Posted in Education, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Teaching Students to Enjoy Drama

Writing has always been one of my passions.  When I was struggling to deal with the death of my grandfather back in my teen years, I turned to writing to deal with and address my emotions and feelings.  I processed my grief, anger, and sadness by scribbling letters and words onto lined paper.  The weight I placed upon myself after my grandfather passed away, seemed to leave my body when the black pen chaotically danced upon the paper, revealing more of my true emotions and feelings.  Aside from music, writing was one of my main outlets.  It served a purpose that blossomed into a passion.  I love crafting creative stories, sculpting poems, and constructing expository pieces.  Writing has always been my jam, like the first song on Thursday’s Full Collapse album.

While I dabbled in multiple writing forms over the years, one genre I tried to avoid, like any country song ever made, was drama.  I just didn’t get plays.  What purpose do they really serve?  The character development is usually quite weak and the setting is so bland and gray.  I used to view plays as the unnecessary form of writing, like any movie starring Brad Pitt.  They seemed so mundane and artificial.  I just didn’t get drama.  So, as a teacher, I avoided teaching a play or even introducing the writing form for many years.  I let my bias of the art form influence my choices in the classroom.  Because I didn’t like plays, I would make sure that my students felt the same way.  Well, back then anyway.  Then, a co-teacher of mine from a few years ago opened my eyes to the genre.  “We should introduce drama to our students.  We should read a play altogether as a class,” she suggested.  So, as I valued her opinion, I listened.  I remembered reading the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose many moons ago when I was in high school and not totally hating it, unlike any play ever penned by Shakespeare.  So, I grabbed a copy and refreshed my memory.  It was short and contained enough roles for every student in our class.  Plus, a few of the boys would have the opportunity to curse.  They’d like that.  So, we went with it.  The students loved it.  You would have thought we gave them an extra free period to play games.  They couldn’t get enough of it.  That was quite a few years ago, and I have taught this play ever since.  Each year the students in my class have a blast acting out and performing this play.  They love examining the symbolism of the eighth juror and the anger some of the men in the jury room possess.  So it seemed that my dislike of plays and drama started to transform into something else.  I’m not willing to say that I like plays now, but I do have space in my writing heart for the genre now.

As we completed reading 12 Angry Men in class earlier this week, I realized that we still had class time together prior to our March Break.  Instead of beginning our new unit on the Middle East Region, I decided to give the students a chance to try creating their own play.  As we analyzed Rose’s masterpiece over the past two weeks, I knew that the students understood the form of drama and how it works.  So, why not have them take a crack at writing their own play?  It seemed like a rather cutting edge idea.  I liked it.  So, I did it.

Today, I explained the assignment that laid ahead of them: “Now you have the chance to be like Reginald Rose.  You get to create your own play.  Perhaps you’ll want to rewrite a scene from 12 Angry Men or update it or maybe you’ll want to craft a parody of 12 Angry Men.  If none of those ideas seem to tickle your fancy, you could always craft an original play about something completely different.  You get to choose.  So, choose an idea that is exciting.  Pick a topic that will be fun for you to write.”  After fielding some questions, the students got right to work.  I could tell that some of the boys were very excited about the prospect of crafting their own play.  One of the students asked the class if it would be okay for him to use their names in his play.  The students gave him the big thumbs up.  While most of the students quickly whipped open their laptops and started feverishly typing as though their life depended on it, a few of the students sat, staring at a blank screen for many minutes.  No ideas seemed to come to them.  They were stuck.  Rather than provide them with ideas, I let them struggle through.  They were getting to what I like to call the sweet spot.  When students begin to struggle with a task or assignment, they either shut down, misbehave, sit motionless lost in thought, or persevere.  As long as students don’t have a meltdown in the classroom or start distracting their peers, I know they’ve hit the sweet spot.  The point at which the neurons in their brain begin to sizzle with creativity.  Sometimes, students stay stuck in this sweet spot for a while, until the right idea comes to them, but when it comes, oh man.  It’s awesome!  You can almost see the mental wheels begin to turn.  The creative juices flow through them like sweat from the brow of an athlete in the heat of competition.  After twenty minutes of staring at a blank computer screen, those three stuck students, found their idea.  They worked through the struggle to find that one special idea.  Then, even they couldn’t be stopped.  They kept writing and writing.  Some students had several pages of their original play finished by the end of the sixty minute work period.  They were on fire.

Many of the students were so excited by what they had begun to create, that they felt the need to share what they had with me or a peer.  During the Morning Break period, instead of taking a break to get a snack, use the restroom, or check their email, several of the students stayed in the classroom working on their play.  At that same time, I noticed a few of the students gathered around one student’s computer screen.  Usually, this means they are playing a game or doing something they shouldn’t be doing.  I waited a few moments before checking on the situation.  Giggling erupted from the group of students as they stared at the computer screen.  “What are they doing now?” I thought to myself.  Then, when I walked over to find out what was going on, I realized that they were reading a play that one of them had written.  It was titled 12 Angry Bunnies and was a parody of the play we had read.  Bunnies were in cage deliberating on a case involving another bunny.  It was quite original and funny.  The boys were so into this playwrighting exercise.  I was in awe.  The genre that once felt like a thorn in my side, was now being enjoyed by my students.  They had so much fun writing their own, unique masterpiece.  It was amazing.  My students were taking to drama like I took to Coheed and Cambria and City and Colour.  Was it me?  Did I help to inspire them?  I may be a really cool educator with a lot of fantastic talents, but an inspiration?  Really, I doubt it.  I think it was 12 Angry Men.  They enjoyed this play so much that it inspired them to want to create their own play.  When at first some of the students seemed stuck or even a little frustrated about having to write a play, they all ended the period enamored by this genre that I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them continued working on their play over the upcoming break.  Who knew that something I used to loathe could turn into a teachable moment and fun for my students.  Maybe I’ll some day learn to like country music and share my new love with my students.  Yah, no.  Country music is not for me and never will be.  Frankly, it should really not be for anyone, unless there are people out there who like when their ears bleed.

Posted in Boy Writers, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

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.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Grading, Humanities, Learning, Math, New Ideas, Objectives Based Grading, Reader's Workshop, Reflection, Sixth Grade, STEM, Student Conferences, Student Support, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

Posted in Boy Writers, Education, Humanities, Writer's Workshop, Writing

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.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Differentiating Between Revising and Editing

I was always taught to look over my writing before turning it into be graded or published.  It wasn’t about revising, editing, or proofreading.  It was about reviewing the written work.  While I looked for grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues mostly, I also trained my eye to spot issues with flow and organization.  Does the piece of writing work?  It was the final step in the writing process.  To this day, I review everything I write in the same way.  I read over each blog entry looking for misspelled words and clarity.  As my writing is representative of me, I want it to be my best possible work.

When teaching writing, though, I approach the review process in a slightly different manner.  Teaching students the importance of this aspect of the writing process is vital to their growth as writers.  They need to effectively understand how to improve upon their writing.  They need to see how to develop characters, plot, supporting evidence and examples, effective thesis statements, and so much more.  Being able to improve upon these big ideas in their writing will help them become better, more skilled writers.  However, they also need to be able to fix the little things such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, opening sentences, and more.  Even if a student’s report, essay, or story has a great beginning and excellent plot line, if it’s full of grammar mistakes and misspelled words, it will be hard for readers to see the student’s true ability as a writer.  So, being able to fix both the big and little parts of their writing are required for students to mature as writers.  To help make these skills tangible and concrete for the students, I break them up into two parts: Revising and Editing.  I teach each skill separately and have them then complete each step independent of the other.  I want them first to look at the overall flow and organization of their piece before they take a more microscopic look at their work.  Once they have a clear and sensical piece of writing, I have them edit it for the little things that can hinder the overall look and feel of the piece.    Breaking the skills into steps allows the students to see each part of the review process as equally important but separate.

Today in Humanities class, my co-teacher and I had the students revise and then edit the stories they’ve been working on since week one this year.  They crafted a story about climbing Cardigan Mountain at dawn to catch the sunrise.  It could be fictional or true as they all did climb the mountain two weeks ago at 5:00 a.m.  They spent the last several Writer’s Workshop blocks finishing the first draft.  Before we break them into writing groups for more specific feedback next week, we want them to review their work to be sure it is as polished as possible.  After our mini-lessons on revising and editing their written work, we had the students complete these two steps of the writing process on their own.  We stressed the importance of utilizing a growth mindset when approaching revision as we can sometimes be too married to our own work to see what really needs to be changed or addressed.  Many of them took this statement to heart and really tried to revamp and adjust their story so that it best showcased their skills as a writer.  I was impressed.

During today’s work period, some students spent the entire 45 minutes revising and editing their piece while others finished with time to spare and so peer reviewed their work with a partner.  Great discussions were heard throughout the room this morning.  The students provided each other with meaningful feedback regarding their work and asked insightful questions of my co-teacher and I to be sure they would be able to produce a slick second draft.  The boys rewrote openings, created new titles, better developed their characters, and added to their setting by using specific sensory details.  Wow!  It was awesome.  I felt like I was in the presence of true authors and writers.  They weren’t just working because they had too, they were growing as writers because they wanted to.  It was so much fun.  I didn’t feel like a teacher today.  Instead, I felt more like a fellow author discussing writing.

While I don’t think that differentiating between revising and editing produced the amazing results we saw in the classroom today, I do think it made a difference in how the students approached growing their writing.  They didn’t just go through the motions to say they were finished, they took the time to really look at their work from a new perspective.  Lumping editing and revising together may not have produced this same level of work.  I was very clear with the boys on how to complete each step of the review process and I do feel as though that helped them see what they needed to do on a very concrete level.  Instead of making a big list of everything they needed to do when reviewing their writing, I simply broke the list into smaller chunks.  And that made all the difference for my students in class today.

Posted in Boy Writers, Boys, Change, Education, Humanities, Sixth Grade, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

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.

Posted in Boy Writers, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Sixth Grade, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing

How to Best Provide Feedback to our Students

Going away to college was a big shock for me on many levels.  I had never been away from home for more than a few nights in a row.  How would I ever survive on my own?  How do I wash my clothes?  Who will take out my trash?  I was scared and nervous for the first week or so until I became acclimated.  Then, things quickly got better and I started to enjoy myself.  I can handle this college thing, I thought.  After a few weeks of classes, I had to write my first essay.  Easy-peasy, lemon-squeasy. I wrote numerous essays in high school.  This will be a piece of chocolate cake, with vanilla frosting.  I spent hours at my word processor.  Yes, I typed that accurately.  My parents couldn’t afford a computer for me during my freshman year at Keene State College and so I had to type all of my work on a word processor.  It wasn’t too bad.  At least I could never be distracted by the simple machine.  I completed my paper and handed it in with a smile on my face.  I am awesome at college.  I can do anything.  Maybe I’ll run for president…  Then, came the reality check.  When I received back the essay that I poured all of my heart and soul into, all that I saw was the big red C- circled at the top.  That was it.  No comments other than some proofreading marks scattered about.  No explanation of the grade, no rubric, nothing but the red C-.  What does that even mean?  I didn’t know what the teacher had expected.  I did what was asked.  How do I grow and develop as a writer? I thought.  I had nothing to go on.  Now, while I did eventually figure out what the professor expected of me, it took much energy and many more red C- grades.

As a teacher, I never want my students to question where their grades come from nor how to grow as a writer.  As we utilize the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction in the sixth grade, it’s very easy to meet with our students regularly to provide them with feedback on their written work.  We conference with our boys throughout the writing process.  We also allow them to seek out feedback from their peers on their writing as well.  We utilize writing groups and author’s notes to allow the students to showcase their growth and learning as writers.  We celebrate writing in the sixth grade.  Students will routinely share their work aloud with the class or a peer.  For us in the sixth grade, writing is about the process and not the final piece.  We have students draft and redraft as many times as it takes for them to demonstrate their ability to meet the graded objectives.  We want our students to know exactly where they stand as writers, while having a lot of fun.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on finishing, revising, and editing one of their favorite poems which they worked on during our unit on poetry.  The students spent much time being sure they chose their best piece.  Then, they labored over every word, syllable, image, and rhyme in their poem.  It was so much fun watching the boys count syllables on their fingers, play with words, try new similes and metaphors, and craft creative titles for their pieces.  As students finished with this first phase of the revision process, I had a chance to conference with a few of the boys regarding their poem.  This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process because I’m able to have candid conversations with the students about their writing and the process involved.  I ask many questions as I provide them with feedback.

One of the first questions I asked the boys today was, “How would you like me to provide you feedback?  Shall I write it on paper, jot it down on the whiteboard table, give it to you orally, or comment on your Google Document?  What would work best for you?”  Each of the three students I conferenced with wanted their feedback differently.  One student wanted me to write it on his whiteboard table while another student wanted it written on paper.  The third student wanted his orally.  Then, I went through their piece, line by line, asking probing questions along the way.  Why did you choose this word?  Why did you use punctuation there but not here?  What does this line mean?  What message are you trying to send the reader?  Every time I provided them with ways to improve their piece, I posed it as a question and not a command.  I want the students to make the choices and own their learning and writing.  I wonder why you used this word?  Do you need punctuation in the middle of this line?  For every question I asked, I made sure to tell them, “I’m not saying yes or no, I merely want you to think about it as you revise your piece.  How can you make your poem even better?”  I want the students to see that they have options and not demands being placed upon them.  The process of revision is part of the process of writing.  It’s not a box to be checked off on the writing list.  It’s about growth and development.  I want the students to see how they can improve upon their writing by making them think about their words, punctuation marks, thoughts, and ideas.

To promote this process of writing and revision, rather than give the students a grade on their final piece, we assess the students on a few specific objectives for each written assignment.  When we introduce a new writing piece that will be graded and formally assessed, we introduce and explain the objectives on which the students will be graded so that they are aware of the task at hand.  As we work with the students to revise and grow their work, we provide focused feedback to the students.  While some of the feedback is directly related to helping them better meet or exceed the graded objectives, some of our feedback is focused on helping the students grow as writers.  Over the years that we have utlized this model of writing instruction in the sixth grade, we have seen improvement from the students in not only their writing abilities but also their engagement with the tasks and assignments.  Although some of the students begin the year disliking writing, because of the way we teach writing in the classroom, the students grow to enjoy writing.  Some students even work on their writing pieces during their free time.  It’s crazy!  We’ve seen the students gain more skills as writers and matriculate into the seventh grade more talented than students we’ve taught prior to utilizing the Writer’s Workshop model.  Because our model of writing instruction focuses on the process of writing and not the product of writing, the students feel safe and comfortable taking risks and trying new things as writers.  The vast amount of progress we see from many of the students throughout each year is phenomenal.  Our boys grow into poets and authors by the end of the academic year.

Perhaps this transformation comes about because we provide the students choice and freedom in their writing topics.  Or maybe it’s because we provide them feedback in a more open and safe manner that allows the students to own their changes and revisions.  Or perhaps the students develop so much as writers in one year in our classroom because of the way we celebrate writing and get the students excited about it.  My co-teacher and I model good writing habits as well.  We write right along with the boys and they hear us share our pieces aloud throughout the year.  We put ourselves out there because we expect our students to do the same.  Empathy is important for them.  Maybe that’s why we’ve had such success in the sixth grade with writing.  I think the real reason is much more complex, just like the process of writing.  It’s about the journey and not the destination.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Teaching, Writer's Workshop

Is There Value in the Writer’s Workshop Model of Writing Instruction?

In high school, almost every English class I took utilized the same format for writing instruction.  Every student in the class completed the same assignment at the same time.  If it was a creative story, then everyone was writing the same style of creative fiction.  If it was an essay, everybody used the same prompt or guiding question when crafting their essay.  There was no choice involved.  While the teacher did meander throughout the room while we worked in class, he or she generally provided us all the same feedback as we were all writing almost identical pieces because of the format and setup of the assignment.  I was bored to tears.  Then, in my senior year, I took a creative writing class that was very individualized.  The teacher allowed each student to write about what intrigued or interested him or her in any format or style.  Some students wrote poems while others crafted stories.  Not only did my craft as a writer grow over the course of that year, but my enjoyment and love of writing also grew exponentially because I could write about what I really wanted to write about.  It was awesome.  Had my previous teachers taught using this same model, perhaps I would have grown even more as a writer.

As students need to be engaged with what they are learning about or doing in order for meaningful learning to take place, we use the workshop model of literacy instruction in the sixth grade.  Students choose topics to write about as well as books that interest them.  It’s been highly successful for our students over the four years that we’ve been utilizing this model.  Our students grow as writers and readers at a rapid pace throughout the year.  But more importantly, those students who begin the year disliking writing or reading, generally grow to enjoy it by the close of the academic year.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in Writer’s Workshop as they chose a writing piece to bring through the writing process that they will then use to share aloud with the class and their parents during my school’s Parents’ Weekend beginning on Friday.  They had the ability to choose any piece they had not already been graded or assessed on.  If none of their current pieces tickled their fancy, they could also craft a new piece to use for this assignment.  While this choice would require more effort and energy, it was certainly an option.  My co-teacher and I were surprised by how many students chose this path to solving the problem.  Many of the boys seemed very excited about their new ideas.

They spent the double-block period writing, revising, editing, and peer editing their piece.  Only a few of the students finished the writing phase in class, and so, most of the boys spent the entire class working on bringing their piece to a close.  None of the students seemed disinterested in the task at hand.  They were all deeply engaged in their writing.  They were enjoying the freedom of choice that the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction allows.

While the boys worked, my co-teacher and I had a chance to challenge and support them.  We began by simply observing them as they got started so that we would not be a distraction.  As they began working, some of the students needed assistance or affirmation.  We helped those who needed it.  One student wondered if his story idea would be appropriate for an audience.  He explained his basic idea to me.  It was quite creative and very appropriate.  I think this boy just wanted to know that he was on the right track.  He often second-guesses himself when working.  He just needed affirmation that he was on the right track.

Then, as we got deeper into the period, I had a chance to read over the work the boys had completed and provide them with feedback.  One student challenged himself by crafting a new poem; however, he chose a format we had already used this year, which included much repetition and very little original thinking.  So, I shared some examples of different kinds of poems with him and suggested he challenge himself a bit more.  He took me up on the offer and wrote a whole new poem that was very different and showcased his growth as a writer.  Some students need guidance and reminders like this to grow and develop.

At the close of the period, we allowed those interested students to share a few lines or sentences from their pieces.  Almost every student raised his hand to volunteer.  They were all so proud of their work.  As the boys read their pieces allowed, a positive energy of camaraderie was created.  The boys supported each other and laughed at the funny parts.  It was great to see a community of writers being formed in the sixth grade today in class.

The boys were engaged in writing and revising their pieces because they were permitted to choose their topic and form.  They were not bound to any formula or restricted from any genre of writing.  They were able to just write, create, work, and have fun.  The Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction creates an atmosphere of freedom and empowerment within the students.  They are in control with minor oversight from the teachers.  We act as the critics, offering feedback and suggestions.  We don’t tell them what to do or how to do it, we merely help them understand how to do it.  They do the work while we guide them.  If we didn’t utilize this model of writing instruction in the classroom, we worry that the students wouldn’t be engaged and, therefore, would not grow as writers over the course of the year.  We want our boys to see the value and fun of writing so that they want to develop themselves as writers and thinkers.