We read 777 choice books this year.  Each link = one book!


This student had never read a book before entering my classroom. This year he read four.

This has been the best year ever.
By moving my class into a workshop model, my students have read more than ever. They’ve liked and understood what they’ve read.

They’ve not only written more than ever, but they’ve actually enjoyed what they’ve written, and their writing was the best I’ve ever seen.

We have a curriculum, but they’ve been given choices all year.  When presented with a literature unit, they’ve picked the book.  When presented with a writing assignment, they’ve picked their topic.

As I continue in this model, I’m contemplating changing the structure of our year with the first semester focused on our writing workshop, continuing to use poetry and smaller texts as models.

I’d like our second semester focused on literature in the form of genre studies.  I’ll still weave writing throughout the semester, but I’d like to see my students build more stamina in their choice reading before tackling some of the harder, assigned texts.


choicesI taught a few stories from J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories in these final weeks of school, and I’d love to use that book as a mentor text during that first semester.  Despite what my students call its “old-fashioned talking,” those short stories are complex and perfect for analysis practice.

Next year, I’d also like to have my students build blogs at the beginning of the year.  During this last month, my students were encouraged to publish their work to earn “Exemplary” grades (one student even took to Twitter for publication!), but we definitely needed a lesson on how to build and market a blog earlier.  If we had done this at the beginning of the year, it would have sunk in…but in these final weeks, it didn’t.

chartThat said, this has been the most rewarding year of my teaching career. 
When given permission to really take my class full-press into a reader/writer workshop, I was prepared for a lot of work.

It was a lot of work.

This isn’t easy. Building a culture of competent readers and writers takes very, very hard work.  

On top of planning and grading, you have to conference with students every day.
You have to read a book a week to inform recommendations.
You have to write your own essays and bring them to workshop.
In a genre study, you have to read four books at a time, write discussion points, and guide groups of students through the text. 

You have to truly, genuinely know every single student that sits in your room.

And it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. 


Freedom. Rigor.


Workshop day

Workshop day.

Providing choice doesn’t decrease rigor. 
Sometimes, outsiders think that because my students have a choice in their reading and their writing, our class is “easy.”

Today, I asked one of my Honors students what she thought of that.
She said, “You do get to choose your topic, but it’s not just kittens and rainbows all the time.  You actually have to use your brain and think about it, and come up with the best way to express what you’re thinking…it’s not that easy all the time.”

I mean, there are kittens and rainbows around my classroom (really), but she’s right.  Most of the time, we choose our content and we choose our topics, but we work very, very hard in here.

We produce multiple drafts through our whole-class workshop, and sometimes, students will revise five times until they’re happy with their final product.

livdraftingOur final workshops.
In these final weeks of school, my students have (almost) complete freedom when it comes to the final pieces they’ll bring to workshop.

They have to choose one of the genres we’ve practiced and decide which rubric works, but they can write about whatever they want.  I was nervous about giving them this freedom, since the last time I left them to their own brains, they floundered for awhile before finally producing a draft.

This time, they’re loving it.
While some students are writing narratives and reflective essays, most…are writing research papers.


Preliminary cat research.

Yes, most chose research.
One student in my fourth period class is writing an analysis on different types of cats, while another is writing an inform/explain piece about the Space Race.

A handful of students are writing new essays with recycled prompts.  Some are writing another lyric analysis, and others are revisiting the “I was a witness” prompt from earlier this year.

One student is using this assignment to workshop a “personal statement” that he’ll have to read in traffic court in a few weeks.

A few others are writing lengthy reviews of their favorite books to post on GoodReads.

We’re having fun with our writing again.
These last few weeks have been my favorite days of the year.  As much as I’m looking forward to summer adventures, I wish we had more time to write seventeen more pieces like this one. 



I took away the writing lifeboats.


My desk.

Really great English teachers are really great about providing students with lots of scaffolding, organizers, and exemplars to bring their students to the final written product successfully.  As a department, though, we sometimes worry about what this “help” means for our students’ post-high school writing.

Will they be able to write without us?

I decided to experiment.
It didn’t go well.
(Or it did, depending on how you look at it.)
We’re working on argumentative writing, our final “assigned” writing assignment before my students choose their own topics and genres for our remaining workshops.

argument and counter

Fleshing out both sides of the argument.

My students chose their own topic to argue, and we spent the early part of this week fleshing out our arguments and counterarguments.  I modeled and walked them through a four-point argument chart.  They took down great notes and came up with three possible solutions and their corresponding benefits.

They were 100% ready.
Today,  I gave my students a rubric and graphic organizer and said, “Okay, you’ve got your content.  Now…write it.”

They stared blankly at me.  
For the first time this year, I haven’t shown them a model essay, and I haven’t told them what content they should put where.

They’re struggling.  
On this first day of drafting, despite having every bit of content they  need for this paper, most just could not get started.  While four students immediately grabbed a laptop to start writing, the other nine stared blankly into space or doodled.  Some made some notes on their graphic organizers before the end of the period, but not much writing happened today.

After today’s classes, I can see that despite our constant work and revision during class, my students still see their writing as a “test” and not as a process. 

I know they’ll eventually write Something to bring to workshop by  next week, even if it’s a Horrible Something.  This might be our longest drafting process yet, and it’s confirming my worst fears, but we’re all learning together.   


Analysis: Text isn’t just the printed word.

rubric reviewThese writing workshops have been dreams come true.

Our whole-class writing and editing model has produced the best writing I’ve ever seen from students.  I don’t dread grading anymore.  I’ve genuinely loved reading their pieces, because with choice, comes different topics and a true author’s voice.

Most of the writing that we’ve done up to this point has been fairly enjoyable to my students.  We’ve moved beyond the five-paragraph essay.  They’ve been able to have their own voices, opinions and experiences (even in research-based tasks).

So when they saw that our next stop was analytical writing, they groaned.  Loudly.

They’re not looking forward to analysis.
I understand why:  they’ve practiced it a lot in response to difficult literary and informational text throughout their school careers.  It’s hard for them, and they view critical analysis as totally boring.

This week, we talked about how when you watch the same movie again, you notice new things.  And when you listen to the same song again, you hear new things.  That’s why we need to reread text to increase our understanding.

When I told them that analyzing text wasn’t always boring, they rolled their eyes, inwardly and outwardly.  So I showed them a painting of weird naked people.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights

I love Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”   It’s one of my faves from my art history courses in college because of its complexity, total weirdness, and opportunities for multiple interpretations.

Too often, when my students read text, they rush through their assignment looking for the correct answer. But analysis isn’t about the right answer.  It’s about close-reading.  Rereading.  Contemplation.

They’re used to text being only the printed word.  But text isn’t just the printed word.

first viewWe examined Bosch’s painting three times and took notes during each examination, only commenting on what we saw and keeping our interpretations to ourselves.

We maintained total quiet during our first five-minute study.  It was very difficult for them, since there’s a LOT that they wanted to talk about when they saw this painting.  They wrote down quick notes on what they saw.  I covered the painting, and we shared out.

Then, I zoomed in on the lower-left.  Again, we quietly studied the painting and wrote down what we saw, sharing out afterwards.  This time, I left the painting up and let my students point out the strange things they saw.

We quietly studied once more, this time looking at the lower-right side of the painting.  We talked through what we saw one last time, and finally, they had to decide what the heck this painting was about.

This is always the hardest part.
My students are always terrified to come up with the “wrong” answer in their analytical writing, and no matter how many times I assure them that analysis is all about their own thoughts and their own supporting evidence from the text, they‘re always scared to take a risk and make an educated guess.  

analysis paragraph

Since we’d already shared out what we saw, most students weren’t afraid to share their interpretations of the text.  (But first, I made them hide their erasers from themselves.  They always self-doubt after they hear the first share!)

One student thought the artist was showing the progression of drug-use:  first things are normal, then they’re crazy, and then you die.  (Whoa.) I’ve never thought of that interpretation, and I loved it.

varied analysis

Some thought the painting was a warning of times to come.  Others leaned more towards a more religious analysis of this painting:  the first panel shows the beginning of life, then everyone sins their brains out and we all end up in Hell.

I never told them what I learned about the meaning of the painting in my art history courses .  

Despite the fact that almost all of my students’ analytical pieces of writing strayed from what many historians feel is the meaning of Bosch’s painting, their answers were correct because they supported them with evidence from the text.



Lines We Love

One of the best parts of being an English teacher is that geeking out over words is actually my job.


Our classroom quote tree.

In our workshop model, attendance is so important.
Students just have to be in class, and there aren’t many times that they can just take off for the bathroom/nurse/guidance/etc. without all of us waiting on them to return.  Because “being there” is so important in this instructional model, my students receive three bathroom passes at the beginning of each semester (yes, just three) to use at their discretion…but they also have opportunities to earn more passes for literacy-related activities.

quote 1

“Because posters are too easy for your sophisticated brain.” –Bonin

One way my students earn passes  is by pulling lines they love from their choice books, their assigned books, from songs, from their own pieces of writing…and even from the random things I say during class that they think are funny.

They write their lines on a green leaf and staple them onto our giant packing-paper tree.  By the end of this year, I imagine that this tree will probably outgrow the bulletin board and expand onto the walls.

(At the end of the year, leftover and hoarded bathroom passes get rolled into a raffle for Barnes & Noble gift cards, so even students who don’t necessarily want or need passes are motivated to help our tree grow!)

The lines they choose to display will make great writing prompts too.  I’m about to do a major whole-classroom move into a different hallway, which will involve taking this tree down, leaving many of these leaves accessible for analysis during our quickwrite time. 

As much as I’m not looking forward to act of moving, I am looking forward to pulling this tree apart, reflecting, and then replanting it in our new classroom.


quote 2

“Anxiety is the cousin visiting from out of town depression felt obligated to bring to the party. Mom, I am the party.” –Explaining my Depression to My Mother: A Conversation


Writer’s Workshop: Inform and Explain

RS typingWe’ve spent the last few weeks running through our second full-press writer’s workshop.  I’ve based most of our writing curriculum around Kelly Gallagher‘s book Write Like This, and all credit goes to him for this prompt and focus.

(Buy this book.  Right now.)

We first looked at Inform and Explain writing with our work around Joshua Dickerson’s poem and #Iwishmyteacherknew.

We talked about how “inform and explain” writing is different than research; it’s all about showing and telling your experience and your own knowledge.

(And it’s the kind of writing that I use the most when complaining and complimenting companies via email and Facebook.)

I was a witness.
From there, I asked my students to brainstorm things that they had seen before.  It couldn’t be something they’d done; it had to be something that they could report on as a bystander.

I shared a list of my own experiences with them, and together, we started to draft a piece around the focus:  I was a witness…

We were going to tell pieces of our own histories.

We spent two periods working on brainstorming and sloppy, “worst drafts ever.”
Some students typed and others were more comfortable with a pencil.  Whatever works for them, works for me.  

Some wrote and finished the first day, spending the next day with their choice book.  Some spaced for the first day and wrote a draft the second.  Some didn’t do much at all…and sat out during our first few days of workshop, finishing their work.

Just like last time, it was hard for me to stand back and let them think, space out, and work at their own pace.  I’m getting better, but it feels absolutely torturous to me.

(Working on my own piece of writing helps with this…a  little.)

Just like last time, somehow it all came together.

Among our topics:  

  • a dog pulling a dishwasher down the stairs
  • a child deliberately peeing in  grocery store
  • a cat sitting on a bed
  • a car accident on a snowy day
  • a drunk aunt using a box of wine as a purse
  • a sister’s suicide attempt
  • a heroin overdose at a party

We stay anonymous to the very end.
As you can gather from the above list, many of these stories were  pretty tough to put out into the universe.  Because of this, my number one rule during workshop is to keep yourself and others anonymous.  We may have guesses, but we’re not guessing.  Names aren’t added to pieces until the very last second.

workshop circle

My view on workshop days.

On our first workshop day, we all brought our (anonymous) drafts to the group.
This time, all pieces were read aloud to the class.

We passed the pieces around the circle, mixing them up until we’d lost track of where ours had landed.

We corrected grammatical and mechanical errors.  Just like last time, we began by sharing out the lines we loved from the pieces.

DetroitAs we listened to the pieces read aloud, students wrote questions for the author on Post-Its.  Afterwards, we passed our notes down to the reader of the piece.

(These Post-Its were anonymous, but won’t be next time.  Students became a little too comfortable with their anonymity, and some questions teetered on the edge of disrespect.)

This was the longest, but most engaging, method of workshopping for my classes.  My students really loved listening to each other’s stories, and definitely took the more serious essays to heart.

What about the students who didn’t want to read out loud?
I read it for them.  No big deal:  We’re assessing writing, not reading or speaking.   Who cares if they don’t read it themselves?

(I altered and stole this read-aloud model from Liz Ahl,  who was my poetry and creative writing professor at Plymouth State University…and  is also a great human and friend.)

JD typing
After our read-aloud workshop, we paused to edit against our feedback.  Students weren’t required to answer every question asked, but they were required to answer all that they felt were relevant to their topic.

This went quickly.  After one period, we were ready to look at a new, still anonymous, draft.

We gathered together in a circle again and looked at the pieces against the rubric.  

This time, I’d learned my lesson from the anonymous Post-Its and required my students to put their names on the work they were assessing.

Together, we went through every category of the rubric, and the editors reflected on each section in a sentence.

Written feedbackThis workshop-generated feedback was more detailed and focused than I could reasonably give on 96 essays, and because of that, their final products were extremely polished.

We took one more day to edit, and then students passed in clean copies (finally, with names).

writing collage
So far, this process has produced Magical Exemplary Drafts.

After two runs through a full-press, whole-class workshop, I can safely say that this method has produced the Best Writing I’d Ever Graded.

Sitting together in a circle, modeling, and talking together has worked better than any other method I’ve ever used to teach writing, including peer and teacher one:one conferencing.  

My students were engaged throughout the whole process because they were able to choose their topic, write from experience, and listen to the stories of others.

I’m not sure I’ll ever give a focused essay question ever again.