Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Writing Workshop Uniform

On days when I know I’ll be heading to the tiny studio where I take barre classes, I take time in the morning to gather up the equipment I need to be successful during the hour I spend sweating, stretching and trying to get my heels up a little higher in relevĂ©. My “barre uniform” consists of yoga pants, a loose tank top, a headband for my hair, grippy socks for balance, and flipflops to wear when I leave the studio. Each item has a purpose, and my barre classes wouldn’t be nearly as successful if I didn’t come prepared for the occasion.

Getting ready for a class of writing workshop requires a similar approach. No, I don’t have a certain outfit that I wear on workshop days (I do have an apron...more on that in a minute…), but over the four years I’ve used this approach to writing, I have developed a sort of “workshop uniform,” or a list of tools that I keep near me or on me when I am circulating the room and meeting with writers.

Like most things in life, figuring out what tools to use has involved a lot of trial and error, and I’m certainly still in the process of refining my workshop uniform. Here’s what’s working for me and my students right now:

What’s In My Apron
Yes, I have a teacher apron. Yes, I know that makes me look extremely dorky, but it holds the tools I find essential:

  • Teacher aprons look much more
    acceptable when there are two
    of you wearing them.
    Post-It Notes: I know this probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever run a writing workshop, but Post-It notes are supremely handy to have nearby. I’m always finding new uses for them. Smaller ones can be used to create visuals to leave with students (I often used them to show a boxes and bullets structure during our argumentative writing unit), or they can help capture an idea to save for later. I like to give larger Post-It notes to writers who are in the process of revising and expanding: they can layer the large sticky note over the original writing and easily flip it up to see their progress from one draft to their next. Another use is for writers who are working on volume. They can start by filling a small Post-It note with writing and eventually graduating to the next size up as they increase their stamina and volume. The possibilities are endless!
  • Tiny Anchor Charts: I like to make a few miniature-sized copies of charts that we created during the mini lesson to hand out to writers as the need arises. Though we hang the larger anchor charts around the room, there’s something about having a personal tool to offer to a writer that feels more intentional to me than simply pointing at the anchor chart. Having these available makes conferring run more smoothly for me: I simply pull out the chart, use it while conferring with the writer, and leave it behind for the writer to use. The writer can tape their own personal anchor chart in their journal to reference at any time--I have a giant tub of washi tape in our writing makerspace exactly for this purpose.
  • If/Then Keyring: Our wonderful curriculum coordinator, Julie Paur, took the Lucy Calkins Units of Study If/Then scenarios and turned them into a handy-dandy keyring. It’s a cinch to throw these in my apron and use them to confer on the fly. Each card on the ring has the “If/Then” scenario, which presents an issue a writer might encounter, how to support that writer, and what to leave the writer with (questions to ask or a tool that could be created by using the aforementioned Post-It notes). I love to look at these when planning conferences, and I feel much more confident when sidling up to a writer when I know I have this tool (literally!) in my pocket.

What’s In My Hands
Each day is different, but when I am conferring with writers, I always have something in my hands:

  • Conference Clipboard: My biggest challenge is keeping a good record of which writers I’ve met with during workshop. I’ve tried approximately 8 zillion approaches: using Evernote to type up thoughts (felt disconnected from the conference), creating a binder with a separate page for each writer (too bulky), carrying around a stack of my beloved Post-Its to jot notes that are later organized in a binder (lost ‘em). After reading this post by Lanny Ball, I realized I had been overcomplicating things: all I needed was a simple table with a box for notes on each writer. Lanny’s template allows me to quickly check to see who I’ve talked to (and the teaching point I made during our last meeting), who I need to check back in with, and who I haven’t talked to at all. This portable and practical solution makes tracking conferences much easier for me. Sometimes, the simple approaches are the best.

  • My Own Writing: I write with my students. If they’re writing, I am too. I like carrying my journal with me when conferring because, sometimes, showing my own writing and how I dealt with a particular issue is the best way to approach a teaching point. If a writer is, for example, having a hard time elaborating with description, it’s easy for me to flip to a particular paragraph of my own piece that needs more description and workshop it right there in front of the writer. Show not tell, right? Carrying my own writing around also makes the teaching points I do make more authentic: what I recommend carries more weight, since I’m doing the same writing I ask of my students.
  • Demonstration Notebook: After reading DIY Literacy by Kate and Maggie Beattie Roberts, I started a demonstration notebook that I could use for one-on-one conferences or small-group instruction. My demonstration pages usually identify the tip or strategy, how to use it, and include an opportunity for the writer to try it out themselves. I try to think ahead with what tips and techniques would benefit the writers in the room and create these demonstration pages before class starts. During workshop, I can easily use my demonstration notebook to conduct a quick conference. This requires some forward thinking (it isn’t as easy to create these on the fly), but this year, I’ve found myself reaching for my demonstration notebook because it goes a step further than just leaving the writer with a tip to actually has them try it out!

My writing workshop uniform is in a constant state of flux as I read more and learn more about the insanely complex nature of the teaching of writing. Conferencing is not easy. Much like getting ready for a tough workout class, getting ready to dive into a full day of writing workshop requires preparation and commitment. Having the right tools at my disposal helps me focus on what’s really important: helping my students grow as writers.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: A Very Writerly Party #sol17

My room was packed. Some faces familiar. Some were not. All were united by the simple fact that every single one of them was a writer.

My colleague, Liz, and I had forty kids undertake the Slice of Life Challenge with us this year. Some were 31 Slicers who wrote every single day in March. Some were 17 Slicers, who wrote every school day.  Numbers aside, we all were celebrating the cultivation of a writing habit--no small feat.

In our opinion, no Slice of Life Party would be complete without some literal slices, so we went with a sweet slice (a suitably springy sheet cake from Costco, adorned with yellow, purple and pink flowers) and a savory slice (Papa John's pizza). As the writers munched, they searched through their plethora of written slices, searching for one to share.

One by one, the edible slices disappeared. Their absence was replaced with something equally delicious: good writing. The room filled with the pitch-perfect adjectives, humorous one-liners and emotional topics of the various voices in the room. Each writer was unique, each piece like a fingerprint that left its own individual mark on me. I listened with a huge grin on my face. I couldn't help it; moments like these are why I do what I do.

Our time together was all too short. We gathered together for a quick picture, and then, the writers were off, spiraling away like balloons released into the air. Their words lingered though. They hovered over the room like a fine mist, shimmering with their beauty and power.

I hope that, tomorrow, I will be able to look past the hectic testing schedules and frenetic pace of a middle school in April and see the shadow of those words. I hope I will remember the quiet power of writers bravely sharing their words.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Teacher With the Dragon Tattoo

There was a rumor going around about me at school.

Like all good rumors, it struck the perfect balance of being just believable enough to gain some traction while still keeping its National Inquirer shock-level status.

There was a rumor going around about me at school...that I had a tattoo of a dragon on my belly. And Mrs. Porter, the math teacher on my team, had started it.

It began casually enough. "Hey, while you were gone on Friday, I maaay have told a few of the girls that you have a tattoo."

I looked at Mrs. Porter. "Well, I do have a tattoo." And I do. A tiny one, on my hip. Barely big enough to bear mention.

She laughed. "Yeah, well, I told them you have a giant tattoo of a dragon on your stomach. Like a huge one. I said that the tail wraps around your belly button. They were skeptical at first, but by the end, I think they were actually starting to believe me."

I grinned. "I like it. I am now The Teacher With the Dragon Tattoo."

Like all good rumors, it persisted, bouncing around like a superball thrown full force in an empty room.

Maybe it was because it's April. Maybe it was because I was bored. Or maybe I rather liked the idea that students thought that their English teacher with a penchant for floral dresses and bright lipstick secretly had a big-ass tattoo of a dragon winding up half of her torso. Whatever the reason, I decided to fan the flames of the rumor that I had a flame-breathing creature hidden under my shirt.

So today, at lunch, I sauntered casually into Mrs. Porter's room, noting that the three girls who were the original recipients of the Dragon Tattoo Rumor were all sitting within earshot. I leaned over, engaging in a casual conversation with Mrs. Porter. She turned to me.

"Did you know that you're supposed to have a midlife crisis every 29 years? I learned it from Donna on Parks and Rec. Something about Saturn's journey around the sun being 29 years long."

I thought for a moment, pondering. "Hmm. Well, I'm turning 29 in a month. Wonder what my midlife crisis should be..."

I made a show of thinking deeply about this thought-provoking question. "Ooh! I know! I should add on to my dragon tattoo," I said, just loud enough so that The Rumor Mill Trio could hear.

Slam. The sound of palms hitting the desk. "WHAT did you just say?!" Victoria, one of the three girls, twisted around in her seat in a move that would make a chiropractor wince, sheer shock painting her freckled features.

"I...I said I was going to add on to my tattoo?" I said, trailing off and doing my best to look supremely confused.

"SAY IT AGAIN!" she demanded, getting the attention of her two friends.

"My tattoo? I have a tattoo on my stomach." I sighed. "It was a stupid college decision, but yeah, I have a tattoo of a dragon. It's kinda big." I gestured to my stomach, my hands stretching to accommodate the size of my imaginary ink.

Three mouths formed perfect Os.

"Oh my God." 
"We didn't believe her!"


There was a rumor going around about me at school. And I intend to keep it going.