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.



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.




cause i ain't got a pencil

Last week, I saw a poem by Joshua T. Dickerson posted on Twitter.

I don’t know anything about this poem.  I don’t know anything about this poet.

11988747_10100420955294457_7903090834599342656_nBut it stuck with me, and I knew my students needed it.
I haven’t always been a “give the kid a damn pencil already” sort of teacher, but I have been for the last few years.

No bargaining, no collateral, no quarters, no shaming. I just give the kid the damn pencil.  

I didn’t have any Great Revelation.  I just remembered:  It’s not my job to teach my students how to keep pencils, it’s my job to teach them how to read and write.  They need a pencil for that.

I knew they’d connect with this poem.
As we move into practicing informative writing, I used this poem as a mentor text today on how we can “show and tell” in our writing.

12249892_10100420955314417_7986356553911748857_nWe analyzed it together, first in notebooks, and then out loud.  We pulled it apart, and we debated it on whether or not this teacher was a jerk, citing evidence from the text.

I said that I thought the teacher was a total jerk, and some students agreed, using evidence from the poem to back up their claims.

Some students, despite providing evidence from the poem that this narrator had a rough life, said that the kid should have had a damn pencil for class, and that his life was no excuse.  (We’ve heard that before, right?)

12241607_10100420944081927_3936555186744413407_nAfter we talked, and I introduced informative writing, my students spent five minutes writing in their journals about what they wished their teachers knew about them.

(Some students needed pencils, and I gave them a damn pencil.)

Afterwards, they spent 5-6 minutes illustrating their thoughts on computer paper.  They knew I’d be showing these to other teachers, but I promised that they’d stay anonymous, even as they were handing them to me (nameless, upside-down) on their way out the door.

As you’d expect, many were heartbreaking.



12240133_10100420944141807_3381754357585315796_nInform and explain.  Show and tell.  Tell and show.

We won’t know unless we ask.