Reading and Writing and Speaking! Oh My!

I’m feeling overwhelmed by the information and ideas I’ve been inundated with this summer.  Between Twitter, my stack of teaching books, conferences, blogs, etc., the ideas are swimming through my brain and no one idea seems to be taking the forefront.  Thoughts of Problem-based learning, Standards-based learning, vocabulary instruction, close reading, intense writing, and technology are crowding each other out, making it hard for me to narrow my focus.

I want to be a good teacher. I want to be up to speed with all the cool stuff going on, but boy, it’s hard!  I think my first priority (Do I need first before priority? or is that redundant? Oh well.) to improve the fundamentals: reading, writing, speaking.

The first PD book I read this summer was The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core.  The book focuses on literacy and our school has created teams of people to help model and share these strategies with the rest of the school.  As an English teacher, I’m obviously all about this and I was excited as I read the first couple chapters because I do the things it says to do!  I guess I never thought about how things like giving the students something to think about (purpose) before they read, having them support their ideas with evidence, pair/group/class discussions, and writing about their ideas might not be as common place in other subjects.  These things just seem to happen naturally in my classroom, as I assume (hopefully?) they do in most other English classrooms.  The later chapters cover areas that I need to work on, especially vocabulary, but overall the point is this: Kids need to read, think, discuss and write.

Well, duh.  We all know that, right?  This isn’t earth shattering information here, people.

I have also been reading (on and off) Falling in Love with Close Reading and Notice and Note, both of which are about close reading.  I think this is an incredibly important topic, and something I need to work on in my classroom.  I’m getting a lot of ideas from both of these books that I am going to try to put into practice in the upcoming school year.

I have worked a lot with my students on annotating the texts that I give them, but I make two ginormous, unforgivable mistakes: 1) I don’t model this for them which is linked to 2) I don’t help them figure out what is important.  My higher level students seem to pick up on what to look for pretty easily, especially the kids who read on their own anyway.  Unfortunately, the number of kids who read for “fun” is getting smaller and smaller and their close reading skills are also dwindling.  While my insistence that students read with a pen/pencil in hand has been beneficial to at least a few students–one parent informed me that her daughter’s ACT score went up by 5 points and her daughter gave me all the credit! (which is, of course, an exaggeration, but nice to hear regardless)–many still struggled with understanding the reasoning behind annotation.  This year I want to make a concerted effort to help students learn where to focus their attention (Notice and Note has some great idea for this) and model annotating/close reading for them.  All the time.

This kind of close reading will have a great effect on our class discussions and their writing, both of which could use some improvement.

Discussions are vital in my class.  I feel that over my 8 years of teaching, this is one area in which I have improved.  I’ve gotten better at asking thought-provoking questions and over the course of the year I see my students discussion improve; however, what I need to do his help kids prepare for the discussions and think about what is being said by others in the class.  I’m thinking some kind of reflections or a 3-2-1 style exit ticket (For example, 3 things that were said that were interesting, 2 comments you disagreed with, 1 question you’re left with) so that we don’t just walk away from the discussion and never think of it again.

Writing. Ugh. The bane of the English teacher.  We want our kids to write more, but we don’t have time to assign all that writing because it’s impossible to grade 120 essays.  If you’re an English teacher, you’ve probably thought this, or at least heard it.  I myself have fallen into that camp and I want to find my way out.  I remember when I was in 11th grade, I wrote at least 12 essays (ummm…I still have them…is that weird?).  How on earth did my teacher grade those?  We didn’t get a lot of feedback, but my writing improved, so I guess it worked.  I’ve been reading up on the handling the paper load and I’ve found some really helpful stuff.  Like this from San Francisco State University.  My goal for writing this year is to do more of it.  A lot more of it.

I need to work on using exemplars (according to Gallagher 2011 and Schmoker 2006).  I struggle with this because I’m not exactly sure where to get these exemplars.  Do they all come from me? I guess it depends on the type of writing.  Gallagher uses real movie reviews before his kids write movie reviews, for example, but when it comes to writing a literary analysis of The Great Gatsby, I don’t have a lot to fall back on.

In terms of grading all of this writing my kids will be doing, I have a few ideas:

  • focus only on certain aspects of the process (whatever we have focused on before the essay) when grading and commenting.  Let’s face it, kids don’t read or appreciate all of those comments we put on their papers anyways.  
  • give verbal feedback- it’s faster and you can actually explain the comments that are being made.  This year I used this technique with my 10th graders and they loved it.  
  • use more checkpoints in the writing process. I do this with the synthesis essay my juniors write at the end of the year and it’s the best paper they write. I have them turn in their thesis, which I give feedback on and return within a day.  I do the same with a body paragraph, an intro, and the conclusion.  Most of the students (those who have these things completed on time) actually use my feedback and appreciate the time I take to do this for them.  When it comes time to read and grade their essay, it’s much faster because I’ve read the bits and pieces several times already.  
  • use writing communities.  As I tell my kids all the time, by talking to each other we learn.  I want to put this concept into action with writing.  I think I might keep them in a group for the entire semester but I’m not sure yet.  I want them to be familiar, comfortable, and willing to help each other.  Over time, with a lot of modeling and help, I think these groups could cut down on my grading and commenting because hopefully a lot of their usual errors would be discovered and corrected before the writing get to me.
So these are my ideas.  Every year I have goals and ideas for the upcoming school year, but every year many/most of them seem to get pushed out of my brain or off my priority list by all of the administrative stuff at the beginning of the year.  I want this year to be different. Fingers crossed.

Maybe EdCamp ELA will help with all of these ideas!!! 🙂

I had planned to talk about what I’m reading in Results Now by Mike Schmoker (author of Focus) because some of what he has to say is pretty awesome, but instead I got hung up on all of this (actually, I think Schmoker would agree with what I’ve said here and my plans for next year).  Anyway, I’ll come back to his ideas in a later post.  

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