Writer’s Workshop in the High School Classroom

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Typically, the discussion around Workshop takes place against the backdrop of the elementary classroom. When I tell other educators I also used workshop in my high school classes I am inundated with endless questions… How did you do that? What curriculum did you use? How much time did you have?

First, before jumping into the weekly schedule and content I used, I always explain a few things up front.

Logistics and Important Information About My Classroom:

  • Class periods were 42 minutes and I met with the students every day for one semester.
  • I worked hard at the beginning to build a community of writers, one where students would be willing to take risks in their style and content and share with a wider audience than the traditional lone teacher.
  • All students submitted a writing portfolio at the end of the course, sharing their chosen pieces, paragraphs, lines, etc. which demonstrated mastery in standards.
  • All students were required to complete, at least, three typed-pages every week of original work or one that was heavily revised and edited.
  • Students were part of a blogging community and required to post something every other week and comment on 2 other blog posts every week. This public sharing of work provided a different audience than the traditional lone teacher and helped grow writers faster than anything else I had done throughout my writing. (This community was high school students from across the US and in 4 different classrooms.)
  • Students chose content and type of writing each week. Portfolio asked for examples in multiple types, subgenres, and media; but students had complete control over the when, what, and how during the semester.
  • Along with typical types and subgenres of writing, students also created and wrote in contemporary modes including images, videos, music, infographics, etc.
  • Every two to three weeks students turned in a “publishable piece” to be assessed.
  • Finally, I wrote with my students. I modeled my thinking, shared my pieces, and asked for feedback!  

 

I used the traditional Workshop model where I tried to keep my direct instruction at a minimum so that students could write, apply the learning, and collaborate with each other and me when needed. The following is a typical weekly schedule. During student Independent Writing time they had three options: write, collaborate with peers, collaborate with me. As long as their actions were done with intent, the climate and culture in my classroom allowed them to decide what they needed most at that moment to move them forward as a writer, and then do it!

A Simplified weekly schedule of Writer’s Workshop for a 12th-grade writing class:

MondayInspiration. Brainstorm. Share Every Monday I would take time to launch students into writing. I called this “Monday Inspiration”. There were many methods I used to get kids excited about writing. Students were inspired by a mentor text, video, image, or other types of communication. I would pose a question or prompt to contemplate and write about. Students would take part in an inspiring writing activity that typically had them developing lists, sketching, moving, and so forth. All inspiration and accompanying thinking were recorded in their digital Writer’s Notebook section we labeled, Writing Territories, a term from Nancy Atwell. After the 10 to 15 minute inspiration, students would continue to brainstorm and write about the topic or in the genre at hand. This beginning may be something that they continue to develop throughout the week, or remain in their Writing Territories to call upon if they “don’t know what to write about.” At the very end of the class period, I would make sure to leave time to share. I learned early on, students loved sharing their thoughts, writing, and ideas on Monday after the inspiring start. The sharing was sometimes done as a whole class or in a small group.

TuesdayIndependent Writing. Peer Collaboration. Small Group. 1 on 1  On Tuesday, students were writing or creating independently on a piece of their choice. While they could continue the piece they started on Monday, students in my classroom always had a choice in Type and content of their writing. During this time, I worked with small groups, to teach a skill, reinforce something previously learned, or meet individual needs, collectively. I also had time to meet with a few students 1 on 1. This allowed me to know them as writers, address specific needs that either they or I identified, and to just do a check-in on their process. Along with working independently, or meeting with me, students also had the option to work with a partner or small group. During a writer’s workshop, students are at multiple points in the writing process. Some continued pieces week to week, others may just be in the beginning stages; students would revise, edit, and provide feedback to each other and their “virtual classmates” in the blogging community based on their needs as a writer.

Wednesday Language Study. Independent Writing. Portfolio. Blog. On Wednesdays, the class period began with a lesson over grammar, usage, or mechanics. Teaching grammar in isolation does not lead to use in writing. With this in mind, I used student writing, identify common errors made by the class and this is where I would focus my teaching. After the lesson, students continue to write or work with peers. Wednesday was also time for students to work on their writing portfolio, a collection of their best examples and reflections throughout the year and aligned to the standards or teaching goals. Students could also add a new post to their blogs or leave a comment on another student blog from our community.  

Thursday –  Independent Writing. Revising. Editing. Small Groups. 1 on 1. Thursday was spent much like Tuesday. Students chose how they spent their time based on their writing needs. Some worked independently, others worked with a partner or small group. During the revising and editing stages, students used a variety of strategies to accomplish their goals. These strategies were taught via whole class and small groups. They also prepared for Friday, making sure they had something of substance to share the following day. I spent my time working one on one with students, teaching specific techniques that would move them forward as writers.  

FridaySharing with Feedback. Fridays were typically spent sharing writing. To help build a community of growth, we started off sharing in small groups of 3 using the PQP strategy (Praise, Question, Polish by Bill Lyons). This allows the writer to receive the specific feedback needed. Another method used was Go, Fish, a whole class strategy that allowed every writer to give and receive feedback. An Author’s Spotlight was used to highlight individuals and often included multiple pieces by 2 or 3 writers. Important things about students sharing their writing: Everyone shared what they wanted to with the rest of the class, feedback was specific (more strategies were taught for this) and used to move everyone forward, finally, sharing their writing honored the process and provided a different audience than the traditional lone teacher.

It is possible to use a workshop framework in a high school classroom. In fact, I cannot imagine teaching writing a different way. Students had a choice in content and writing type. They also shared their work with classmates and to a larger, public audience. Students were writing for real, not just writing for school, and created in multiple mediums to communicate their voice through video, text, visuals, and more. And although this post shared a basic structure, I hope that it provided you with enough information to see the possibilities when considering how to structure a writer’s workshop in your own classroom.

Measuring Up: 6 Focus Areas for Blended Curriculum Assessment

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It is true, not all curriculum is created equal. There are specific things I look for when reviewing a curriculum to make the best decisions for kids and teachers. So when my friends at We Are Teachers asked me to take a look at, Measuring Up, a blended curriculum for grades 2-8, I was eager to check it out and provide feedback.

This post is sponsored by We Are Teachers and Mastery Education. All opinions expressed are my own. (Meaning, if I don’t like something about a particular education product I will not write about it on my blog)

I immediately recognized many positives while reading through the sample curriculum:

  • Concepts connected by what students will learn; to what they may already know; to real-world examples.
  • Academic vocabulary in context.
  • Scaffolded learning with guided instruction and gradual release of responsibility.
  • Apply learning independently.

Along with the previous list, two things stuck out to me about Measuring Up that I appreciate as a professional. First, the instruction is done by the expert classroom teacher, not the computer; and second, the Measuring Up Live 2.0 version aligned with my view on student-learning and assessment which they have streamlined through the use of computer applications.

6 Focus Areas for Blended Curriculum Assessment:

  1. Practice – Whether it is a high-stakes test or a certification exam; assessment practices are shifting from paper and pencil to an online version for a variety of reason (costs, access, data disaggregation, etc.) When students have little to no practice or frame of reference to online testing, anxiety rises and results are impacted. Blended curriculum should contain both digital and analog assessment options, as well as multiple types of assessment students,  can take in both a low-stake and high-stakes environment.  
  2. Cognitive Demand – If students have limited interaction and touches on devices when it comes to testing, all of their cognitive energy is wasted on how to manipulate the computer instead of answering the questions. Cognitive energy is best used for thinking critically and demonstrating understanding. From drag and drop to typing extended answers, when students have little access to the types of computer assessments they will take in their schooling and life, cognitive demands are misplaced on basic computer skills.
  3. Adaptive – When evaluating curriculum, edtech options for assessment should include adaptive measures, meaning, the test is sensitive to the answers the student provides and modifications are made based on answers. This ensures that the just right measures are used to gauge what the student knows and what they are not understanding.
  4. Feedback – Feedback is another area I explore when looking at assessment provided by curriculum with blended components. Feedback could come in the form of immediate grading, but could also provide extensions and reinforcement. All of these provides students with an understanding of what they have mastered and what additional support they can access to continue refining their learning.
  5. Mastery and Goal Setting – Curriculum that provides assessment should be aligned to the standards and instruction. It should provide a clear picture as to which skills and standards the students have mastered, what they have left to master and provide a direction on how to move forward. Measuring up provides students and teachers this information, as well as a way for students to set their own learning goals.
  6. Informs Instruction – FInally, data collected is useless unless it is used to inform instruction. Along with providing formative and summative student information, an assessment done via technology streamlines the process of accessing, disaggregating, and changing instruction to best meet students’ needs.

Curriculum cycles are a part of every district I have worked with over the past 10 years. Making the most informed purchasing decisions helps educators in their instruction and assessment of students. While all companies and curriculum writers provide unique frameworks or specialty components, be sure that any curriculum claiming to be blended places value in the professional and contains a comprehensive assessment system, similar to that of Measuring Up,  with a focus on the 6 areas above.

Is Anything Truly Original?

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For decades, perhaps even earlier as some claim origins dating back to Aristotle’s Poetics, writers, and literary critics have uncovered a finite amount of story plots in fiction. Even the great Kurt Vonnegut argued this theory of story “shapes” in his College thesis that was rejected for its simplistic nature that there were indeed a set of shapes that all writing could be categorized by citing such favorites as Cinderella as a spin-off of the Bible.

What it boils down to is this… there are seven original story plots, Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Rebirth, etc., and that every piece of fiction is actually a spin-off of the original. Beyond those first 7, no piece of fictional writing is truly original. So should new writing be published? Should new stories be shared?

This year marks my 19th in Education. Shorter than some, longer than others. Most of my years have been as a high school English teacher (thus, the connection to the aforementioned example) and for the past few years as a regional support consultant in the state in the areas of literacy, technology, and school improvement; but I digress.

Because of this, I am going to take some liberties… much of education parallels the 7 original story plots. Things are repackaged, renamed, shined up, fine-tuned, and sent back into the education community as “New” or “Innovative”. In fact, I would venture many seasoned teachers out there would agree with me and have seen the circular nature of programs and instructional strategies recycled and the educational wheel spinning and spitting them back out again when their number is called. Very few things that we as Educators use or do in our classrooms are Original.

I will repeat, you, and I for that matter, are not as original as we think we are.

We are spinoffs from the educators before us. And what we do, say, and use in our classrooms are mostly variations of what has been done before.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but one that is mostly true, teachers have been doing variations of what you and I have done long before it was an idea in our heads. We are not the first… (fill in the blank…)

Take, for instance, a recent experience I had at Flipgrid Live. The first Day consisted of an Edcamp and a social gathering of Educators at Flipgrid HQ.

Day 2 was much the same. A Student Voice Conference with keynotes and breakout sessions and a sharing of personal stories and ideas to spark change. This was followed by a grand reveal of new updates, modifications, acquisitions, celebrations, photos, videos, singing, and on and on and on all focused on empowering student voice and connected classrooms. To many educators, these events are not considered as completely original or new. Even the new releases, ideas, and social media sharing celebrated variations that educators have been using for decades.

This brings me to my second point, or liberty I am going to take,,, Change, passion, meaningful learning does not take place vicariously. I attended this event as a learner, not a presenter, and while many know my story, the majority at this event did not. I have always been a Student Voice Advocate and Connected Educator. I have connected classrooms around the globe, traveled with kids internationally based off of those connections, connected teachers to resources and communities (in fact, many of you reading this could probably attest to the way I have helped connect you) but I am not the first one to do this. Many educators before me have been working towards similar verbs, connecting, student voice, the difference is this… social media and the desire to one-up each other often times brings out the negativity in people, and flipping through my Twitter feed I found these tweets and educators I respect trying to one-up the celebrations taking place at FlipgridLive.

When I became a connected educator and shared my story I met a wonderful educator named Sean Nash. We were prepping for a conference (Bacon Wrapped Lessons) and getting to know the other educators on the team (I was known as the student voice cheerleader). Sharing my classroom stories about amplification and connection was met with support and enthusiasm from the group. I felt proud and I had passion. Come to find out, Nash had been doing this for years- connecting his kids, traveling internationally, amplifying their voice; but not once did he squash my voice or diminish my experience. My story was not interrupted or replaced by his.

Educators, students, humans need to share their story. It may not be an original, but a spin-off, just as many argue what fiction is, but passion and change do not happen through vicarious circumstances. We are all working towards similar verbs, and as hard as it was for me not to interject my stories and past experiences as a connected educator and student voice cheerleader at the Flipgrid Live event I knew it was essential for their story to be told, the excitement be shared, and I, as a seasoned educator stood next to, not in front of, these educators and helped to lift them up just as so many have done for me. I was not there to interrupt, disvalue, or one-up them on social media that I have been doing it for years… every story should be told,,, whether it is one of the originals or a spin-off, each story adds value to our profession and supports the same passions or calls to actions that many of us support.

Embrace Your Vulnerability; Write In Front of Your Students

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This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is “How do we better instill an idea of risk-taking and struggle in students? How do we do a better job of encouraging their failures rather than punishing them? How can we better humanize success and show that it’s a matter of diligence rather than talent?”

Teaching writing is tough. When I speak to colleagues, other educators, or reflect on my own training, how to explicitly teach students to write was something that was missed for many of us in the education world. In fact, I don’t remember learning how to teach writing until I started my graduate work. With the lack of training, what typically happens is one of three things: teaching writing is in the form of grammar, usage, and mechanics rules and memorization; or teaching writing is having the students write a holiday essay or a 10 page research paper; or finally, teaching writing is not done at all, rather it is assigned.

Now you may be wondering how this addresses the question posed above… The most important thing educators can do to teach their students how to write is to write in front of them. I can think of nothing more powerful, or more vulnerable, than when a teacher writes in front of their students.

  • Writing in front of students does more to move a young writer forward than any grammar worksheet assigned.
  • Writing in front of students promotes risk-taking by the class as they become a community of writers.
  • Writing in front of students demonstrates the struggles all writers face on how best to articulate their thoughts, ideas, and messages.
  • Writing in front of students helps to demystify the magical aura that surrounds a perfectly polished piece of text.
  • Writing in front of students invites the community to know you and your story which propels them to share their own.
  • Writing in front of students provides a window into your mind as you work through the process of writing.
  • Writing in front of students demonstrates that hardly any piece of writing is perfect the first time, even the teacher’s piece.
  • Writing in front of students illustrates writing success is found through practice, lots and lots of practice.
  • Writing in front of students releases the protection of the process and struggle to the students.
  • Writing in front of students provides a model of real writing by an important person in their life.
  • Writing in front of students builds relationships and fosters empathy.

If we want students to be risk-takers, persevere through the struggle, and find success in the process then we must model that as the adult in the classroom. If we, ourselves, are embarrassed or nervous to write in front of and share our writing with students then how can we expect the same from them. The best writing is personal. It moves the readers to have an emotional connection to the story and to get the student’s best writing we must be a model of this vulnerability. The first step in the teaching of writing is to be a writer yourself!

Instructional Coaches: A Benefit to Schools

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In the early 1990s, there was a surge of instructional coaches in the area of literacy. From that point forward, Federal and State Initiatives have supported and encouraged schools across the country to implement support to colleagues through the use of coaches. Throughout the years, roles, titles, and job descriptions have morphed into what we have currently but the focus has remained comparatively similar to its inception: How can coaches support colleagues in pursuit of refining their practice to directly impact student achievement.

My current role allows me not only coach teachers in multiple districts, but also allows me the ability to work with and coach the coaches in the districts we serve. Because of these experiences, I believe there are 3 Ways Instructional Coaches Benefit Schools:

  1. Transfer – If you ask any educator to share the initiatives and focus areas in their building the list would be lengthy, filled with three-letter acronyms, and perhaps, attached to a SMART goal. While there are no shortages of initiatives to implement or professional learning for these initiatives, consistency in implementation and transfer into the classroom rarely happen at a systems level. In buildings with instructional coaches, I have witnessed a more systemic transfer of professional learning and initiative implementation into the classroom. Through one to one or small group coaching, educators attest to the support that coaches provide on a continuous cycle long after the initial learning is completed. Effective instructional coaches also use a variety of tools, checklist, or Innovation Configuration Maps to reflect and have conversations with colleagues on what implementation with fidelity may look like. Through these coaching cycles, support is personalized based on self-identified needs.
  2. Personalization – Instructional coaches play a support role to teachers instead of an evaluative role. Relationships and respect are forged and areas identified in which to focus efforts. Modeling and co-teaching, 2 effective strategies coaches use, are often sandwiched between a pre and post conversation. And just as every student in the classroom may have a different learning pathway to the same end goal, so to do teachers. Building Principals may be able to support staff growth on a macro level, individual growth at the micro level is achieved through utilizing instructional coaches. Personalized professional growth for every staff member at a consistent and continuous level is possible with a competent and supported instructional coach.
  3. Leadership – Finally, schools benefit when teachers have leadership roles. From helping to build consensus to identifying student and teacher needs with data, kids win in buildings with instructional coaches. Teachers are the ones doing the work in the classroom. Their actions directly impact students and it is essential to have their voices “at the table” when professional learning is planned or vision and goals are formed. Instructional coaches allow teachers to have a leadership role in buildings without having to be a principal or obtain an additional degree. It is through leadership opportunities like this that help schools retain good teachers and improve the pedagogy of all.

Instructional Coaches are continuing to support teachers and students through consistent, high-quality continuous improvement. Throughout the years we have witnessed educational trends, all in an effort to boost student achievement. Collegial support through coaching helps all schools which impacts the bottom-line, the students!

 

Resource: Denton, Carolyn A, & Hasbrouck, Jan. “A Description of Instructional Coaching and its Relationship to Consultation.” Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation. 2009.