Friday, September 30, 2016

Sharing Writing Without Fear: The Mystery Author Box

As I've written before, giving students time and space to write is very important to me. It's equally as important to set aside time for my students to share what they've written with our writing community. We've been using our author's chair for over six weeks now, and I am happy to say that it is very well-graffitied. However, I've noticed that some of my writers who have created beautiful pieces are still reluctant to share their words.

As a self-proclaimed introvert, I understand when some students balk at the idea of reading anything aloud in front of their peers. Asking those same students to read something that they authored is simply out of the question. Writing is an intensely personal act, and sharing it with others means being completely vulnerable. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in a middle school knows these years are rife with uncertainty and worry about others' perceptions and opinions. Sharing personal writing might feel, to some, like throwing a log on the already-flaming fire of insecurity. For these reasons, when it comes time to share our writing, I always make it optional. The author's chair is open to anyone who chooses to share. Forced sharing removes the authenticity from our writing community and dismantles the mutual respect we build with our students and their writing.

However, what happens when a student might want to share their words but may feel scared or hesitant? I knew that this situation would happen, because I personally feel that way many times when it comes time to read my own writing to others! Borrowing from a technique I learned from my time with the Gateway Writing Project this summer, I knew that a Mystery Author box would be a safe space for my students to share anonymously.



The box itself is just a cardboard box with a latch from a craft store that I decoupaged with some "writing-esque" scrapbooking paper.** If a student writes something that they'd like to share anonymously, they can simply drop it in the box when they feel like it. There's plenty of unstructured time during workshop where they can do this rather stealthily. The box is also located in an area that isn't highly trafficked, which adds to the air of privacy. If students don't feel like tearing their writing out of their thinkbook (our class journals), they can drop a Post-It note with their name and title of their piece so that I know to look for it. During times where we use the author's chair, I open up the Mystery Author box and read pieces that have been added over the course of the week. We don't speculate about who wrote them; we just listen.

The impact of this simple addition is twofold: firstly, the author gets to hear his/her words spoken aloud, which is a powerful experience, and they also get to see a favorable reaction from their peers. Sometimes, this can push a writer to go a step further and start sharing with a wider audience, which is a huge piece in making writing authentic.

Secondly, the audience gets to hear words that may not have been shared otherwise. Some pieces in the Mystery Author box are very personal. These stories may never have seen the light of day if not for this anonymous platform. Think of sites like PostSecret or Whisper--they are so popular because they let people be vulnerable under the cloak of anonymity. The Mystery Author box affords my students that same "cloak" while still giving them a space to share.

Moving forward, now that some have chosen to use Google Docs for their writing time, I hope to start a Padlet page where students can anonymously add their writing. They can always share their Google Doc with me directly, but for those who need complete anonymity, Padlet is a good option.

Sharing writing is important. I'm always seeking out ways to establish a writing community that is a safe space for students to take steps forward in their journeys as writers, no matter how small those steps might be. The Mystery Author box is just another way to empower writers to take a leap of faith and share their words with others.

**Note to anyone who decides to get similarly crafty: the liquid Mod-Podge is the way to go, not the spray. I'm sure seasoned crafters are scoffing at my naïveté, but for my fellow novices, don't make the same mistake I did!  

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Art of the Book Talk


One way we're celebrating and sharing our reading in room 209 is through book talks, which is when a reader talks up books that they think fellow readers will enjoy getting their hands on. These are usually quick--under two minutes--and are designed to pique students' interest in the book. At the beginning of the year, I did a ton of fast and furious book talks just to get a lot of titles out into the room and to help students fill up their "Coming Soon" lists. These lists are essential--having a plan as a reader for what to pick up next is a key piece in establishing a growing and flourishing reading life.
After I book talk titles, I have interested students add their names to a Post-It note. I randomly choose one reader at the end of the day to be the first to check out the title. 
Over the past few weeks, we've been transitioning into having students book talk books they love too.
Kate is talking up To Kill a Mockingbird. 
Sienna did a great job selling Ms. Peregrine's House for Peculiar Children.

I don't have a ton of criteria for these talks because I like for my students to have the freedom to be creative with them. Some go for the "classic" book talk where they give an "elevator pitch" of the book live to their classmates, while others have designed book trailers using sites like Animoto or PowToon. This helps out my more introverted students who may balk at the idea of talking in front of all of their classmates--they can make a video instead and still share their reading without the fear of speaking in front of a crowd.



I love doing book talks, but I'll be the first to admit that having my students do them too has brought a whole new layer of community to our reading relationships that isn't possible when I'm the only one talking about my books. We're all sharing what we read and learning from each other.

As we move forward in the year, I have some more ideas on the list for how to continue to grow our reading community. I've started an Instagram account that I plan to use to record book talks (both mine and my students'). With the new Stories feature, I can record clips that will play back-to-back to make an entire book talk. I like this idea because I have 49 minutes in class, and while I think book talks are a valuable use of that time, pushing that content out via a social media platform that my kids already use just seems smart. I'm hoping to record my own book talks with my "real time" reaction to finishing a book, and Instagram is an easy way to do that. I hope to give students the option to record and post their book talk on Instagram soon!


I'm always looking for new ways to get titles out there. Wonderfully written books will languish on shelves if readers don't know they exist. Book talks are an easy, simple way to give readers options and also get a conversation flowing about books we're read and loved.




Friday, September 16, 2016

Making Reading Visible with Visual Book Shelves


Author's note: This is the second post in a series on how I'm approaching reading in my 7th grade English-Language Arts classroom. The first post can be viewed here.

As I mentioned in last week's post, when I make decisions for how to approach reading in my class, my primary focus and goal is to help my students cultivate a positive relationship with the act of reading. I want them to see themselves as readers, and one important step in that process is to help them celebrate and share what they're reading with others.

Showing Off Our Shelves
Because of that commitment, I knew that I wanted to make our reading visible this year. We all keep a list of books we've read in our journals, but the problem there is that their reading remains hidden when the journal is closed. I wanted to devise a way to give a "shout-out" to each of my students as they finished a book while also keeping a visual record for students to look at if they wanted some ideas for titles to put on their "Coming Soon" list.

I decided to have my students create a visual book shelf, using "tiny books" that I laminated to make them reusable (major props to our librarian, Mrs. T, and her assistant, Ms. D, for doing that for me). Students use a dry erase marker to write the title of a finished book. Then, they use magnetic tape to add the book to their class's stack on my whiteboard.


I like this method because it's easy to glance over and see the tracks of our reading. It sparks conversations. When students see their peers adding titles to the class shelf, they are motivated to do the same. I've got a shelf running behind my desk too--we're all reading together!

My bookshelf so far this year. 

One downside is that, based on the volume of reading already this year, I feel like I'm going to run out of room pretty quickly! Not a bad problem to have. I'm brainstorming what to do once our shelves are full--I may keep that area for our "current reads" and move older books to another location as the year moves on.

This idea is a simple way to make our learning visible to others. It's become a procedure to update the shelf once a book is finished, and my students enjoy showcasing their reading. I love how such a small piece can help continue to grow and build the reading relationships we're working hard to establish in room 209 this year!



Friday, September 9, 2016

Building Reading Relationships: The Balancing Act of Accountability

Author's note: This is the first post in a series on how I'm approaching reading in my 7th grade English-Language Arts classroom.

Middle school is a weird time. Everything is in a constant state of change for the typical middle schooler--the timbre of their voice, the friends they eat lunch with, their fashion identity, how they feel about their teachers. It’s no wonder that I find myself asking, “With this constant state of flux, what will they truly remember about my class?”


I’ll tell you what they will remember: feelings. About you and how you taught your subject. Which is completely scary--the amount of power we have as teachers to make or break a kid’s feelings about an entire subject isn’t one to be underestimated.


I take this seriously when I approach reading in my class. I don’t need to spend time defending how crucial it is that students read. The question is how.

For me, the approach I take to making this happen is to focus on the relationship students have with reading. How they feel when they’re asked to read. Is what I’m doing in my classroom when it comes time to read stealing joy or creating it? These are the questions that circled in my mind as I decided how to approach reading this year. Whatever I did, I knew I wanted my students to leave my class feeling good about reading.


Reading accountability without stealing joy
Accountability is so important, but it’s an area of balance. When deciding how to hold my students accountable for their reading, I thought about what I would want as a reader. I know what I wouldn’t want: a reading log that is used punitively, a one-size-fits-all approach or something that forced me to tear myself away from the book and write about my reading just to prove that I was thinking.


At the same time, no accountability is just as bad. With no one checking on them or caring about their reading lives, students won’t feel motivated to grow. After all, what we prioritize sends a message to them.


My approach is to use Penny Kittle’s method that she discusses in Book Love: the class clipboard tracking system. We have a class clipboard with a sheet that lists each student’s name, has a space for the book they’re reading and a box for each of the class days for two weeks. All students have to do is write what page they’re currently on in their book at some point during class each day we meet. It doesn't matter when they write their page number--pages they read after that recording will be captured the next day when they record again. Essentially, it's a running record.
The One Clipboard to Rule Them All
The clipboard also includes a two-week page goal. It’s not based on minutes (no watching the clock and jumping up when the timer goes off), and each student gets a page goal tailored to them and their reading level. The page goal is calculated based on how many pages they can read in their book in 10 minutes. I ask for 2 hours of reading per week, so we use the following slip to calculate their goals:




We recalculate every two weeks because as readers grow and books change, so will the page goal. A quick glance at the clipboard tells me who is reading at home and who I need to check in with and conference with about their reading. It’s low-stakes, easy to do and doesn’t require any paperwork at home. And it doesn’t damage anyone’s relationship with reading.


Capturing thinking while still respecting the individual student's process
When deciding my approach to reading for the year, I also considered how to ask my students to show their thinking about their reading without making it into a chore. Reading is something that shouldn’t be interrupted if it can be helped, so I prefer reading responses to be organic in nature. Borrowing from Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study, this year, I’m asking my students to focus on capturing their thinking in inventive ways that aren’t necessarily just a canned paragraph response with the teacher as the audience. Instead, we are exploring generative ways of recording our thinking that use visuals, color, graphs, charts, symbols and more.







For many students, not being told exactly how to respond to their book is a foreign concept. To give them some ideas for how to respond without being prescriptive, we did a gallery walk today to look at samples I collected--some of them were my own jots, some were from students from last year, and some of them came from the Units of Study.



Gallery walkin' and jottin'
All of the responses showcased individual approaches to capturing thinking. Best of all, the audience for these “jots” is the writer themselves. Instead of writing to please someone else, they’re truly writing for their own reflection. Students grow to appreciate the autonomy and choice when responding to reading in this way.


I also make it a rule to carve out specific time to respond to reading--around 10 minutes at the end of workshop will be dedicated specifically to producing these generative jots. I think this structure works well for middle schoolers because, if they’re anything like me, I get sucked into a book and don’t necessarily want to stop to write in the middle of a really good part. Knowing that the last 10 minutes will be used to jot is good, but I plan to be flexible--if a student really wants to keep reading and jot at home, I will applaud that reader’s self-awareness!


I’m still finding that balance between accountability and freedom. Like my middle schoolers, I find myself constantly changing as a teacher throughout the year. I plan to regularly solicit feedback from my readers to find out what’s working and what isn’t and make changes.

But I won’t change my commitment to making sure that what I’m doing in ELA this year is growing my students’ relationship with reading, not damaging it.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Here, We Write: Carving Out Time for Daily Writing

A poster in my room that accurately captures how I feel about writing! Plus, Margaret Atwood is a goddess.

This summer, I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Gateway Writing Project, which is a satellite of the National Writing Project. GWP is a month-long, intensive writing course for teachers who want to write for themselves in an effort to be a more authentic teacher of writing. Basically, I got to live the life of a writer for a month. I came out of the program with a renewed vigor for writing and a desire to interject the excitement I felt for writing into the new school year.
Mind mapping during GWP.
One of the ways I'm doing just that this year is beginning each day with 10 minutes of writing. At GWP, we always wrote for the first 10 minutes to a prompt a classmate had brought in. I thoroughly enjoyed that time. It helped me get into the right mindset for an entire day of writing and it let me experiment with ideas that I might not have otherwise. I knew that I wanted to do something similar with my students, so this week, I began our first foray into "Writing into the Day" (name borrowed from the #teachwriting chat I participated in this week!). Here's the recipe we're using to starting our day off right (And yes, I resisted the bad pun here):

Intriguing Prompts...but the freedom to write whatever you want! 
For our first week, I brought in the prompts to get us started. Eventually, I want to transition to having students bring in prompts, but I wanted to show them how multifaceted prompts can be--they're not just sentence starters! This week, I brought in a Reddit post that I thought was interesting, a music video that reminded me of Stranger Things (anyone else obsessed?), and a funny commercial.
The aforementioned Reddit post.
Some students chose to write about the prompt I presented. But I always, always told students that their own passion trumped the prompt--if they wanted to write about something else, that was totally okay! Style, subject, content--all negotiable. What mattered is that they wrote.

Expectations that foster creativity, not stifle it
I told the students that I had only two expectations for this 10-minute period:
1. Keep your pencil or pen moving as much as possible! It doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense or if you just end up writing a list of all the reasons you can't think of anything to write. Just try to keep your thoughts flowing! I talk about my choice to use a pen for this type of writing simply because I can't go back and erase what I've written--I just gotta keep moving! I encouraged students to do the same and to not second guess their words. Just let them flow!
2. Let others write! It's super tempting to talk to someone next to you when you have a really good story idea. I completely get that, which is why I reserve the last part of class for time to share (see below). But during the 10 minutes, I ask students to stay in their own heads for a while. That can be a little daunting for some, but I think it's important to sometimes just write for yourself as an audience without the filters other people might apply to your ideas.

Volume matters, but it's not a competition
At the end of our writing period, I ask writers to complete their thought or sentence and to go back and count how many words they were able to write. They write their word count up in the upper corner of the page they were writing on that day.

Word count is just one way to see growth.
Word counts are tricky. If not used carefully, they can put the emphasis on the number of words as opposed to the meaning of them. However, at the beginning of the year, when their relationship is so new with writing, I want my writers to focus on volume. We need to write more. Period. I also want them to see and celebrate growth, and tracking volume through word count is easy to measure and a concrete way to visualize growth. We don't publicize these numbers; it's not a competition. All writers are different. It's just a way for each individual writer to see progress.

At the end of this week, I asked writers to just take a look at their circled word counts over the week and do a little self-reflection. We talked about how writing isn't the same every day--some days you may have more to say, and other days, you may have a bit of writer's block. Writing is hard, and that's okay! I emphasize that the goal is to see growth over time.

Give students time to share in a low-stakes way
At the end of every class, I try very hard to leave about 4 minutes for us to share our work from the day. I keep the share portion of our class very low-stakes, which means no one is forced to stand up and read their writing in front of everyone. Writing can be very personal, so I take that into account when asking writers to share.

Some ways I've structured our share are to have writers:

  • Turn and talk about what they wrote about that day. 
  • Choose one sentence that they liked--could be an intriguing sentence, a funny one, or one that sums up a bigger theme in their piece--and share with their tables quickly. 
  • Get in the author's chair! This comes into play at times when a student wants to share a larger chunk of writing with the class. We always respond with a power clap (where everyone does one giant clap at once). 
Whatever we do, I try to end the day with the words of my writers. It's so important to give them space and time to talk about their writing!

I plan to stay committed to protecting the first 10 minutes of our class as a time to write. I'm already seeing the relationships my writers have with the act of writing improving. You invest time in what you care about, and I care about cultivating my students as writers. So, for me, using 10 minutes of the 49 I have for writing is time well-spent.