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Tips for reader's workshop conferences in middle and high school English classes

A few days ago, I wrote about my favourite activities and strategies from the last school year, but I left one out: conferencing with my students. This strategy has totally changed my life as a teacher and I can confidently say it has improved the learning for my students. I wrote a post last year that details the reasons why you should conference, so I'm not going to rehash that today. Instead I'm going to share my plans to up my game, to make this strategy work even better.

Tips for reader's workshop conferences in middle and high school English classesConfession time: organization does not come naturally to me. I really have to work at it. While I loved the conferences I did last year, I knew that I was a little haphazard in how I rolled them out. I started really well, but as often happens with me, I can get a little off track. To prevent that from happening this year, I created some conference guides that will keep both me and my students focused on the skills I want them to develop during reading workshop (ones for writing are on the way). Each one has focus questions that will remind me of the areas I want my students to focus on during the conference. We can move in other directions as we talk, of course, but I will have those questions as a reminder of the purpose of the conference. Each one will get filed in my conference binder as I systematically move through the topics that I want to cover during reading workshop.

If I want my conferences to go well, I need to take the time early in the semester to teach my students how to prepare for one. They will need to know the topic ahead of time so they can think about how it relates to the text they are reading, and prepare their notes for discussion with me.  I will emphasize that it's important that they have details and textual evidence to back up their answers and that they have it all organized and ready to go. This student organization is a key component to running conferences in your classroom: you have a limited amount of time with each student, so s/he needs to come ready to be focused.

Tips for reader's workshop conferences in middle and high school English classes
The purpose of these conferences is twofold: I am trying to assess the skills of the students and they are trying to learn how to improve their skills. Just as I needed a better plan for covering the skills I want students to attain, I needed a better system for assessment too. You can see on the page above that I have a quick and easy-to-use rubric for each conference. I also have forms for each student, with each skill recorded, so I can track their progress through our reading workshop. I plan to record it all in pencil, too, because I want to give students a chance to improve. If they don't score well on recognizing the way authors develop theme, for example, they can try again with their next book. Once they've shown me that they have mastered the skill, they don't need to do it again with future books that they read -- I don't want to penalize the voracious readers with more work.

If I want all of this to work, I need the kids to take responsibility. When they confer with me, they need to be recording my feedback. And I want them to actually write it down - I won't be giving them back the scoring sheet I use. When they actually go through the process of recording the information, they have to take a much more active role in the process. Later, if they want to improve their evaluation, they will have to show me evidence that they used the feedback I gave them in previous conferences.

I'm happy with my plan and thrilled with my new guides. If you'd like to check them out, you can see them here. They've also been added to my Reader's Workshop Bundle, so if you have that, they're yours already - just go download again!

Flexible Seating, Pinterest Envy, and Common Sense

Secondary Classroom Decor

I have always decorated my classroom. I want it to be homey and a place that is welcoming and somewhat comfy for my students. But my past decorating meant hanging cool posters, adding a reading lamp or two, and buying some plants to replace the ones I killed the year before. I've also arranged and rearranged my desks so many times, I can't even remember all of the configurations.

Lately, however, I've been feeling a little inadequate. I see the amazing classrooms of other teachers on Instagram and Pinterest and I feel like I'm not measuring up in the classroom environment department. My classroom looks like a dungeon compared to many that I see, and I want to run out to buy new stuff. I've even looked online to see how much it would cost to buy some chairs and tables. I was thinking that if I bought a few things this year, I could add a few more next year, and then I might have a classroom that looked like the ones I was drooling over. My seating would be flexible, my walls would be IG and Pinterest worthy...

And then I shook my head.

My job is to educate and when I actually have spare time, I need to be thinking about the best way to engage my students, not how to wow them with the decor of their classroom. Isn't what they are learning most important? Or will they actually learn more if my room looks more like the coffee shop from Friends than a classroom? I really didn't know the right answer. I still don't.

As I was pondering this, I saw a blot post from Kayse Morris of Teaching on Less about why flexible seating didn't work for her. When I read about her experience with this, I felt like she was echoing my thoughts and concerns about making things too comfy for my teens. She tried it and found it didn't enhance learning, so she went back to the basics because, as she says, "that's where the magic happens." Her post made me feel better and started me thinking about happy mediums and following what I know to be true for my teaching.

Classroom decor for middle and high school classrooms
I do not, for one moment, think that those who create amazing classroom spaces are not putting learning first. It's just that I know I don't have the time and energy (and don't want to spend the money) to do that. So as I plan my latest classroom "revamp", I will be thinking about the following things:

1. Everything that I use needs to enhance, not detract from learning. It's great to use things that make your room cozy, but most things should be learning tools - anchor charts and posters that act as visual reminders for your students. These, thankfully, are cheap. I keep a ton of chart paper, markers and post-its on hand for making anchor charts and the construction of them is also an effective learning activity.

2. Too much "stuff" can be distracting for some learners. We need to be aware of that and keep it simple or have some "quieter" spaces.

3. Anything that helps me and my students stay organized is a good thing and so new items that will do so will go to the top of my list!

4. I don't need to spend hundreds of dollars to make my classroom a place that students want to be. I will continue to find inexpensive ways to make my classroom a great space for my students, but I'm going to stop feeling bad about my OK-looking classroom, because I know that the learning that happens there trumps anything else. The lessons and activities I use and the relationships I cultivate will go a whole lot further than any decor item I could buy.

So there it is. I will be redecorating before the school year starts, but I'm going to try to keep my Pinterest-envy at bay.  I'll keep you posted!



I'm only two weeks in to my summer vacation, and already, my brain is full of ideas for next year. However, before I start changing and improving, it's important for me to reflect on the things that worked last year, whether they made the class run smoothly or they created a lightbulb moment for the students.

Here are my highlights from the 2016-2017 school year {spoiler alert: there may be a few freebies!}:

Group work kits are one  of my favourite tools in my high school English class.
 If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I love my group work kits. Last August, I bought some plastic containers at the dollar store, labeled them as you see above, and filled them with the things my students might need when they work in collaborative groups (which they do a lot). 

Group work kits are one  of my favourite tools in my high school English class.
Each one contains post-it notes, highlighters, markers, a glue stick and paper clips. Now, instead of wasting time passing these things out individually, my kids know that they need to send someone to my back cupboard to grab a kit. I can start circulating or conferencing right away, since the kids can form their groups and get ready to work without my assistance. If you'd like to try this with your kiddos, you can grab the labels (as well as a colourful classroom poster) here.
Highlighting text is an effective strategy for instruction and assessment
I've used this technique before, but I really embraced it last year, and it made a definite difference. Whenever I gave students a model of writing, I colour-coded the individual elements so students could have a clear visual of what I wanted. Topic sentences were in one colour; transitions were in another. Summary for context was different than analysis.

I extended this activity by enlarging and cutting up a sample paragraph, so students could get even more practice. You can read about how this activity worked here

Highlighting text is an effective strategy for instruction and assessment

My highlighters also became an effective tool for faster grading -- and greater learning for the students. Whenever I took in their note-books, instead of giving them written feedback, I would highlight areas that were well done in one colour, and areas that needed work in another. Then, they had to write out the "needs work" sentences and improve them. They passed those in for a mark. It was so much easier for me, and they were forced to use my feedback -- and learn. 
I've always put a lot of focus on the revision process, but this year I decided to spend more time on pre-writing, and I saw big improvements in my students' first drafts. I added essay planning stations to my collection, and students were required to actually put in time thinking about their focus, playing around with ways to organize, and ensuring that they had enough detail and information to develop their points. It took more time but, boy, was it worth it!

Teaching essay writing? Spend more time in the pre-writing stage to ensure better essays.

After a particularly frustrating round of assignments from my twelfth graders, ones that were full of basic grammatical errors, I decided that something had to change and that something was me. I was continuing to accept work that was clearly done without care and attention to things the kids know, like the fact that you capitalize "I". The result was that they continued to do it. They just didn't seem to care that they were losing marks.

I made up this handout and told them that I would stop grading anything that contained any of the errors on the sheet, and I would give it back to them to redo. It's something I should have done years ago, but I was always afraid of making more work for myself. However, after I instituted this policy, a funny thing happened. Everyone did a better job of editing --except Chris. We had to do a few rounds of me giving him back an assignment to redo, but by the end of the semester, he'd stopped making his careless mistakes. If you'd like this handout to give your students, you can grab it here.

These strategies and activities definitely made a difference for me and my students, so they will be go-to's for next year as well. Stay tuned for part two!

Managing Workshop with Stations

Would you love to try reading or writing workshop in your secondary classroom, but don't because you aren't quite sure how to run one?

Reader's and Writer's workshop can work in middle and high school. In fact, it reduces apathy and increases accountability. c
I know -- because I've been there -- that one of the reasons secondary teachers shy away from a workshop approach is because it's outside of their comfort zone. I get it. We know today that a teacher-centered approach is not always the best pathway to learning -- but a student centred one can be hard to manage. It's so much easier to teach a full class text, or to assign one writing assignment, that we can tightly control. We can see the road ahead and how to get there. We even have lots of tricks for keeping students' eyes on the road. That's what made the switch to workshop so hard for me -- I had two decades of well-honed lesson plans that were easy for me to roll out and manage. Why mess with what's been working?

Because there are methods that work better

Reading and writing workshop gives students more choice and freedom, but it also puts more onus on the them, making them more accountable, more likely to do their work AND more likely to engage in learning.

Even though we know this to be true, it's still harder to manage a workshop approach, especially in the beginning when you and your students are not used to it. One of the biggest problems is keeping the kids on task while you conference with individuals or work with small groups. For me, stations were the answer, because they keep everyone - myself included - focused.  Middle and high school English teachers: use stations to manage reader's and writer's workshop. keep your students focused and organized and free yourself up to conference!

Once I started using stations during independent work time, everything fell into place. I could conference with my students or work with small groups while students had a clear procedure to follow and tasks to complete. Also, they love the fact that they can get up and move around the room, which always helps with focus and engagement.

During Writer's Workshop, students can move between stations that require them to work on pre-writing, creating or revising. They can also go to stations for skill-building, inspiration and feedback. The beauty of the process is not just that they are busy and focused while I work with students, but that they have the freedom to go to the area that they most need to work on. With writing workshop, students are working on different things at different times, and these stations provide them with a focused way to do so.

Reading Workshop Stations provide the same opportunities. I especially like them for getting students to work on their notebooks or to spend time discussing their books with each other - without me being there to direct them.

So, how do you organize the stations and the students' journey through them? Well that depends a lot on your class and what you want them to accomplish. I teach high school, and once I establish my routines, I can depend on them to work well on their own, with a little bit of reinforcement from me. For the most part, I let them go to the stations they want (or need) to work on and then they move to the next one when ready. If you have a class that needs more structure, however, you can group them and have them move through each station together, after ten or fifteen minutes. I tend to use the less structured approach with writing workshop, but when we switch to reading, I find it makes more sense to have them move through the steps together. That said, if I have a very independent group of readers, I'll give them more freedom.

There are many ways you can keep your workshop focused and organized, but stations are what work best for me. What are your favourite methods for keeping your students on task? Please leave your ideas and/or questions in the comments!


Summer Break: Using The Gift of Time

Teachers: use summer break to build positive habits to take you through the next school year
There's nothing quite like summer vacation for teachers. After ten months of hard work and dedication to our students, we get two months to rest and recharge. We actually have time to do things that we can't do during the school year, things that we really should do all of the time.

We can fall back on that old excuse of "no time" when we go back to the classroom, or we could use the gift of time during the break to change the bad habits that keep us from taking care of ourselves during the school year. Research tells us it takes twenty-one days to change a habit, and summer is the perfect time to do that. 

Teachers: use summer break to build positive habits to take you through the next school year
We are all well aware of how important it is to exercise and eat well. We also know how hard it is to let that slip when the busyness of the school year sets in. That's why summer is the time to put in the hard work needed to change our habits. If we can make it a priority to start an exercise routine and to ensure that we are eating well, when we go back to school, those good habits will be in place, and we will be more likely to stick to the routines we established when we had the time. And, don't try to overdo it with crazy workouts and diets. Set goals that are reasonable so you don't set yourself up for failure.

Teachers: use summer break to build positive habits to take you through the next school year
I am super guilty of this: scarfing down my lunch as quickly as possible, so I can use my lunch to grade assignments or plan lessons. My rationale is a good one - the more I do at work, the less I take home. However, that's not a healthy habit for several reasons. First of all, eating slowly is much better for our digestion. Secondly, sitting in the staffroom and socializing when we eat lunch is far better for our soul. During summer break, make sure you savour your lunch (while you sit), and keep that habit going when you go back to school.

Teachers: use summer break to build positive habits to take you through the next school year
How often do you do this during the school year? You're chatting with friends or doing an activity with your children and the whole time your brain is somewhere else, planning a lesson, re-living a conversation with a parent, or stressing over a pile of grading you need to do. It's a pretty common scenario for teachers, but it's one that robs us of being in the all important present -- and robs our loved ones of our time and attention. Summer allows us to get into the present, and to build the habit of staying there. Try giving your total attention to everything you do so when you go back to the classroom, you're ready to leave school at school - where it should be.

Teachers: use summer break to build positive habits to take you through the next school yearHaving the time to read for sheer pleasure is one of the greatest joys of summer. You don't have to read a text that you need to teach, and you actually feel like reading because your brain isn't full of those things that keep you from losing yourself in the book. It's bliss. But, it can also be a time to read those professional books that you don't have time to read during the school year. It can be a time to really think about changes you'd like to make in your practice for next year. When you're relaxing on the beach or in your backyard, your brain is open and ready in a way that it just can't be when you're at work. I know I get my best ideas for school when I'm relaxed and unencumbered by the demands of the classroom, and because I have time in summer, I can think clearly about how to establish new and better classroom habits when I return. 

So, whether you're vacation has just begun, or you're thinking about going back to school, I hope you can take some time to form some habits of self-care.  And, if you have any great tips for the rest of us, please leave them in the comments : )

Excuse me while I go for a walk with my husband.

5 Ways to Keep Secondary Students on Task During Group Work

Most kids love to do group work. Not only does it break up the routine of a typical class, but it also allows them to be more social, to chat with their friends. That last fact is why some teachers shy away from collaborative work: the classroom gets noisy and students get off task. 

Noise is not always a negative thing, however. In fact, noise can be an indication that a lot of learning and engagement is happening in your classroom. Imagine if all of your students were involved in an activity that required critical thinking, discussion and debate. There would have to be a certain level of noise, right? In fact, a steady din can be a sure sign of learning.

I know, I'm talking about teenagers, most of whom love to socialize. I'm no fool - a lot of the time spent in groups is not focused and on task. It can be a struggle to make sure they do the work you want them to do. However, I believe so much in the power of collaboration that a little effort to make it work is very much worth it.  Below you will find five strategies that work (most of the time) in my classroom:

As a rookie teacher I made a lot of mistakes, and one of them was just sending my students off to do group work and expecting them to do it. It wasn't long before I learned that they needed more guidance. Now, before they ever work together in groups, I make it very clear what I expect. The first thing I tell them is that it's ok to chat and socialize -- as long as the task is complete. I point out that if they focus and get the job done, then they can relax for the remaining time. I also take the time to set the routine I'd like them to follow: pick up the desks when you move them so you don't disturb the class under us, appoint a group recorder to take down your answers, be sure to refer to your discussion starter bookmarks, etc.

One strategy I've adopted that makes a huge difference is modelling what an effective discussion looks like. I carefully choose some volunteers to help me with this -- a few keeners and a few quieter students. I put them in a circle in front of the room, and I lead them in a discussion. If students aren't contributing, I'll ask them what they think. When someone gives an incomplete answer, I'll ask for elaboration. And, if I disagree with one of them, I will do so 
Free discussion starters for group work
politely and tell them why. After a few rounds of this, I'll ask the class what they noticed: how did I act as an effective group member? They are always able to point out everything I tried to model. 

What is easy to see in others can be difficult to do on your own, however, so I give them each a copy of these "discussion starters" they can use it as a bookmark and refer to it when they get stuck. If you'd like to use these with your students, you can grab them for free here. They're editable, so you can tweak them to work with your students.

We do a lot of small group discussion in my class when students are trying to figure out a complex text or issue. When we do so, I want them to follow a process that not only gets them thinking, but also requires all students to participate -- I don't want one or two dominating while the others sit back and let them do so. Also, if I'm not clear about what I want them to do, they won't be very focused.

I've learned that I can prevent that by being very explicit in my instructions. I usually ask them to start with individual reflections, so everyone is engaged, and to share those ideas with a partner. After that, they engage as a whole group to complete whatever task I've given them.  I've just recently formalized some of these instructions on "collaboration placemats." I loved putting them together and I know the kids will get a kick out of using them too. You can grab them out here.

Collaborative placemats to guide student small group discussions

It's hard to argue with this one: if students find the topic engaging, they are far more likely to focus. If you give them a hot topic to discuss like legalizing marijuana or gun control, they will probably have a heated discussion. But, let's be honest, analyzing lit together is not always high on their fun-things-to-do list. However, if you give them the skills they need to do the work and provide them with a task that's challenging - but not too difficult - they will usually engage. I've written about ways I scaffold the skills my kids need to be successful before - you can read about it here.

I think this is THE most important thing you can do to ensure successful collaboration among students: it's crucial that you circulate among the groups, quietly listening and participating. Do so in a way that seems like you want to be part of the discussion, rather than evaluating it. If you hear something interesting, wait your turn and add in your two cents. If you want to steer them in a different direction, throw something out there that will shift their course: That's an interesting theory, but what about this? Have you thought about why character X did this? It's actually one of my favourite things to do, because not only can you help your students do better work, you can also get to know them better.

So, that's what I do in Room 213 to get quality work out of my students when they work together. What about you? I'd love to hear your tips and tricks.


Building Writing Stamina and Skills

Our curriculum demands that our students  write for a range of tasks, purposes and audiences. We also want them to write so they can think things through, find their voice, and express themselves. The more they write, the better they will become at all of these things; therefore, we need to work on their writing stamina, giving them lots of opportunity to flex their writing muscle. 

Bell ringers and writing prompts

One of the challenges as an English teacher is to find time to do all of the things that we know work best for our students. We're constantly juggling reading and writing, skill building and enjoyment, research and critical thinking. We do this with one eye on the clock and the the other on the calendar, knowing too well that there's never enough time to do it all.

I knew that I was not giving my kids enough time to write -- other than the assignments I gave them -- so I created a series of writing prompts to change that. Now, writing prompts are nothing new for me; it's what I added to them that made them a more effective tool for increasing skill AND stamina.

Bell ringers and writing prompts

Kids start with some pre-writing and then they do a quick-write. After they collect their initial ideas, they look back at what they wrote and reflect on ways to improve it.  They are asked to look at ways to push their ideas further and to play with their diction and sentence structure. Some prompts have them experiment with different ways for leading into a piece of writing or using dialogue. I mix up  the instructions so it's not repetitive, but each one challenges them to find ways to reflect and revise.

Bell ringers and writing prompts

The prompts are pretty versatile. You can use them as bell ringers: on Monday have them do the initial response. Then, on following days, have them do one revision at a time. Or, use them all at once for skill building activities, or as inspiration for your writing workshop. 

Regardless of how you make use of them in your classroom, your kids will have the opportunity to write more and improve their writing. Seems like a winning combination!

Happy teaching.