Awesome Sauce: When Learning Happens in the Classroom

Being a teacher has its many perks and rewards:

  • Observing students really “get” stuff and have A-Ha moments in the classroom.
  • Being able to decorate your classroom anyway you want with no one telling you, “Those drapes clash with that carpet.”
  • Helping students grow and develop.
  • Challenging students to change their perspective on life.
  • Halloween.  Need I say more?
  • Celebrating a furry brown creature who lives in the ground with songs, poems, and fun.
  • Meeting new students on the first day of school.
  • Running into past students in strange places and taking a stroll down memory lane.

I bet that some of you thought snow days and summer vacation were going to be at the top of my list.  While we, as teachers, do love our time off, we’d much rather be in the classroom with our students molding minds and helping create the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and doers.

Another thing teachers really love about their lifestyle choice is seeing that their students are actually learning.  Yes, it’s great to see the moment when they understand something like a lightbulb going off in their brain, but seeing students apply that new knowledge they learn is even cooler.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with how to help students see the power of the peer editing process.  How do I help students understand the value in providing their peers with meaningful feedback that will help them effectively revise their written work?  How can I best teach students to be effective peer editors?  Each year I feel as though teaching students to be great peer editors is like what early American settlers went through when they journeyed west in search of land, an arduous and long journey.  It takes many students the entire year to really be able to master the skill of providing their peers with useful feedback.  I get it.  Having a careful eye and providing constructive feedback to others is not an easy thing to do.  It’s hard to effectively help others to make their writing better.  I sometimes struggle with this skill myself, and I’m an adult.  I understand that this journey to becoming an effective peer editor can be bumpy and filled with unexpected twists and turns, which is why I don’t expect my students to be able to meaningfully help others revise their written work until later in the academic year.

Now, while I’ve heard that miracles do happen, I have yet to see any in my short life.  Wait a minute, I take that back: My teenaged son once woke up in a pleasant mood.  That was definitely a miracle.  Inside my classroom, I was fortunate enough today to see another miracle: My students effectively peer editing each other’s written work.

Today’s class began much like any other.  The boys wrote down the homework and completed a Brain Puzzle activity altogether as a class.  Nothing special or miraculous happened.  The boys did what was expected of them.  Then, I introduced the peer editing activity that the students would be completing in class.  I reviewed the difference between editing and revising and made a list on the board of the various writing features they should be looking to comment on regarding their partner’s Learning Goals Plan.  I went over the steps of the process and made sure they understood what was expected of them.  As I was definitely employing a fixed mindset going into today’s class, I was certain that they would have time to peer edit with at least three different students since they usually only provide their partner with superficial feedback on how they can improve their work.  Then came the miracle.

The students got right to work.  No, that wasn’t the miracle.  While I have had previous classes struggle with this skill, this year’s group is great at getting right to work.  The miracle came when they started to work.  The students were asking each other questions like, “How will you use a growth mindset?  What do you mean here?  Could you explain more here?”  I was amazed.  They were really trying to provide their partner with constructive feedback.  They were focusing on the big features of their written work and not the little, nit picky stuff like spelling or grammar.  They were trying to help their partner become a better, more effective writer.  They posed great questions and provided each other with effective and meaningful feedback.  It was awesome.  They were completing the peer editing process in a real and genuine manner.  They weren’t just going through the motions like classes in the past have done, oh no.  They were taking the time to really dissect their partner’s work so that he could put it back together in a more effective way.  I was amazed.  They spent so long working with one partner, that they only had time to provide feedback to one student prior to the end of class.  Wow!

How were they able to accomplish this task so early in the year?  No other group has demonstrated mastery of this skill so soon in the school year.  What allowed or helped my students to be successful during today’s activity?   Was it because we’ve been focusing on helping our students utilize a growth mindset while working?   Was that it?  Or was it that I explained what they needed to do in a way that made sense to them?  Perhaps it was because I reminded them that I will be grading them on their ability to provide their partner with effective feedback.  Maybe the sunny weather motivated them to buckle down and really work in class today.  Who knows what it was, as there were so many variables at play.  I don’t feel as though I taught the skill of peer editing any differently this year than I did in past years, and so I’m not sure what it was that helped them all showcase their ability to peer edit their partner’s work in a meaningful way.  I do know that something special happened in the classroom today.  If my students apply the feedback with which they were provided today, they will all certainly be able to exceed the two graded objectives for this task.  I can’t wait to read the final draft of their Learning Goals Plan on Friday as they are sure to be “legen- wait for it- dary.”

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Group Writing: How to Inspire Your Students to Enjoy Writing

Sixth grade students love to talk and interact with their friends and peers.  They solve problems through talking, play games while talking, and even talk when they shouldn’t be talking.  Many sixth grade students tend to be very outgoing and interpersonal.  They experience life through social interactions, as they love doing things together in small groups or with a partner.  Teamwork and group work play vital roles for sixth grade students.  If offered the choice to work alone on a project or activity or to complete the task with a partner, most sixth grade students would choose to work with a partner.  They crave social togetherness and feeling like a part of something greater than themselves.  These connections are crucial to how successful sixth grade students feel and actually are in reality.

So, to capitalize on this important facet of sixth grade life, I wanted to try a different kind of writing activity today during Humanities class.  While many of my students have already begun to find the fun and enjoyment in writing, a few of them are still stuck in thinking that writing is a required task and not something they enjoy doing.  To help inspire my students to get into the Halloween spirit today while also helping them find the fun in the writing process, I had the boys participate in a Group Writing activity.  The students each received a different spooky story starter that was the springboard into their story.  They used this prompt to begin their story.  Each student worked on their story for five minutes, formulating a strong beginning.  They then all traded stories with a peer, read what their classmate had written, and then continued building on this new story for five minutes.  They rotated stories with their classmates three more times, as they added to new stories, building on what was already written.  The last rotation had the students finish the story that was worked on by four other students.  Throughout the process, laughter was heard on numerous occasions as they read each other’s stories and added to them.  Smiles spread across the faces of my students as they busily worked to craft scary and strange Halloween-themed stories.  The boys had a blast with the writing portion of this activity.  They all seemed so proud of their work as they pointed out some of the highlights from their pieces while they traded stories with their classmates.  One student came to me towards the end of the writing process and said, “Mr. Holt, I’m loving writing so much now that I may start doing it during my free time.  This activity is so fun.”  Another student, who struggles to write as he finds it boring, told me, “Thanks for doing this activity, Mr. Holt.  It was a lot of fun.”  The boys seemed to thoroughly enjoy crafting crazy, weird, and morbid stories together as a group.  They loved adding to what their friends had crafted and enjoyed reading what their peers had written.  While there was very little talking happening during the writing part of this activity, the social interaction component was quite high.  The students were silently interacting with their peers in written form.  I was impressed and amazed by how much my students seemed to like this activity.  It was awesome.

Before moving into the sharing portion of the activity, I asked the students for some feedback on the process.  Almost all of the students raised their hands to express how much they loved this activity.  To wrap things up, I had the students gather in the reading area of the classroom, turned off the lights, and read aloud their group write stories.  I not only had a blast reading their bizarre, scary, and often funny stories, but the students couldn’t stop laughing.  When their part of the stories was read aloud, shouts of laughter and “This is mine” were heard.  It was such a remarkable experience.  By making writing a social activity, I inspired my students to find their passion.  My students found the fun in writing during today’s activity.  While this is only one way to teach students how to write and craft stories, it is a highly successful method as it allows the students to silently engage in social discourse.  They talked with their friends through their writing.  Many of the stories had tinges of a video game the boys love playing together during their free time.  Almost every story seemed to include some reference to this game.  While I have done this activity every Halloween for the past four years, I’m amazed each and every year by how much my students truly enjoy it.  This activity is usually just the bridge many of them need to cross over the river of challenges and into the land of Writing is Fun.  I can’t wait to see what wonderful masterpieces my students put together during our next writing activity.

Varying the approach to teach writing is important in helping all students see how much fun writing can be.  While some boys love writing creative stories or historical fiction pieces, others like writing non-fiction essays or reports.  Each student is different and unique in their own way, and as teachers, it is our mission to help them tap into their potential as a writer.  What type of writing activity or genre will inspire them?  By providing the students with various writing opportunities throughout the year, we are helping them unlock the writer within.  Group writing activities like the one I did today, can help students uncover the writer inside of them.  Who knows what’s possible unless we give our students a chance to try?  So, if you’re looking to mix things up and make writing fun for your students, try a Group Writing activity.

How My Reflection Changed My Students

Having seen the value of individual reflection for many years now, I know the power it holds.  Being a reflective teacher has enabled me to become more effective at helping and supporting my students.  Taking the time to stop and think about what went well or what proved difficult in class on a daily basis has helped me refine my approach to teaching and the field of education.  Teachers are not the givers of information.  We are guides for our students as they journey towards understanding.  We are the flashlights our students use as they navigate their way through the dark world of life and school.  We encourage our students to ask questions.  We help them solve problems encountered.  We empower them to think for themselves in a critical manner.  We show them the path that will lead them towards enlightenment.  We pack their knowledge backpacks full of use study and work skills.  We are beacons of light and power for our students.  We are not libraries full of facts and information.  Reflecting over the past many years on my daily teaching practices has allowed me to see my true role as a teacher.

During the past week, I’ve struggled with feeling as though I am not appropriately helping my students see the value in revising their written work.  Earlier last week, the students seemed unable to focus their effort on making their historical fiction stories better and more effective while also providing their classmates with useful feedback on how they can improve their stories.  The boys seemed to rush through the process to finish and be done with it, rather than really jumping into the task as though they are on a writing journey.  This bothered me because I know that in order to grow and develop as writers, they need to see the benefit in revising their work based on feedback.  They need to utilize a growth mindset to see feedback provided to them as useful.  My students seemed greatly challenged by this phase of the writing process.  They seemed more interested in what they could do when they finished writing.  Very few of the students seemed to take the assignment seriously, and that caused me to pause.

How will they be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class if they can’t learn to improve upon their writing based on suggestions provided to them by others?  I reflected on my struggles in this very blog last week, at least twice.  I then incorporated some new thoughts and ideas into my class so that my students would, hopefully, be able to see the vast power that revising their work holds for them as students.  While I did see my students begin to change their thinking regarding the revision step of the writing process, I was skeptical that all of them had revised their thinking on the topic.  I reflected in writing and mentally.  What else could I do to inspire my students to see that they need to take the process of revising their work seriously if they want to grow as writers?

Then came class today.  Today provided students one final opportunity to revise their historical fiction stories based on feedback provided to them by me, their teacher, and their classmates.  I also had them reflect on the process they used to craft this piece of writing, using an author’s note.  The students needed to respond, in writing at the bottom of their stories, to four questions.  Those students who finished revising their story and crafting an author’s note had two options:

  1. Complete an extra credit, objectively graded task, that involves the students creating a book jacket for their historical fiction story.  They must craft a front and back cover for their stories, being sure to include a title, relevant, hand-drawn image, brief summary of the story, and quotes from others on their story.
  2. Work on the Things to Do When Done list that is posted on one of the window displays in our classroom.  They could fill out their planbook for next week, work on Typing Club, work on homework, check their grades, or work in the Makerspace.

The students quickly got to work.  They seemed very focused on the task at hand.  A few of the students spent a good chunk of their time revising and improving upon their stories.  It was amazing to watch them add details, dialogue, and more effective character descriptions to their stories, on their own.  Some of the other students put forth fine effort into reflecting on their writing process as they crafted their author’s note.  Their responses were detailed and included examples from their writing experience.  It was impressive to see them being so mindful and reflective as they own their work.  The five students with whom I conferenced took the feedback I offered them with open arms.  They asked meaningful questions that allowed them to understand what they needed to do to improve their story.  It was fun to read their stories, praise their phenomenal talents as writers, and challenge them to grow and develop as they improve upon their writing pieces.  Students who had finished their story and author’s note early on in the period, took it upon themselves to help others revise their piece, if help was needed.  They were being truly compassionate community members.

During class today, I only needed to redirect two students who seemed to find focusing on the task at hand, individually, difficult.  Those two students, once redirected, did regroup and got right back to work on growing as writers.  The rest of the students seemed zoned in on improving their skills as writers.  They reviewed the three graded objectives on which their final story will be assessed.  They were committed to exceeding my expectations as they clearly saw the value in the process of revising their work.  I could not have been more proud and impressed by my students today.  They rocked their stories!  I can’t wait to read their final drafts.

So, what did I learn from all of this.  Well, I learned that reflection not only changes me, but it fosters change within my students.  Because I reflected on what didn’t feel right to me last week, I changed my approach to teaching the revision phase of the writing process.  Today, I saw, first hand, how this change impacts my students.  They were completely different writers today than they were last week.  They care about making their stories better, and thus crave feedback.  It’s quite amazing.  They weren’t rushing to finish their stories, they took their time to polish their words and develop their characters.  Because I took the time to think about how I could better support and help my students become better writers, I changed the way I spoke to my students about revising their work.  I didn’t explain the process as a task, but a journey they were going on to transform themselves into better writers.  My personal reflections on revision didn’t just change me, they changed my students too.

Helping Students Find Enjoyment in Writing

Ever since I was in the sixth grade, I’ve loved to write.  I used to write poetry for fun when I was bored in high school.  I even used writing as an emotional outlet.  When I was struggling to accept the death of my grandfather, I wrote about it as a way of processing my feelings.  It really helped me work through a lot of challenging emotions I was facing at the time.  Writing has always been a hobby of mine.  Even now as an adult, I treasure the time it takes to blog on a daily basis, as it allows me to reflect on my teaching in a creative and meaningful manner.  Writing is my way of documenting my life and journey on Earth.  It’s how I can prove that I exist.  I also find much joy in writing.  It makes me happy when I can sit in front of my computer or at a desk with pen and paper and pour my heart, soul, and being out via words and sentences.  What seems such a simple action, provides me with such a cathartic release.  It’s free therapy.  I love it.  It’s like mental Legos.  I get to put letters and words together in new and fantastic ways so as to bleed my emotions and thoughts out.  It’s like bloodletting, without the mess and death.

As a teacher, I make it a personal goal of mine each and every year to inspire my students to find the joy in writing.  While they may not all view writing through the same rainbow-unicorn glasses I use, I want to help them find the peace and fun in writing.  I want them to write stories and poems that make them happy.  I want them to find the passion in writing.  I challenge my students to write pieces that make them want to never stop writing.  I want my students to see writing as an experience and not a task they are forced to do.  Although this is a difficult goal for me to meet on a yearly basis, it is one that I hold near and dear to my beating heart.

There are many ways to help students find enjoyment in writing.  By using the Writer’s Workshop model of writing, I help to engage the students in what they are writing.  Because they can choose what they write about, they have a far better chance of falling in love with their work than if they were pigeonholed into specific writing topics.  I also try to inspire creativity within my students by using various prompts to promote unique thoughts to be born in their minds.  Using Quick Write activities, the students use prompts as springboards into their writing.  These activities aren’t graded and rarely looked at by me.  They are word-vomit activities for the students to begin to find the fun in writing.  They begin to learn to take risks in their writing as they aren’t being graded on these short writing tasks.  While I do teach the students all about the process of writing, I try to make it fun and inviting.  I want them to see feedback as essential to the growth process.  I want them to value the thoughts and ideas provided to them by their peers and teachers.  I want them to think of writing as a never ending journey.  I tell them from the start of the year that writing pieces are never finished.  Even published authors would tell you that they would gladly revise their published books based on new ideas and feedback received.  I hopefully help my students to see writing as something they are able to do that is fun and exciting.

Today offered me the chance to provide a few students in my class with feedback that will hopefully help them better find the joy in writing.  As my students worked on their historical fiction stories, I meandered around the room like a Brook Trout searching for shade on a warm summer’s day.  I observed the students as they extracted thoughts and ideas from their brains.  I watched them play with words in order to tell a story that intrigued them.  This observation time allowed me to help two students who seemed stuck.

The first student sat at his desk in front of his laptop, tapping away on the table, not his laptop.  His body language told me that he was bored.  So, I stopped to chat with him.

“It seems as though you are stuck.  Can I offer you some help?” I said to him as he stared longingly into his computer screen.

“Yes,” he responded.

So, I read what he had typed and provided him with some feedback, “While you do a fine job explaining facts about Canaan’s history, this piece reads more like a list of things that happened than a story.  How can you transform this into a story that reads more like the books you love reading?  How can you bring life into this piece?”

He seemed a bit mystified and so I shared some examples of how I might begin a piece based on his topic.  As I didn’t want to steal too much thinking from him, I walked away at that point.  A few minutes later, I noticed that he had deleted everything he had previously written and was starting from scratch.  While he didn’t have much time to start a new story before class ended, he seemed inspired to write something that made him happy.  I can’t wait to read his sloppy copy.

Then, another student said to me, “Mr. Holt, I’m almost done my story and it’s quite long, but I’m getting bored with it.  What should I do?”

“Shall I take a look at what you’ve got and see if I can provide you with some ideas or suggestions on how to move forward?” I responded.  He seemed to like this response.  So, I sat with him and read over what he had already written.  He had crafted a unique story about the destruction of the Noyes Academy.  He approached it from an interesting angle, but he wasn’t having fun with it anymore and it showed.  I was bored just reading his piece.

“While this is a fine story and will allow you to meet the objectives covered, I can totally see why you are bored with it.  You know how the story is going to end.  You have the timeline etched onto your brain already.  There are no surprises or possibilities for fun.  I think you need to find a new story.  I think you need to start from scratch,” I told him.

He agreed with me and quickly began working on a whole new story that made him happy.  He wanted to find his passion in the writing and it wasn’t in his first piece.  While I’m glad he spoke with me about this, I wish he didn’t feel like he needed my permission to start over.  I want my students to write with joy and passion.  I tell them every time we write that they should stop and restart if they are not in love with their piece.  “If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”  This student saw that in himself today and then made a change.  He knew what he wanted to do, but he wanted my blessing and feedback.  When I gave it to him, he seemed relieved.  It was a pretty cool experience.

Like the two students I helped today, I hope I am able to inspire all of my students to find the joy in writing.  I want them to see writing as an experiment.  Try something new to see what happens.  If you get the result you want, great, and if not, then try again.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Embrace the challenge of failure so that you can find the soul within your writing.  Great writing allows you to transfer your beating heart into the piece.  Great writing is alive with description, vivid details, risque topics, and remarkable settings.  I hope that my students leave the sixth grade next year able to see what fun writing can be.  I hope that I am able to help my students find enjoyment in writing this year.

How to Help Students Find their Writing Flow

When I was a younger, I used to love writing.  I would sometimes just write stories for fun when I was bored at home.  In elementary school, we were rarely provided time to write, but when we were, I would craft magical stories of fantasy and action.  Possibly due to my numerous hours of practice when I was younger, I became quite a fine writer and minored in it in college.  To this day, I find great joy and comfort in creating new pieces of writing.  Writing to me is more than just typing letters on a keyboard or pressing a pencil against a piece of paper.  Writing is an art.  It’s about playing and experimenting with word combinations: What words working together conjure up just the right image or emotion.  Writing is so much more than just something I do to be done with.  Even in school, I rarely finished stories I started as I never wanted to be done with the journey or writing process.  When I write, I can escape into new and uncharted worlds or ponder ideas no one else has ever thought of.  Sometimes when I write, I find myself lost in the act.  I get so caught up in writing that time flies by.  That’s the writing flow.  When I’m in my writing flow, nothing else matters.  I just write.  It’s a pretty amazing experience.

As a teacher, I want to try and inspire my students to find their writing flow.  I want them to be so engaged with the process of writing that they lose track of time.  I want my students to fall in love with the words they type.  I want writing to feel like fun time for my students.  To help foster this love of writing within my students, I use the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction.  Today’s Writer’s Workshop block went like this…

  • I completed a mini-lesson with the students on historical fiction.  I posed several questions to the class in order to generate a discussion around the following questions: What is historical fiction? and What makes a good historical fiction story?  I want my students to think of the writing process as a recipe.  Begin with a fact or historical knowledge nugget and then add in some realistic characters, a dash of a historically accurate setting, and a pinch of an overall sense of reality based on a happening in history.
  • After I was sure they understood the ingredients of a well made historical fiction story, I explained the process that they would go through to transform their homework writing piece into a historical fiction story.  “You need to revise or change what you wrote last night about something you learned regarding the history of Canaan from Wednesday’s field experience and transform it into a historical fiction story.”
  • With that, the students got right to work.  While a few students had clarifying questions and needed a little support to get started, most of the boys jumped right into their historical fiction story with ease.  They almost seemed excited to get started.
  • As I fielded questions, I also observed the students as they worked.  I read sentences they had written and praised the students for their fine focus and effort.  I even asked one student to reread his first sentence and decide if he thought it was interesting or provided enough of a hook to draw readers into his story.  Even though he had written it, he didn’t like it and found a more creative way to begin his story.
  • Many of the students were so enthralled in their story that they didn’t even notice I was walking around and observing them as they worked.  I had some soft instrumental music playing as a way to keep the boys mindful and focused on the task at hand.  Several of the students seemed to be in the writing flow.  When I asked them to finish up the sentence they were working on, very few of them wanted to stop.
  • I wrapped up today’s Writer’s Workshop block with some questions and a brief share.  “How many of you are in love with your story?”  Many hands shot right up into the air, as I had predicted would happen.  “How many of you felt like you were in the writing flow, as Mr. Wilkerson mentioned in yesterday’s Chapel Talk?”  Five or six hands went right up.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed crafting new stories of Cannan’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, how the town was founded, and Noyes Academy.  They just couldn’t get enough.  Then I had three students share aloud a few sentences from their piece.  Wow! was just about all I could say.  They had crafted masterpieces of intense scenes and action.  They seemed to take today’s task seriously and really dove headfirst into their historical fiction stories.  I was amazed.

So, how did this happen?  Why were my students so engaged in the writing process?  What allowed them to enter the writing flow?  Was it my introduction or explanation of the assignment?  Were they excited to craft action-packed stories about Canaan’s rich history?  Or was it that they take their academics seriously and just wanted to be sure they put forth their best effort?  Was that it?  Did their great effort help today’s writing period go so well?  Almost every student had at least a half-page of text by the end of the 20 minute period.  Was it the subject matter?  Were they so engaged with what they learned from Wednesday’s field experience that they were inspired to craft lyrical works of art in class today?  Perhaps it was a little bit of everything all rolled into one.  Maybe some of the students were enthralled with the history of the town while others were motivated by grades to work well.  I do feel though that flow events don’t happen accidentally.  I believe that something else was at work in the classroom to cause such brilliant writing to happen.  Something magical and special must have occurred to allow so many of the students to fall into the writing flow within minutes of beginning the writing process.  Maybe that’s what it was.  Well, no matter what happened today, I was impressed and amazed by the work my students completed.  They worked like published authors.  I just hope I can inspire this same kind of magic during our next writing period on Tuesday.

The Power of Providing Students with Choice when Writing

“What would you like for sides with that?” wait staff at various restaurants often ask customers when they are ordering their meal.  With so many choices, it’s almost too difficult to choose; however, at the end of the day, people like being able to pick what they eat.  Some people like French fries while other people like rice or pickles.  If restaurants did not offer choices, I wonder how many customer would become repeat patrons.  Humans like to be offered options.  It empowers us and makes us feel as though we are in control.  As teachers, we need to remember this same principal when teaching our students.  Our students don’t like when we make choices for them.  They like to be able to select how and what they learn.  It engages them and allows for genuine learning to take place in the brain.

Today in my Humanities class, I made sure to provide my students with choices and options so that they would be excited and engaged in the learning process.  Following a discussion on community and what it means to be a part of a community, the students completed a Quick Write activity.  As this was our first Quick Write of the academic year, I did explain the protocol and procedure so that they understood what was expected of them.  Today’s prompt was, “Imagine the perfect community.  What would it look like?  How would it function?  Who would live there?  Where would it be located?  Explain and describe your perfect community.”  After explaining how a Quick Write works and what the prompt is asking them to do, I addressed questions the students had: “Does it have to be about a real community or can I make it up?”, “Can I write about a community I’m a part of?” and,  “Can I write it like a story?”  The boys were thrilled that they could write about any sort of community.  They were also excited that they could write it as a story or any form of writing.  They liked that they had choices for how they could complete this task.

For 15 minutes, the boys sat, quietly typing away.  Some of the students had almost a full page of text when the time had expired.  A few of the boys were upset when the time was up because they wanted to keep writing.  I love their enthusiasm and excitement.  They were all so engaged in this activity because they could choose what to write about and how to do so.  I didn’t pigeonhole them into one style or topic.  They had the freedom their brains crave.  Once the writing portion of the activity had finished, I had the students share their piece with their table partner.  They seemed to enjoy sharing their work with a peer.  I then had the students analyze their piece to determine their favorite sentence or short chunk of sentences, and a few volunteers shared what they had chosen aloud to the group.  I was so amazed with the variety of topics and genres the students utilized to accomplish this simple writing task.  To conclude the activity, I asked students to raise their hand if they had fun with this writing exercise and almost every hand in the classroom quickly shot up towards the ceiling.  That’s a great sign in my book.

My students were excited about writing, communities, and creativity today in Humanities class all because I provided them with options and choice.  Sometimes, little things make a huge difference.  I certainly could have outlined exactly what I wanted them to write about and how, but would all of my students have been as engaged with the assignment if I posed it like that?  Are all students interested in the same things?  Clearly, we know that effective teachers tap into how students learn best by providing them with options in the classroom.  Just as customers don’t like to be forced into ordering one particular side with their burger, our students don’t like to have only one way to complete an assignment.  So, let’s make sure that we find creative, engaging, and fun ways to provide our students with choices in the classroom this year.  Not only will it help our students learn better and be more excited in the classroom, it’s also a lot more fun to read different types of stories and papers than the same one written by 15 different students.  Let’s vow to make our classrooms more fun for us and our students this year.  Bring on the choices!

How Writer’s Workshop Allows Me to Differentiate My Instruction in the Classroom

At the beginning of each new academic year, students will exclaim, during our Writer’s Workshop introduction, how much they hate writing.  “I hate writing and I will never like it,” students are often heard saying during that first week of classes.  By the end of the year though, those same students can’t stop writing because they have grown to enjoy it so much.  The Writer’s Workshop approach to the teaching of writing provides students with freedom and choice.  They can write whatever they want based on a broad topic.  At the start of the year, we introduce students to the personal narrative style of writing and have them craft a personal narrative piece.  It can be fiction or truth, they get to decide.  It can tell the story of literally anything.  We want our students to play with writing and words so that they learn to see the fun that can be had while writing.  As most of our students have never experienced this style of writing instruction, they are usually so excited that they are able to choose what they write about.  It’s not that our students ever hated writing, they were just never provided opportunities to see how much fun writing can truly be.

Today in Humanities class, the students had one final Writer’s Workshop block to work on their most current writing piece.  Throughout our unit on Africa, we had the students begin working on three different writing pieces based on our mini-lessons.  From those three pieces, they chose their very favorite to finish and bring through the writing process.  We’ve spent this whole week working on this process in Writer’s Workshop, and today was the final chance for students to receive feedback from their peers and teachers.  While a few students had already finished their piece prior to today, most students had not.  Those students who had finished, spent the period reading or completing other work.  They were focused on the task at hand while the other students polished their Africa writing piece.  Some of the boys sought feedback from their peers while my co-teacher and I conferenced with the others.  It was so great to have one-on-one conferences with each of the students.  I asked them what kind of feedback they were looking for.  “What do you want me to look for while I’m reading your piece?  What kind of feedback would you like?” I would ask them at the start of the conference.  I then asked them, “How would you like me to provide you with this feedback?  Shall I comment in your Google Doc, tell you the feedback orally, or write my suggestions at the end of your piece?  What method will work best for you?”  I want to make sure that I am tailoring the conference to meet the needs of my students.  Every student was looking for something different.  Some students wanted me to help them with their grammar while others wanted me to be sure they used enough details from our mini-lessons in their piece.  These conferences were so individual and unique.  It offered me the chance to praise my students, notice their growth as writers, and provide them meaningful feedback to help them grow and develop as writers.  During these conferences, the other students were focused and diligently working on making their pieces even better so that they could exceed each of the three graded objectives.  It was an amazing period filled with beautiful writing, excellent questions, quality feedback, and hard work.  I was so impressed with my students.  They continue to amaze me on a daily basis.

Now, getting the students to the point at which we are currently in the classroom takes much time.  Our first few Writer’s Workshop blocks are filled with learning opportunities.  Some students write for about 10 minutes and then move onto another task.  Helping the boys learn to develop their stamina as writers takes time.  During our first go-round at peer editing, the students give and receive very little feedback that is at all useful.  They focus on the font size or color.  They don’t analyze the writing to see that adding more depth to the character would help move the story forward faster.  All of these little details about writing and what an effective Writer’s Workshop should look like takes much time and effort.  We do much modelling for the students on how to provide quality feedback, utilize feedback provided by others, stay focused on writing for long periods of time, self-edit and revise their own work, and generate writing ideas.  After several months of mini-lessons and practice, the students get to the point that we were able to witness first hand today in the classroom.  The students know what to do and how to do it and so they just do it.  They write, edit, peer edit, revise, conference, talk about writing, and really work to make their writing stronger and more detailed.

Observing an effective Writer’s Workshop in action is quite the amazing sight.  It almost feels like you are in a tiny cafe in a city where writers sit and work all day, drinking coffee, writing, and talking about writing.  Fostering this love of writing and care for others takes much time and energy but is so worth it.  Because I am able to meet with every student and not worry about what the others are doing as I know they are focused and on track, I am able to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of each individual student.  I make sure to pay extra close attention to grammar when I am conferencing with my ESL students.  I also do some teaching during these conferences too as I notice recurring mistakes.  For my more advanced writers, I focus on the nuances of writing like plot holes, character development, and setting.  I challenge those authors to focus on revising the bigger parts of their writing.  These conferences provide me this time to really focus my instruction for each student so that I can be sure they are prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English.

Using the Writer’s Workshop method to teach writing has not only made me a better teacher, but it has helped my students learn to find the enjoyment in writing.  By June, my students love writing and enjoy talking to their peers about it.  This method of instruction also allows me to make sure that my students are accurately applying the skills discussed and practiced during our mini-lessons.  Differentiating the instruction is crucial to helping students be and feel successful, and Writer’s Workshop is one easy way to create opportunities to do just that in the classroom.

How to Make the Most of Halloween in the Classroom

I used to love getting all dressed up in costume and going to school on Halloween.  We would do a parade around the school and get lots of candy.  It was epic.  Of course, how focused was I really on Halloween?  Not very, but I loved being in costume, pretending to be someone else, my alter ego, will you.  Then, things changed.  Public schools began succumbing to the over-political correctness of our society and suddenly we couldn’t celebrate holidays or recognize them in any sort of meaningful manner.  It is quite sad really.  The young children of a colleague of mine came to breakfast looking very sad this morning.  I asked them where their costumes were.  They said, “We can’t wear costumes to school.”  They seemed so disappointed and melancholy.  It broke my heart a bit.  Luckily though, at the school I work at, we are allowed to wear costumes to classes and meals.  I love it.  Halloween is definitely one of my favorite holidays because I get to dress up.  I was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and my co-teacher was the Wicked Witch of the West.img_0395

I had so much fun being someone I’m not.  My students had a blast as well.  Despite being in costume, they were very focused in class.  While this group of students tends to be more focused and dedicated than other groups I’ve worked with in the past, Halloween is Halloween and I wasn’t expecting the fine committment I saw from them in the classroom today.

Now, being an elementary teacher by training and in my heart, I love celebrating the festive holidays such as Halloween and Groundhog’s Day.  So, we mixed things up a bit in the sixth grade today to celebrate the day formally known as Samhain.  During Humanities class, the boys participated in the annual Halloween Writing Extravaganza.  It’s much like a round-robin writing activity.  Each student starts a different story based on a teacher-provided prompt for four minutes.  Then, the students pass their story to the person on their left.  They read what was previously read and then begin adding to it for four minutes.  This continues until everybody has added to each story.  As I have many students in my class this year, I broke them into two groups.  So, each group of seven worked on writing seven different stories.  I was impressed by their focus and dedication throughout the writing activity.  They wrote for the entire time, developing the stories.  Some students continued after the allotted time to make their story even better.  As they wrote, my co-teacher and I observed the boys.  They had smiles on their faces as they diligently wrote and added to the macabre masterpieces.  Even our most reluctant writers and workers scribbled away throughout the activity, crafting brilliantly horrific stories of ghosts and weirdness.  It was awesome.

Then, once each of the stories had been completed, I read them aloud to the class.  The students sat in awe, listening to their strange stories of gore and humor.  I’ve never heard more laughter from a class than I did today as I read their bizarre stories aloud to them.  It was so much fun.  When we ran out of time to read all of the stories, you would have thought I had stolen their cell phones.  They were so sad to hear me stop reading.  They wanted to hear each and every story they crafted.  I’m photocopying the stories for the boys to enjoy again and again on their own.  My students were so excited, happy, and engaged in Humanities class today, writing.  On other days, when we write in class, they aren’t nearly as enthusiastic or scary looking.  Perhaps not wearing costumes every day to class is a good thing.  Creating engaging and fun writing activities for the students helps them to realize that everyday skills can be fun and phenomenal when their perspective changes.  They were all writing in class, just about topics that interested them on this particular day.  I capitalized on the novelty of Halloween to engage my students.  Doing this kind of activity each and every day would not be beneficial.  The luster would fade after awhile.  Sometimes, utilizing novelty in the classroom is great, as long as it is not overused.

Here are two samples of their amazing work:

Story 1

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Story 2

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Clearly, my students had fun in Humanities class today as they crafted funny, creative, and slightly scary stories.  Mixing things up a bit on fun days like Halloween, engages the students and gets them excited.  Trying something new today brought out the writers in all of my students.  It was awesome.  Even though I was worried that my students would be over excited and unfocused in class today, because I made use of a new and fun activity, they were hooked.  I won their focus, effort, and attention today.  Yes!  Winner, winner, candy for dinner.  So, on fun days like Halloween, to help keep our students dedicated and focused on learning and growing, we try new and unique activities like a Halloween Writing Extravaganza or pumpkin dissections.  What boy wouldn’t want to write a creepy story or dissect a living organism that has innards the consistency of brains?

Why Talk About Student Writing?

In school, the only way I received feedback on my written work was when the teacher handed it back to me graded, with red marks covering the page like it had been through a serious battle with many casualties.  If I can’t redo my work, what’s the point of wasting time to correct my mistakes?  I certainly didn’t look over my mistakes and think, “Wow, I should remember this for next time.”  No, I looked at the grade and then promptly recycled the paper.  Feedback at the end of the process is futile.  My mind had already moved onto the next topic or assignment.  I didn’t care about that essay or writing assignment any longer than I needed to.  I didn’t start really growing as a writer until I was a senior in high school.  I had a teacher who utilized the Writer’s Workshop method of writing instruction.  We drafted writing pieces, revised them, peer edited them, revised them again, received feedback from the teacher, and then crafted a final draft.  That was when I realized the benefit of feedback.  If I utilized the suggestions I received from my peers and teacher, my writing became better and I improved as a writer.  I wasn’t making the changes to get a better grade, I was making the revisions to become a better writer because my teacher found a way to motivate me to want to grow as a writer.  It was awesome.

An easy way to help students receive feedback from their peers during the writing process is through something we in the sixth grade call Writer’s Groups.  The students meet in small groups of 3-4 students to share and discuss their writing.  The students take turns reading their piece aloud to the group while the other students take notes on Noticings and Wonderings.  When each student finishes reading his piece aloud to the group, the listeners share their feedback and suggestions with the author.  The writer then jots down their ideas at the end of his document or story.  The author can ask any follow-up questions he has to be sure that he knows exactly what to do to improve his piece.  The goal of Writer’s Groups is for students to share and talk about their writing to learn how they can make it more effective.  The boys in the group work together towards a common goal to help make each other better writers.  It’s an amazingly effective way to get students talking about writing as they gain some insight into how they can grow their writing piece before the final draft is due.

Today in Humanities class, we had the students participate in Writer’s Groups as a way to receive more feedback on their writing before turning in the final draft tomorrow.  After explaining the protocol, I fielded some questions from the class.  They wanted certain directions to be clarified.  “Where do I write down the feedback my group gives me?  What if I don’t like the feedback someone gives me?”  This year, my co-teacher and I made two big changes to the way we run Writer’s Groups in the sixth grade.  In the past, the author did not get to participate in the discussion of his piece, which felt restrictive.  The students felt as though they couldn’t speak for themselves or explain why they had done something a certain way.  Rather than create frustration within the students, we wanted to empower them this year.  So, the author is a part of the conversation.  He can clarify questions and speak for his piece.  It’s the writer’s job to be sure he receives as much feedback as possible on his writing piece.  The other change we made this year was in being very clear about the feedback received.  “If you don’t agree or like the feedback received, talk to the person giving you the feedback and explain yourself.  Still write down the feedback, but when revising your piece, explain why you didn’t incorporate certain pieces of advice or feedback,” I told the boys today before starting Writer’s Groups.  These two big changes had a dramatic impact on the success of the Writing Groups today.  I was so impressed and excited by the result.

As my co-teacher and I wandered around the classroom, observing the students in their groups, we heard many phenomenal conversations.  “I really like the emotion you used in describing your feelings during the climb.  It was very easy to picture how you felt.”  “At times, the story was a bit confusing when you changed from scene to scene.  Perhaps, take a look at those parts and see if you can make it easier to follow.”  “Your title was very creative and really showcased the story well.”  “You used very descriptive words to explain what was going on.”  “It was hard to picture what was going on in the story at times.  Maybe you could better describe the setting.”  Not only were they communicating effectively, using descriptive and specific language, but they were kind and compassionate in how they delivered the feedback as well.  They listened to each other’s stories intently and with a commitment to help.  They listened for areas of strength and places that were in need of improvement.  The students weren’t just going through the motions to accomplish the assigned task, they were really trying to help support their peers while also trying to be sure they received valuable feedback on how to improve their story.  I was blown away by how well the students worked together towards a common goal.  In all the years I’ve utilized this method of student feedback, today’s Writer’s Groups were the best I’ve ever observed.  I can’t wait to read the students’ final drafts tomorrow.  I’m sure they are going to be amazing because of the great and specific feedback each of the author’s received in class today.  I felt more like a fly on a wall of a cafe where talented writers were sharing their work and talking about good writing, than I did a teacher today.  Yet again, my students found a way to amaze and surprise me.  Wow!

Following class today, I pondered the outcome.  Yes, I was super stoked by the result.  My students were awesome little writers in class today.  But, what caused the result?  Why haven’t Writer’s Groups gone this well for me in the past?  Was it the two changes?  Did allowing the author to participate in the discussion help unite the groups?  Is the chemistry of the class the cause?  This group of students is kind and hard-working.  Did that make a difference?  What helped make today’s exercise go so well?  These are all great questions to keep in mind moving forward.  Will the groups be as productive next time?  Who knows?  I guess that will be the barometer by which I can determine, perhaps, what lead to today’s epic result.  For now, though, I’m just going to bask in the glory of my students.

Rethinking The Structure of Writing Groups

One of my favorite courses in college was Poetry Workshop.  The class was structured like a big writer’s conference or writer’s workshop session.  Each Wednesday evening, we would meet for three hours and share and discuss our work.  Each student would read his or her poem aloud and then receive feedback from the group.  I loved the discussions best of all because they were a chance to talk about writing and figure out how to improve or change a piece to make it more effective.  The conversations were dialogues, not each person saying, “I liked how you used the word flagrant in your piece.  It was cool.”  Oh no.  The students asked each other questions and discussed word choice and line breaks.  Everything was a give-and-take.  We provided each other with constructive feedback so that everybody in the group could grow and develop as a writer and poet.  I learned more about writing in that four-month class than I ever did in all of my years of elementary school.

As a teacher, I want to inspire my students in the same way.  I want them to like writing and the process of writing as much as I did back then.  I want them to see the value in revision and want to talk about writing for the sake of honing their craft.  While we utilize the writer’s workshop model for literacy instruction in the sixth grade, I do wonder if we are effectively implementing every aspect of it.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in writing groups as a way to receive feedback from their peers on how to improve upon their poem to make it even stronger.  The goal of writing groups, which we share with the students every time, “is to help your peers improve their piece so that they are able to meet and/or exceed every graded objective.”  We reviewed the protocol with the boys today at the start of class since it has been a while since we’ve had writing groups.  “Each student will share his piece aloud with the group while the other two or three members will take copious notes on noticings and wonderings based on the type of feedback the reader said he is looking for.  Then, the writer will physically remove himself from the group while the other members discuss the author’s piece.  While the writer is listening and taking notes on the feedback provided, he does not participate in the discussion.  He doesn’t ask questions and accepts or declines the suggestions and feedback offered.  The other students will ask each other questions and make suggestions about how the author could improve the piece.”  Although some of these discussions were quite strong today, most of the conversations were more of a “do it to get it done kind of thing” than an actual task and opportunity that is taken seriously.  The writers listened for feedback they liked and ignored the rest while the other students discussing the piece just shared noticings and wonderings and weren’t able to have a genuine conversation about the piece and what the author can do to make it stronger and better.

So then, why do we do it this way?  Why do we structure the writing groups so that the students can’t be involved in the discussion?  My co-teacher from a few years ago took several courses through the National Writing Project and they use this same format for writing groups.  She loved it and so we’ve done it ever since despite noticing how much the students have struggled with the process.  They aren’t mature enough to handle having high-level conversations regarding much critical thinking at the sixth grade level.  The writers want to ask their peers discussing the piece questions about the feedback.  They want to speak for themselves and take ownership of their writing.  They can’t just sit and listen.  But, that’s how we structure it.  And after today’s writing groups experience, I’ve realized that this format needs to change for next year.  It’s not beneficial to all students.  Sure, some students receive helpful feedback, but most are not provided with the kind of feedback that allows them to grow and develop as writers.  Most sixth graders are not able to notice the figurative language and how it builds the scene or foreshadows future happenings.  They get stuck on how their peers read the piece aloud.  “He read it very slowly without emotion.”  How is that specific tidbit of feedback going to help the writer improve his piece?  It’s not.  What if we allowed the writers to engage in the conversation and speak for their piece?  What if we allowed them to explain and discuss the questions raised by the other members of the group?  Wouldn’t that elicit higher-level thinking and discussion?  Wouldn’t that allow the writer to be provided with more valuable feedback?

Instead, today, a few of the students felt frustrated and as though they didn’t receive any sort of helpful feedback.  Of course, one of those students utilized a fixed mindset going into writing groups and wouldn’t have liked any feedback he received unless it was positive and praised his poem.  But, a few of the students felt like they didn’t receive the sort of suggestions they were hoping for.  The ideas for revision some of the boys received lacked depth and were more like editing marks than deep revision suggestions.  Plus, many of the authors wanted to address the questions brought up by their peers, but because we structure the writing groups in a specific manner, they are not allowed to get involved in the discussions.  This proved frustrating to some of our boys.  So, why not change the format?  Why keep something in the curriculum that is clearly broken?

So, next year, when we introduce and utilize writing groups, they will be structured more like conversations and dialogues.  We want the students to own their work and feel as they though can explain their choices and work.  We want the boys to analyze writing and dig into it instead of just scratching the surface.  Next year, writing groups in the sixth grade will look more like the writing groups I experienced in my college course.  We want to bring the fun and engagement back into writing.  No more staying with the status quo.  It’s time to admit defeat and overhaul the format.  Why keep repeating something that the students clearly don’t enjoy and that doesn’t seem to help them grow as writers in any way?  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  No more shame will be had in the sixth grade.