rights is a defensible lesson, but developing reading and critical thinking skills is the primary objective.  Any novel can be used as the text by which students learn to analyze theme, characters, diction, syntax, and structure. Teaching a novel isn’t teaching content alone, but as a corrolary enticement to reading skill and practice.  Questioning, reacting, inferring, predicting, and analyzing are reading skills students will need whether they’re reading Jude the Obscure or  Unwind. 
  • Create a culture of reading in your classroom. Be excited about reading yourself. Constantly share with your students what you’re currently reading.  Share articles, blog posts, videos about popular writers and popular books with your students.  Talk about characters as if they were real people. Model what literacy looks like.  Have a classroom library, and create many opportunities for them to visit your school’s library.  Start an after-school book club. Demonstrate for them that proficiency in reading is powerful personally and politically.
  • Become proficient at Lit Circles and Socratic Seminar. The heart of both of these approaches is discussion.  When you, as a practiced reader, read something that sits your head on fire, you naturally want to share, talk about it with someone else, analyze the whys and hows.  Using Lit Circles and Socratic Seminars in your classroom gives students an outlet and a forming ground for discussing the themes, motivations, and conflicts in the text. The dialogue and debates that both of these practices generate mimic the conversations of practiced and sophisticated thinkers and readers.  I’ve used these two practices to great effect in my regular English classes with texts, both classic and contemporary.
  • Be a literary matchmaker. Know where your students’ interests lie, and then make recommendations to kids of books you think they will like. If students gravitate naturally toward Young Adult lit, use those texts to teach the skills they will need to develop and strength in order to read more complex texts in the future. I loved teaching the classics, but the language can be arcane, the syntax cumbersome, and the subject matter foreign to a reluctant reader.  Bait the hook with their choice of novels, then reel them in with deeper, denser, more challenging reading as they develop their abilities.  Help them create the text-to-self connections that make reading relevant and real to them.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 8: How does a teacher organize attendance and make-up work?

I’m the worst person in the world to ask about attendance because our attendance clerk calls my room daily, screaming, “POST YOUR ATTENDANCE NOW!!”

When the kidlets bumble into the room and the energy starts rolling, I want to grab hold of all that great boo-yah and channel it with a great activity or conversation, and I just forget to take attendance. However, taking attendance accurately and consistently is one of the most important systems you need to develop, so I attempt to keep myself organized.

There are dozens of Excel spreadsheets and templates for tracking attendance on TeachersPayTeachers, and Pinterest has over 1000 boards of trackers. There are also great lesson plan books, such as those at Erin Condren, that come with absentee logs, personalized quotes, and fru-fru designs, but these can be quite expensive, and I like to spend my money on swank shoes.

While your school will require you to post attendance and grades in Infinite Campus, which is the student information system used by Kentucky, I prefer to have a hard-copy for everything in case a rogue nation-state destroys our power grid, and I need to know who hasn’t turned in Chapter 11 vocab words.  I’m old school, and while I am gradually moving toward the paperless universe, I still have six actual paper management strategies I use:

Attendance: I keep attendance in a large three-ring binder with tabs for each class.  In each divided tab, I place weekly rosters for each class with the student names down the first column and the date and day of the week across the top row.  There are approximately 36 weeks in a school year, so each week has a separate roster followed by a blank page for notes.  I like making notes for the future fourth-block me when I’ve forgotten my own name or where I’ve parked. At my school, tardiness is tracked through our office with a system called Tardy Table, but if you don’t have that system where you teach, you can also use your attendance log to track tardies as well and then deal with habitual tardiness according to your classroom policy.

Make-Up Work:  At the end of the day (i.e. before I forget what actually happened that day) I fill out make-up slips for students who were absent and place it in their student folders (see below.)  These 3×5 yellow forms are very simple.  They say: Hey, we missed you on _________________ (date).  This is what you missed:___________________ (description of activity/lesson/quiz/etc).  This make-up work is due on __________________ (date). When you turn this in, please staple this form to the front of your make-up work and drop it in the MAKE UP WORK box on top of the black filing cabinet.

Some teachers create a make-up work file for each class somewhere in their room, and it is the student’s responsibility to consult the wall calendar to see what was missed and retrieved the missed assignments from the file. Other teachers post everything on their website, and it’s the student’s responsibility to retrieve and complete it in a timely manner. You will develop your own system, but it’s important to have a system because otherwise, you’ll be standing in front of your class with five kids pestering you for make-up work while you’re trying to begin the next day’s lesson.  And invariably one of them will utter the ridiculous question: “Did we do anything important yesterday?” to which you should devise an answer for right now. My top three are: 1) No, the world stops spinning when you’re not here, 2) We sacrificed a goat and the gods of chaos showed up, or 3) Everyone in class got a $1000 from Oprah, but you had to be present to win.  Sorry.

Bathroom Passes: To reduce the amount of rambling around in the halls during class time, our school policy states that each student has four bathroom passes per class per semester.  That means all students who are in four classes a day (we are on block scheduling) would have 16 bathroom passes or 32 passes for the year in addition to the time between classes and the time going to and from lunch.  If a student needs to go to the bathroom more than this for a medical reason, she is issued a special permit.   To keep track of these passes, I created another large three-ring binder with rosters per class with four columns titled “Pass1, Pass2, Pass3, Pass4” and position it next to the hook where I hang the physical hall pass.  The students are responsible for recording the date of their bathroom pass, and I initial it. I check this often for shenanigans.

Student Work Folders: If someone hooks you up on DonorsChoose.org/teachers and agrees to finance your organizational dreams, you might be able to purchase student drawers or cubbies or mailboxes to file student work, but I have found that a hanging file folder crate (one per class) at less than $10 is a great investment.  Each student has a file with his/her name, and in this file, you can organize return papers, make-up work, parent notes, or school/district forms that need to be filled out.  You should also purchase an expandable file folder for student work you need to take home and grade.

Homework Trays:  The art teacher at my former school hooked me up with some fab storage bins that I’ve been using faithfully as homework trays, (Thank you Becky Banks!) but you could easily use the lids of copy paper boxes.  Just mark them according to class, example: ENG I- A2, ENG II – A3, ENG I – A4, etc. and establish a procedure within the first weeks of school for students to submit all homework and/or seatwork in that box. Remember, the efficiency of this system is designed to free up time for learning, discovery, and general educational merriment.

Substitute Binder:  This is a necessity for all classroom teachers.  Keep your sub folder up-to-date in case your own child projectile vomits across the breakfast table, and you have to call a sub an hour before school starts.  Make sure you include class rosters, a bell schedule, an attendance log, a map of your school, instructions on what to do in the event of a fire/tornado/earthquake/active shooter drill, important phone numbers like the front office, a list of your daily duties, such as bus/hall/bathroom duties, plus a set of emergency lesson plans for every class, and a list of students in every class that are trusted helpers.

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 7: Should I create a classroom policy list or go by school policy?

Policies, procedures, and protocols. Oh my!  These words seem to have floated out of the business world and right into the classroom in the last decade.  They provide neat working labels for all the tasks that ensure the efficient and effective operation of your classroom.  Let me state from the get-go:  It doesn’t matter what you call them – rules, expectations, contracts, policies, norms, agreements— they only work if you enforce them with consistency and fairness.

These boundaries and parameters aren’t designed to create fascism in the classroom.  In fact, just the opposite.  When the infrastructure of organization and management are communicated and observed, the real meat of the classroom—learning and discovery—happen more smoothly.  Here are three levels of management that need to be communicated to your classroom early and often: expectations, procedures, and policies.

Expectations:  Expectations are broad, general statements that set the tone of your classroom. Expectations form the philosophy or the guiding mission/ vision statement of the classroom. They also establish the culture of the room, and create a”this is who we are” declaration.  Expectations might be something like:  Respect yourself and others; Be on time and prepared; Always do your best; Follow directions the first time they’re given. I only have three expectations in my class, which are directed at me as much as they are for my kids.

  1. Civility: I will treat each of you with respect, courtesy, and support; I expect each one of you to extend that same respect and support to me, to my teaching assistants, and to each other.
  2. Commitment: I will push each of you to achieve your potential. I will follow up on homework assignments, contact parents, and encourage you to be the best writer you can be.   I want you to make a commitment to become a more creative, independent, and powerful writer.
  3. Community: We are a team.  We are a family. A success for one of us is a success for all of us.  We are all going to become better writers this year, and we are going to be kind and supportive toward each other.

Procedures:  Procedures represent the “this is how we do” of your class.  Establishing procedures will save you hours of directing, correcting, and re-directing.  Figure out the following procedures for your classroom and communicate these to your students during the first week and every day afterward until it becomes automatic:

  • entering and exiting the room
  • passing in seatwork
  • turning in homework
  • turning in late work
  • turning in school forms
  • picking up graded work
  • picking up make-up work
  • picking up school forms
  • signing out for a restroom pass
  • using cell phones
  • checking out technology
  • collecting money for field trips/fund raisers
  • requesting assistance for seat work
  • requesting assistance for after-school tutoring
  • managing noise levels for seat work
  • managing noise levels group work
  • calling on students for answers
  • selecting students for group work
  • moving in and out of small groups
  • moving in and out of whole group activities
  • bus/fire/tornado/earthquake/active shooter drills

In 2008, I counted up 22 different procedures in my classroom.  Some were scripted, some were posted; some were just understood.  All of the procedures were consistent so kids knew the ropes of the classroom without having to rely on me to tell them.

Policies:  When I hear the word “policies,” I mostly think about the rules that govern the student body and apply to all students, but many teachers have classroom policies that are separate from their expectations and their procedures.  These are mostly classroom rules that are aligned with the larger school policy for that particular issue.  For example, if the school policy states that no hats are to be worn in the building, then your classroom policy should uphold that.  School policies are often determined by the district or a school’s site-based council as they relate to the entire organization.  Issues such as the dress code, absences, tardiness, cheating, plagarism, fighting, profanity, sexual harrassment, and drug use will have a policy listed in the student handbook. At my school, every class watches a school policy Powerpoint, which explains the policies of the school and the consequences for breaking those policies, during the first week of school.

So, to answer your question, “Should I create a classroom policy list or just go by the schools?” The answer is yes!   Always follow and uphold the school policies and also establish broad philosophical expectations and the very specific procedures.