August 2016 - Room 213

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Technology in the Language Arts Classroom: Finding a Balance

I love technology and I love how it has opened up possibilities in my classroom. However, I will never give up some traditional ways of helping students learn.

Let me take you back across a few decades to when I was in high school. I can clearly remember how I studied.  First, I would read over my notes. Then I would write them out again. Finally, I'd close my notebook and try to say everything out loud. I didn't know it at the time, but I was activating all of my learning styles.  By reading, writing and speaking, I was ensuring that I was able to remember the material.  Our teens today are so used to taking photos of notes, and typing and reading on line, that they may not be using some of the old fashioned ways of learning -- and just because they are old, doesn't mean they're bad.
Is technology always best?

I read an article on Edutopia this morning about the Brain Benefits of Unplugging that touched on the importance of writing things out, as well as other good reasons to unplug at times. It got me to thinking about the best way to balance two very good things in my classroom. As I said, I love having technology in my teaching toolbox. It's a wonderful thing for collaboration, research, revision and formative assessment.  It also helps us save paper and time.  For those reasons, I will use Chromebooks as often as I can get my hands on them (we have to share at our school). However, there are also times when I want my students to use their voices and their pens and their paper, because those are very powerful tools as well.

Here's how I find a balance in the different areas of my curriculum:

1. Communicating with each other: I often begin the year with online chats.  Students will read a  article on a controversial topic, and then work in groups on Google Docs to discuss it.  I do this because they are getting to know each other and they are often "braver" behind the screen.  I can also monitor the discussions and see who is  adding to it and who is not.  But, after they become more comfortable with each other, I want these chats to happen face to face so they can work on speaking and listening skills.

2. Collaboration: Again, Google Apps provide an incredible way for kids to work together and for me to monitor that work.  But, in the real world, we have to learn to collaborate face-to-face as well, so I work to find a balance between the two different ways to collaborate. It helps that I don't have Chromebooks all the time, but even if I did, I would mix it up regularly because there are different skills to be learned from each method.

3. Writing & Assessment: Google Docs saves me so much time when I want to give descriptive feedback. I can type faster (and more legibly) than I write, and so I can give the kids more feedback. Because of this, I almost always have them pass major writing assignments in through Classroom. However, I do want the kids to have the experience of writing by hand as well, so when my students do quick-writes and  journal responses, I ask that they are written out. These are also times when we want students to just get their ideas down. If they are typing, they are more likely to stop and edit as they go -- which is not something we necessarily want with an activity that is about thinking and idea generation.

4. Note taking: The kids will always want to take a picture with their phones -- and why not? It's a lot easier.  However, lots of research says that they will remember information much better if they go through the act of writing it down. So, if what I have on the board is important for them to remember, I make sure they use their pens; if it's just information -- like a due date or something that they won't be assessed on -- I let them take a photo.  Also, sometimes they will brainstorm as a group -- on a board or a piece of paper.  That's another instance where a photo is a good idea.

We are in a time of transition in education, in so many ways.  Technology has been a game changer, but I don't think we should lose sight of the things that worked well, just because something else is faster or flashier.  I'm still walking up that technological learning curve and quite enjoying the challenge of doing so, and I'm looking back as I do so, to make sure I remember the tools and skills that allow me to get up and over the hump.

How do you find a balance between old and new ways of learning?

Choosing Great Books for Teens

Jennifer Goodson was the lucky winner of the classroom library giveaway, and she selected an amazing bundle of books that will arrive in her classroom later this week. Good luck, Jennifer, with your reader's workshop this year!
I have The Beginning of Everything, I'll Give You the Sun and All the Bright Places on my classroom shelves, but the rest of her choices are new to me, so I was glad to have the chance to read about them.  I'm heading to my local bookstore today to buy them all today. I will do some browsing as well, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to ask you all to share your (and your students') favourite titles, so those of us looking for books can get some really good reads for our kids.

Please leave some suggestions in the comments below!

Back to School Giveaway!

We're about to start another round of back to school. Some of you are there already, but many of us are gearing up to go back after Labour Day. Regardless of when we start, we all want it to be our best best year ever. I know it's a crazy busy time for you, so I'd like to help by giving away a $25 TpT gift card.

Win a $25 TpT Gift Card!

In order to enter, you only have to do one thing: go to either my Facebook or Instagram page and comment on one of my resources - either why you like it or why you'd like to have it. You'll be entered twice if you post a picture! 

Winner will be announced Monday morning, August 22nd.  Good luck!!

The Most Important Things to Work on in the First Week of School

Note taking? Grammar? Close Reading? The elements of good writing? Nope. All of these are skills we will definitely get to, but they are not the most important ones to work on in the first days of school.  Instead, you should plan activities that create an environment for the learning that will happen throughout the rest of the semester.

Three most important things to focus on in the first week of school
You are about to spend a whole year or semester with the teens who will walk through your door on the first day. You are going to ask them to stretch and grow, to work to their potential -- and to work together to be able to do so. For that to happen, your room needs to be a place of mutual respect and trust, a room where kids know they can go and make lots of mistakes on the way to real learning.

No, I'm not suggesting you create your own little learning utopia, but I do have a few ideas for how you can get off to a good start. And I know there's curriculum to cover and things to get crossed off the list, but I firmly believe that any time spent at the beginning of the year to build a learning environment, will buy you more time later.

1. Be very deliberate in modelling and expecting classroom behaviours. 
If you have a rule, make sure you follow it too. No eating or drinking in the class? Don't be sipping from your own coffee cup. If you want them off their phones, don't be constantly checking yours. They can spot hypocrisy a mile away, and the surest way to lose their respect is to not walk the walk.

I don't have a lot of "rules" in my classroom, but I do expect that students will try their best, think critically and to participate in class discussions - even if that means just listening carefully and contributing when called upon. Not every student likes to speak up, some like to dominate, and many like to give short answers with little thought behind them. Because we will do a lot of discussing throughout the semester, I choose some "hot topics" for us to chat about in the first few days -- and then I set the tone for how I want the discussion to happen.  One thing I really work hard on during these discussions is the depth of thought that goes into answers. For example, if a student says "I agree with her", I don't let it go at that: "Why do you agree?" I'll ask. I may have to keep prodding, but I will keep asking questions until I get a fully developed answer. They soon learn that they won't get away without thinking ;). Getting them all involved can be hard, but it's worth it to put a focused effort into that in the first weeks of school. I've posted before about how I try to get kids involved in the discussion, and you can read about it here.  

Also, because there's so much discussion in my class, it can be hard to get them to settle when it's time for individual work. Therefore, those first few days are very important for establishing that transition.  If they are still chatty when it's time to read or write, I will point out that there is lots of time to chat in my class, but I expect quiet (within reason) when it's time to work independently.  

2. Choose highly engaging, low-risk topics and activities. 
I think this is one of the most important things you can do.  In high school, we ask our students to deal with some complex tasks.  Some will dive right into them, but many are reluctant. If we start with Shakespeare or poetry or any topic that can be seen as "dull", they will drag their heels. However, if we can sneak some really good skill development into engaging topics, students will be far more likely to engage and learn. Once you have them interested in coming to your class, and you have developed a good rapport with them, your students will be more likely to engage when you ask them to do things like analyze a poem or read Shakespeare.One activity that we will do in the first week is my Ideal School Project (which you can grab for free).  I love doing this project with my students because the topic is one they can easily relate to, and it gets them thinking critically and working on a lot of the skills they'll need for the semester.  You could also get your students to create a class policy for e-device use in your room.  Have them read articles about the pros and cons, discuss these with each other, write personal responses and/or present their ideas to the class. In one short project, they've worked on all strands of the curriculum - and they've likely maintained interest. Similarly, during the first few days of reader's workshop, we will focus only on finding books of interest. I will wait until they are engaged in their books before we do any analysis.

3. Think about what you want your environment to be like and then use activities that will demonstrate that environment.  
As I've already said, I like to find some good fodder for discussion in the first few days because I want to demonstrate what it looks like when they are thinking critically and contributing to a discussion. I also want my students to do a lot of collaborating on the work they do throughout our time together.  To get them to trust each other to do that well, I start with a low-risk, fun activity that get them talking and working with each other. The first day, I will be using my Back to School Learning Stations; one of the stations asks them to work together to make suggestions for activities we will do as a class. Another has them developing a class code of conduct. As they work on these things, I will be circulating to not only get to know them better, but also to keep them focused and working in a way that I want. I'm A-OK with off topic chat, for example, but only if the task is complete.  We will also spend some time in the first few days talking about formative assessment and the importance of failure -- two things that I believe are very important for learning and that I put a lot of emphasis on in my classroom.

So, that's what I will be doing during that first week of September (and in February for second semester). My focus will be entirely on building a rapport with my students and an environment where they are interested in learning. It won't, by any means, be a utopia where every student rushes to the door, eager to get at it. However, by investing the time at the beginning of the year, I know I will have more of them still with me at the end. 

Have an amazing year with your students!



On paper, writer's workshop is a great idea.  Students have voice and choice. They work at their own pace, developing the skills they need as individuals. They engage in the process and in the end become much better writers. It all sounds so wonderful, it a grading nightmare? Will you be buried under paper if you adapt this approach?  

Assessment and writer's workshop in the secondary classroom

Well, it depends. It depends on whether you believe you have to mark every-thing the students do. I don't.  And I also think that the only way a teacher can survive this and get some sleep is to adopt an attitude and approach that focuses on skill building and process, rather than pumping out assignments and final grades.

Let me explain. Many of us, both teachers and students, are used to the cycle of the writing assignment: the teacher assigns a piece of writing; then the students have a number of days to complete it before passing it in for a grade, getting it back with feedback...and possibly never looking at it again. Writer's workshop puts the focus on the process: students are working on a variety of skills and genres with the end goal of becoming better writers--not just to get a grade.  In fact, many pieces of writing may never even become "published". That means that you do not grade everything they write. 

The reality is, however, that we work with teenagers who often need a little motivation, and within a system that requires final grades.  How can that mesh with a workshop approach? But how does it all work? 

While there are many ways to assess a secondary writer's workshop, I'll share how it works for me.

1. Before you begin, you need to do some planning and organizing: Decide how many finished products you want to assess, and when you want them to be due. These might be assignments required by your curriculum, or ones that the students choose themselves. That's a decision you need to make ahead of time. I ask that they pass something in for a grade every four weeks. If students choose their own work for a mark, give them some direction as to how you would like them to choose the pieces. Do you want a variety of genres? A selection that illustrates growth as a writer?  Both?  I'll be giving my students the following:

Allowing students to select their own pieces for grading does not mean it's a free-for-all, because after you decide what you want in the end, you need to plan and organize the all-important journey there.

2. Decide how you will use formative assessment for skill building.  In my last post, I wrote about how I use backward design to plan the skill building I will do during writer's workshop. Once I have that plan in place, I create some forms to track each student's attainment of those skills. I keep these forms in a binder, organized alphabetically, by students' last names.  As I circulate during workshop and/or conference with students, I can check off whether or not a student has demonstrated a certain skill.  I will also do so when I read their "published" copies. 

In order to get your students working on things that won't be graded, the first thing you need to do is some PR work. You need to show your students that doing the work and building their skills IS for a grade, because you will eventually be assessing several polished pieces of writing; if they don't do the formative work along the way, they won't do well on that final assessment.  You need to believe in it so you can promote it too.  And it needs to be a consistent and constant message: let's all work together to get you where you need to go. You become a coach and your students are your team, working toward that big game: the final grade.

3. The most important part of this process is the conference. It is here where the real teaching and learning takes place.  Instead of just giving feedback on a final copy, feedback that - let's face it - rarely get acted upon, you will be instructing students one-on-one on what they need to do individually to improve. The conference does not have to be long.  You might ask them to demonstrate their success with a certain skill or they may ask about something they are struggling with.  Regardless, the quick check-in and follow up will hold them accountable for working on their writing.

Again, I use a series of forms to track this. I will also give them feedback on how prepared they were for their conferences, something that is quick and easy to do.  I will give them several formative marks for this, and each term they will get a summative one as well.

So, to sum it all up, here's what my assessment will look like:

1. Several formative marks - they will get one for their conferences, their skill building checklist, their writer's notebook and their writing prompts.  

2. Several summative marks - every for weeks they will pass in a polished copy.  In the beginning of the semester they will have free choice, but later on, as I focus on more curriculum related things, they will have some required assignments.

3. A final summative assessment - they will pass in a variety of assignments that they believe best represents their growth as writers.

I hope that helps.  As I've indicated before, this will be my first time totally diving into writer's workshop. I'll be tweaking a lot, and I'll keep you posted on how it all goes!

All of the forms I referred to above are available in my Writer's Workshop Bundle. 

Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader's & Writer's Workshop Support. Send me your email to, or search this link. 


Planning a Secondary Writer's Workshop Part Two

Yesterday, I posted some background on writer's workshop and today, as promised, I'm going to get into the nitty gritty of how I'm going to roll mine out this fall. I showed you the rough schedule below, but I wanted to add that there are many ways to organize this. For example, if you have long periods, you could do both reader's and writer's workshop in the same class, with half the time devoted to reading and half devoted to writing.  Regardless of what you choose, just plan to have some sort of schedule, one that can be flexible, but also one that the kids can count on to get lots of time to read and write.
During my first days of reader's workshop, my mini-lessons will focus mostly on introducing the workshop, getting them to understand the importance of increasing their reading stamina and setting some goals for themselves. We will work on establishing the routines and on selecting novels that they want to read.  I will do a lot of book talks during this time as well.  When we switch over the writer's workshop, I will again introduce the procedure and spend some time reviewing the whole concept of the writing process.  We will get to know the writer's notebook they will use, and students will spend a lot of time in the ideas section of the notebook, generating possible topics for their writing. Along with that, we will do a number of quick-writes, designed to get them thinking about their interests and passions. After the first week of establishing procedure and idea generation, my focus will switch to the elements of good writing: word choice, syntax, showing, etc. My mentor texts will be short -- one sentence or short paragraphs -- so students can zero in on very specific skills. 

Next, during reader's workshop, I will focus on things like point of view, setting audience and purpose, openings and closings etc. The mentor texts that I use for this can, likewise, be used during writing workshop. Students will be asked to experiment with each of the techniques I illustrate with the texts and to apply them to their own writing. I will spend time illustrating how writers - even in non-fiction - use devices like simile, metaphor and analogy to develop their ideas.  In fact, most of my mentor texts in the first few weeks will illustrate the different ways that writer's develop their points and ideas. It's a skill that students definitely need work on, so my mission will be to show them how to do it.

How do I decide what skills to work on when?  Backward design.  Before the semester begins, I will sit down with pen and paper and brainstorm the skills I want my students to have mastered by the time they leave me.  Then I make a plan for the best way to introduce these skills and to scaffold them with others throughout the semester.  I told you already that the first thing I review are the elements of good writing.  Then it's on to idea development.  After that, we'll work on coherence and tying it all together. You get the idea. The key, with any of it, is that I have good mentor texts, exemplars that they can use as models. In order to roll this out in a way that makes sense, you need to spend sometime in the planning stage, making yourself a road map to guide your lesson planning.

So after the workshop is mapped out and your lessons are planned, how do you manage it all? How do you assess your students?  That's the next post.  Stay tuned.

Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader's & Writer's Workshop Support. Send me your email to, or search this link. 


Planning Your Secondary Writer's Workshop

Writer's workshop is an approach that puts the focus on the writing process, rather than on the end product.  That does not mean that the finished piece of writing is not important; instead, students take responsibility for their development as writers and spend a great deal of time in class on the act of writing. The hope is that with more time on craft, those finished products will be so much better.
How do you plan for writer's workshop in the secondary classroom?

The role of the teacher is much different with a workshop approach. You become a guide who coaches your students through the process, rather than the person who talks at the front of the room, giving out and grading assignments. You don't just wash your hands of it all and let them have at it, though. Instead, you have to do some up front work and planning so you can do a good job of getting your students where you want them to be by the time the semester is over.

Depending on the age of your students, the demands of your curriculum, or your own philosophy, you may not be able to do a full blown workshop, as some writing gurus like Penny Kittle and Nanci Atwell do. You may have to, like me, adapt the approach, using it for only part of the year, or only with certain assignments.  That's ok.  We have to do what works for us and often that's a mix of approaches.  Give yourself permission to just go part way, which is exactly what I'm doing.

There are many ways you can run writer’s workshop, but generally, you should aim to include
each of the following components:

1. Mini-lessons: These are short, focused lessons on what real writers do. During a min-lesson, you want to target a very specific aspect of writing that you want your students to work on. Keep your mini-lessons brief and then immediately give your students a chance to work on the skill or idea you have just demonstrated. You might begin the class with a mini-lesson, or give it afer a period of silent reading and or a writing prompt.

2. Mentor texts/exemplars: These are samples of writing from authors (or students) that demonstrate a skill that you want your students to learn, or an idea or technique that you want them to use as inspiration. These are most often used as part of your mini-lesson, but
I like to give them to students to use at stations as well.

3. Time for independent work: This is the most important element of writer’s workshop. Students need 6me to focus on their work. Students will be at different stages of the writing process: some may be in the pre-writng stage, others will be revising or editing, some may be researching or looking for inspiration in mentor texts. While students are working, you should be circulating among them, checking in on what they are working on, and/or conferencing with individual or small groups of students.

4. Conferencing: Conferences are where real teaching occurs, because you are talking to students about their writing and focusing on skills that each individual needs to work on. The student can share his/her successes and frustrations, and you can give them short, targeted feedback on how to improve. You can also conference with small groups. If, for example, you know that certain students are struggling with writing dialogue, or sentence variety, or embedding quotations, you can gather them together and give them a quick lesson. Conferences are also a way for you to give quick formative assessment of your students.

5. Peer revision and editing: This can occur after the time that you have allotted for independent work – or students can do it at any time, when they feel they need it. They will share what they are working on with their classmates and seek feedback to help them improve.

Last year, I blogged a lot about my adventures with using a reader's workshop. One of those posts was about balancing reader's workshop with the whole class novel.  I found my rhythm, and it was one that the students not only enjoyed, but also learned from.  I saw success and, most importantly, engagement.  This year, I'm ready to add writer's workshop into the mix. I still have certain focused assignments -- the argumentative and literary essay -- but I'm going to start the year with workshop, for the same reason that they will start with reading workshop: it's more engaging. If I can hook them into reading and writing in the first few months, then they will be more likely to buy in to -- and be successful with -- the full class novels and assignments we will do at the end.  I like to think of it like this: the first half of the semester is like a team that practices and scrimmages, so they can build their skills to be successful in the big game.  The big game for us will be the final assessments they have to do on the curriculum.

OK, let's get at it.  How am I going to get it all done? How will I manage reader's and writer's workshop AND my full class stuff?  To be honest, I can't tell you for sure until it's all over, but here's my plan:

To the right is the image of my planning from last year.  I was doing reader's workshop for three days, and a more focused look at certain genres on two.  Then, in Novem-ber we switched to full class studies.  I'll still do that this year, but I'm going to do reader's workshop for three days and writer's for two.  In both cases, students will have lots of choice for what they read and write.  I will still do my focus on genres, but this time I will use the mentor texts for both reading and writing, doubling up to save time. For example, I'll start with non-fiction, as always, book talking non-fiction texts during reader's workshop, then using the same ones to drill down on certain skills and techniques during writer's workshop.

Still not sure exactly how to do this?  Watch for further posts this week when I will give you more specific plans and examples.

Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader's & Writer's Workshop Support. Send me your email to, or search this link. 


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