Category Archives: Teaching

What Fuels a Writing Culture In Your Classroom?

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Tell Your Story Camp72.JPG McKyln Madsen, reads her writing to the group, including Poet, Jack Collom, center.
Area middle school students participated in the "Tell Your Story" camps, using multimedia, art, poetry and writing, at the University of Colorado.
For more photos and a video of Tell Your Story, go to www.dailycamera.com.
Cliff Grassmick  / June 20, 2013

What drives the work/learning?

  • Identifying a goal/product/performance/culmination that you want to achieve with your students that is connected to the world outside the classroom
  • Figuring out all of the ways that you and your students can be writers to accomplish that end (writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively)
  • Modeling the writing life through the design of the unit and the way you think, talk, and act with your students.

What does the writing life look like in the classroom?Qui vive

  • Catching thoughts, ideas, questions, solutions, passing fancies down on paper/screen to create a reservoir of potential writing material
  • Reading models to help you think and do your own writing
  • Discussing models to figure out the moves that make the writing work
  • Engaging in idea generating conversations to figure out what you might want to write
  • Writing….a lot!
  • Returning to a piece of writing to elaborate and craft it based on the understanding you’re developing around the moves
  • Sharing works in progress for feedback
  • Putting the writing out into the world for impact
  • Keeping all writing work to be able to access and use at a later date

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat are the kinds of writing that should be happening in a unit?

  • Reflective writing: thinking in writing about life and work; post product analysis; question posing; answer seeking
  • Analytic writing: writing about reading; reports; essays; criticism; speeches; technical; informational
  • Creative writing: stories, poems, plays, memoir, blogs, hybrid-texts

What are potential culminations?Canon EOS Digital Camera

  • Performances: plays, public readings, debates, websites, shows, live museums, installations, works of art
  • Publications: books, anthologies, individual pieces, newspaper editorials, letters to officials, websites, blogs
  • Actions: meetings with significant people (physically/virtually), rallies, service

Ten Teacher Things To Do This Summer

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The summer is upon us! You have worked tirelessly for ten months. You deserve this break. Breaks aren’t only important because they give you the chance to decompress and recharge. They also create the space and the time to renew your enthusiasm for teaching and to replenish your reservoir for creative new ideas for your classes. Here are ten of my ideas for how to truly embrace your summer as a teacher and to return next year ready to take on the world. These ideas are in no particular order. I challenge you to make all 10 happen over the next two months.

Quotation-Jack-Kerouac-life-Meetville-Quotes-1106741. Take a trip not knowing exactly where you are going to end up

Sometimes, a school’s approach to teaching and learning can feel scripted, predetermined, controlled. Don’t let your summer feel that way. At least once over the next two months, get in a car, in two shoes, on a bus, on a train…heck, on a plane even…and go on an adventure, not knowing exactly where you are going to end up. Keep the map in the glove box. Turn off your phone/GPS. Open yourself up to the possibility of finding something incredible and unexpected. You’ll be surprised by what this does to your senses and by the ideas, people, and places you find along the way that will influence what you want to do next year in your class.

2. Read a book that is different from what you would normally choose51K5VnpM1PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Great teachers get ideas for their classes from disparate sources. At least once this summer, put this in to practice by finding a book that you would normally not read.  Here is a short list of oldies, newies, and goodies:

  • Nisid Hajari’s – Midnight’s Furies
  • Italo Calvino’s – If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller
  • Amy Krouse Rosenthal – An Encyclopedia Of An Ordinary Life
  • Patricia Madsen’s – Improv Wisdom
  • William Upski Wimsatt’s – Bomb The Suburbs
  • Sasha Abramsky’s – The House Of Twenty Thousand Books
  • Jessica Abel’s – Out On The Wire: The Storytelling Secrets Of The New Masters Of Radio
  • Joy Williams’ – The Visiting Privilege
  • Marlon James’ – A Brief History of Seven Killings

dsc063503. Make a new friend

Wow! Does this get harder as I get older! What I love about this idea is that it pushes us to get out there in the world and into spaces where other people are – bars, museums, races, wineries, parks, concerts- so it is a double whammy. Making a new friend again, pushes us to use “muscles” that may have atrophied and will be put to really good use when you warmly greet your new class(es) of students come fall. Plus, new friends open up new worlds to us. Worlds that will find their way into our classrooms.

4. Take napsnapping+in+a+monet+landscape+detail

Do I even need to mention this one? Naps are so important. You have lost sleep over this past school year. While the science is out about whether you can actually ever make up that sleep, naps are always a good thing. Naps give your body a chance to recharge and your brain a chance to process and imprint experiences. In fact, our brain is the most active while we sleep! Never feel ashamed about taking a nap!

5. Write a letter to one of your former teachers

Summer is the perfect time to look up one of your teachers and reconnect. Share with him or her what you are up to and how much you appreciate what they did for you. To make this an even better experience, why not go and visit the teacher if you can? Take her or him out for coffee or lunch. Spend some time talking about ideas that you have for your classes. See what your former teacher thinks. If your former teacher is still teaching, what about striking up a partnership and connect your two classes/schools? William Upski Wimsatt says that we need to “water (our) mentors.” This is one of those times.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA6. Keep a journal

If you haven’t done it before, now is the time to do it. And don’t make a big deal about it. Journals can take many different forms. The great thing about keeping a journal as a teacher is that it is a conduit for all of the ideas that are in your head, and it allows you to practice what you want your students to be doing as well. I have this image in my head of teachers all over the country coming back in the fall with the journals they kept this summer as models for the kind of journal writing they would like their students to be practicing.

Journal writing should be fun, surprising, low-stakes, and personal. It is important that you make a commitment to it because the benefits of journal writing come from developing it into a practice. If you only do it once in a while, you will never truly realize its potential. I would recommend starting by literally setting a timer each day. Start by writing for ten minutes. If the timer goes off and you want to keep going, keep going, but be satisfied with writing for ten minutes. Then, as you develop this writerly muscle, extend the time. You may get to the point by the end of the summer where you no longer need the time as a prompt.

Here are some really fantastic journal ideas from Bernadette Mayer, a great contemporary poet/writer. You may want to try out these journal ideas out with your students too!

7. Try something out of your comfort zoneleap3

This one may be a bit redundant, particularly if any of these other ideas already do the job, but it is worth mentioning. While summer is definitely a time for familiar rituals and routines, it is also an important time to take risks…particularly as a teacher. Teaching at its heart is a creative endeavor. The teacher’s job is to design meaningful, interesting, challenging, and joyful learning experiences for and with students. This means that we must embrace the unknown, the unusual, and the new. Truly inspiring learning comes from taking a deep dive into new territory with both mind and body.

8. Say Yes And for a whole day

Here’s a way to put the last idea into practice. Come to think of it, you would need to say Yes And to do any of the ideas in this post. It comes from the world of improv. In improvisational theater, actors are encouraged to always accept and build on the offers of their co-actors. When we say Yes And, opportunities open up, people are drawn to us, problems are solved, and we strengthen connections. For one day this summer, put this principle into practice. Spend an entire day saying Yes And to your friends, your family…anyone you run into really. Note that I am not suggesting that you only say Yes. The And is incredibly important in this equation. The And allows you to accept the offer of the other person and build on it. See what happens. This will be excellent practice for when you start the new year with your students. Go here for a post I wrote on the power of Yes And in teaching and learning.

void-of-silence9. Make one day a week a no-connection day

I am amazed at how powerful of a distraction my computer, phone, or tablet is. Just when I feel like I am being productive, Facebook, Twitter, Footytube, Netflix or a whole host of other sites pulls me away with incredible ease. It is insidious and kind of frightening actually. And the amount of time it can suck away! Hours just evaporate like they never even existed. And the end result of it for me is wondering what just happened. No lasting impressions. No meaningful experiences. A void.

Ok, I may be being a bit hyperbolic, but there is truth in what I say. So, for one day a week this summer, put the electronic time-sucks away, out of site and out of mind. Open yourself up to the sites, sounds, and information that is around you in people, places, and things. You’ll find that time changes, intriguing thoughts enter, and opportunities emerge. Distraction is the scourge of contemporary life and is particularly dangerous for teachers. It’s dangerous because in the moment it feels good and right, but in the long run, it fritters away a priceless commodity – time – and narrows our perception of what reality is. Don’t let that happen this summer.

10. Invite a colleague to plan a unit together

I would recommend doing this last one after you have put a number of the ideas above into practice. Now your mind is nimble, your body is rested. You are ready to jump back into being the creative curriculum designer that you are. Redesigning curriculum shouldn’t be an individualistic exercise. Bring a colleague or friend into the mix. Your friend or colleague can help you figure out how to overcome a seemingly insurmountable issue or can ask just the question you needed to be asked to figure out how to implement an excellent idea that you have.

When doing this kind of creative work, don’t forget to implement the ethic of Yes And. All curriculum ideas are great ideas. They just need to be massaged, played with, thrown around, and crafted to be brought down to the ground and implemented. Employing the Yes And allows you to do the tinkering needed to polish the rough idea to a high sheen.

There you go! Ten ideas for how to throughly embrace the summer as a teacher. Do you have other ways? Comment below to add them to the mix. I wish all of you a fantastic summer filled with enriching experiences, amazing naps, and intriguing ideas!

How To Put The Learning To Work, Part 5: Rememberance of things past

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rearview

Wouldn’t it be great to give your students the chance to revisit who they were as a writer as a way of developing an understanding of who they have become? Wouldn’t it be cool to connect writing work that they have done the year before with the writing work that you have done with them? How can we design an end of year piece that enables students to witness their own growth over time? Here’s an idea for how to make that kind of end of year, meaningful work happen.

This culminating activity idea will take a bit of forethought and planning, requiring that your students have access to writing that they did the year before, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. You could accomplish this requirement by either working with your students previous year’s teacher to make sure that they hold on to a particular piece of writing from that year, or ask your students to find a piece of writing that they did the year before. The second option is a bit risky, I know, but it would be interesting to see if your students held on to writing they did last year of their own volition. The key is that they are able to find a “finished” piece of writing that they did they year before.

Once your students have found a piece of writing that they did in the previous year, have them choose a piece that they wrote this year of which they are particularly proud. Now they have two pieces of writing – one from the year before and one from their year with you. Have them compare the two pieces of writing in a semi-structured thought piece guided by a few critical questions. Introduce the questions with something like:

We have been exploring what it means to be writers together this year – what it looks, sounds, and feels like. Let’s honor that work by taking a little time to recognize how much you have grown and changed as a writer over this year. To do that, read the two pieces that you have chosen – one from last year and one from this year. Then, use the following questions to help guide your reflection. As always, work to fill the page.

  • What surprises you when you compare the two pieces?

  • How would you describe your voice in the two pieces? How has it changed?

  • What are some other ways you have changed as a writer?

  • What does this work make you want to focus on in your writing moving forward?

This culminating activity provides your students with a chance to see for themselves how they have changed as a writer over the course of the year, does the important work of connecting who they are across grades, and encourages them to read their own writing deeply and critically. Do not grade this thought piece. It’s more important than that. Making this piece an evaluation-free zone, opens up the possibility for truthful, genuine reflection which ultimately leads to enduring learning. I would also recommend giving your students a chance to share what they learned with a partner, not necessarily reading their thought piece aloud but instead sharing what they learned in the process, maybe guided by one simple question: What surprised you?

Plan to have your students complete this assignment with enough time for you to respond to it before the end of the year.

As always, I would love to see examples of these. If you choose to do this kind of end of year writing, please share it with me.

Modification: If having your students find a piece of writing from last year seems a bit daunting, have them select a piece of writing from the beginning of the year and the end of the year with you.

Extension: Give these thought pieces to next year’s teachers so that they have a sense of how their incoming students think of themselves as writers.

 

12 Essential Questions for Designing a Writing-Based Curriculum

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When designing your class to truly position yourself and your students as readers, writers, and thinkers, have these questions in mind.

  1. How am I living a writing life with my students?
  2. What are all of the different kinds of writers that I am being with my students over the course of the year?
  3. How are we writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively?
  4. What skills and concepts are we developing through the writing?
  5. How does the writing work culminate into meaningful, real-world products?
  6. How is coaching and mentoring part of the writing work?
  7. How does the writing work build and grow over time?
  8. How is writing work, reading work?
  9. How is writing a source of play?
  10. How am I connecting my students to other writers?
  11. What resources do we have at our disposal to support the writing-based work?
  12. How are we evaluating writing in ways that gets at the craft of the writing and that reveals and builds off of the strong moves that my students are making in their writing?

How To Put The Learning To Work Part 4: Transform The Classroom Into A Gallery

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art gallery

Over the past week, I’ve been sharing some ideas for how to end the year meaningfully with your students. The goal has been to design interesting ways for students to resee and remember the learning that happened. The first post suggested having students remix their work to see it again in an interesting way. The second post focused on creating a self-assessment that pushes students back into the work from the year. The third post offered up several different kinds of end of year letters that teachers and students could write to look back on the work as well as look forward to next year. In this post, I explore the idea of transforming the classroom into a gallery of student work as a way to culminate the year.

Idea #4 – Create a Gallery of Your Students’ Work

When I say gallery, I’m thinking of an art gallery, a place where fine art is hung, and in this case, the fine art will be student work from the year. Imagine redesigning your classroom to resemble an art space, clearing all of the walls, making tables available for display. Ask your students, “If you had one piece of work that you did this year that you would like to share with others, what would it be?” This question will prime the pump for the piece of work that the students will eventually hang in the gallery. This gallery should be a collaborative effort. Everyone should get involved in how the gallery will look. What pieces would look good next to one another? Who needs a table or a particular place in the room? One of the things that makes this particular kind of culmination meaningful is having students take ownership of it. They should clear the walls, reorder the space, figure out a way to know what works are going where, etc. This will take a bit of time, but it will be well worth it. Plus, the whole time they are planning for the gallery, they are reminding themselves of the work that they have done over the year.

Once the students have selected what pieces they are going to display, to deepen the learning of the gallery, have your students write the equivalent of an artist statement that will accompany the work. To begin, share a model of an artist statement, maybe something like this:

artists statement

 

There are others online that are more appropriate for elementary and middle school students. To prepare the students to be able to write their own, talk about the moves the artist makes in the statement and how the students could use those moves in their own statements about the work they are displaying. Basically, a good artist’s statement does the following:

  • Shares a bit about where the piece came from. What inspired it?
  • Talks about how the piece was made. How did the person create it?
  • Discusses what the piece means to the creator and how it has affected his/her practice.

Depending on the time you have, you could have your students work on a draft of this statement and workshop it in class to really polish it up. Again, the dedication of time to this is well worth it because students will be reseeing and discussing the work that they did over the year, reinforcing the learning that happened. The day of the gallery, have your students hang their pieces of work with the statements right next to them, and a blank sheet of paper next to that for viewers to respond to the different pieces.

When the gallery is hung, prepare your students by first talking a bit about what it is like to walk through an art gallery. How do people act? I tend to highlight the fact that it is not entirely quiet in a gallery. People talk with one another in hushed tones as a way of deepening the appreciation of the work. Encourage your students to have those kinds of conversations. I would also stress that the goal is not to make it around to all of the work. That would be impossible. It is much better for students to spend the time really looking at a few pieces than trying to look at all of them superficially. When it comes to the comment page, coach your students to leave a comment about something that surprises or interests them about the piece. Point out something specific in the piece that stands out to them. Most importantly, do not repeat something that has already been written, and do not leave a comment like “this is really good.” Depending on where your students are with this kind of commenting work, you may want to develop a few examples of strong comments with them and put them up on the board for reference.

Then, let them go to town! Walk around with them. Get involved in real work conversations. Enjoy reliving all of the great work that happened throughout the year. Oh, and by all means invite others! Invite last year’s teachers, next year’s teacher, administrators, parents, friends. The more the merrier! The added benefit of the gallery is welcoming others into the fantastic work that you are doing with your students.

The hope is that you have time after the gallery walk to be able to get back together as a group and debrief a bit. Ideally, you would get into a circle with your students and seed the conversation with a few questions: What does this gallery/work make you think about? What stuck out to you? What do you want to make sure I, as the teacher, don’t leave out next year? If you were to give some advice to my students next year, what would you say? You get the idea.

Take pictures of this event. It will be worth it. And send a few to me if you get the chance. I would love to see them.

How To Put The Learning To Work Part 3: Writing An End Of Year Letter

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letters2

In the first end of year post, I wrote about having students remix their work in order to resee it and remember it. In the second post, I explored the idea of designing an end of year reflection that plunges students back into their work from the year and encourages them to critically think about it with an eye towards what happens next. In this post, we’ll play around with the idea of letter writing as a way to culminate the year.

Idea #3: Writing An End of Year Letter

There are a few different kinds of letters that I suggest would be useful in bringing the year to a meaningful close: teacher to student, student to self, and student to next year’s teacher.

Letters are great because they are personal. They are different from emails. They stretch time. They open spaces to be honest. The physicality of them makes the receiver want to keep them. Letters are like gifts. You look forward to opening them. Often we’ll read them, or part of them, more than once. Letters also push the writer to think carefully before writing because the audience is immediate. For all of these reasons, letter writing is a great way to end the year.

Write a letter to your students

The kind of end of year letter that probably comes first to mind is the letter from the teacher to the student. This may seem daunting at first, particularly if you have 150 students! Let’s look first at the kind of letter you can write if your student load is more manageable. If you have a class of 26, you can write individual letters to the students. They don’t have to be long, but make sure that you are specific to each student. Highlight a specific aspect of their work that you think was particularly strong. Reveal a way that they were in the class that contributed to the success of the whole. These letters are a time for celebrating great work and for pushing students to keep going in that direction. I would end the letter with exactly that kind of push. Help each of your students see what could possibly happen next for them. Finally, it would be nice to leave them with a quote that you think is particularly relevant. Maybe the whole class gets the quote in their letters. Maybe it is a quote that has become part of the ritual of the class over the course of the year so that when the students read the quote in their letters, it reminds them of the class.

If you have 150 students or more, I would still write a letter, but it would be one letter to the class as a whole. I would still make it personal by pointing about specific things that the students did that made the class meaningful, interesting, and fun. I would include a quote, and I would address the letter individually to each student, placing it in an envelop for each student. Envelops are key. The students have to be able to open the letters up. That is part of the specialness of it.

Have your students write letters to their future selves

This is a great idea. Has a bit of the time capsule element to it. In this case, have your students write letters to their future selves. Let them know that you will hold on to these letters until they graduate from high school. Make sure they include their address on the envelop that you provide for them just in case they leave the school. I know that this does not guarantee that the letter will make it to them, but it is a step in the right direction.

In terms of the letter, coach them on what they could write by asking a few questions:

  • What would you want to say to your future self?
  • What about this year would you want to remember?
  • What are things that are important to you now?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What do you wish could change?

The foil of the future self really helps free the writer to say things they normally wouldn’t say. Once they have written the letters, have them seal them in an envelope, addressed to themselves, and hold on to them. Hand them back the day of graduation or shortly before or after and see what happens.

Have your students write a letter to next year’s teacher

What a wonderful opportunity – the chance to share a bit of oneself with next year’s teacher. For this form of letter, I would introduce it to the students by asking the question, “If you had a chance to write a letter to your teacher next year, what would you want to say?” This question would hopefully open up a pretty interesting conversation that would then prime the pump for the letters themselves. Tell the students that this is a chance to share a bit about yourself, about the work that you have done, and about what you would love to be able to do next year. Questions that they might want to address in the letter:

  • What work have you done that you are particularly proud of? Why?
  • What are some questions you have about next year?
  • What do you really hope you get to do next year in class?
  • What is something that you would like to get better at?

For younger students, this kind of letter is a great way to work on learning the form of a proper letter. For all students, this kind of letter provides an unusual opportunity to make initial contact with next year’s teacher in a meaningful way. All letters should be placed in envelopes and addressed to the teacher(s). Who knows, maybe the teacher(s) that receive(s) it will either respond back over the summer and/or in the way they design the following year.

How to put the learning to work part 2: The End of Year Reflection

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Idea #2: The Summative Reflection

These few posts focus on how to bring the school year to a close in a meaningful and interesting way that also, most importantly, deepens the learning. The first post explored using the form of the Cento Poem to push students back into their work over the year and to remix it in a creative way. Go here to see how to make that happen in your classroom. In this post, I open up the idea of having students do a summative reflection at the end of the year to remind themselves of what they did, highlight particular strengths in that work, analyze areas for growth, and plan for what they would like to do next.

The summative reflection that I am going to share with you is connected to a portfolio, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is to identify questions that you want your students to address that give them the chance to do the following:

  • Take stock of what they have done over the year. Often times, learning is designed in such a way that it is easy to forget. Quizzes and tests are taken and then thrown away. Books are read and not revisited. Notes are taken, put to use once, and then not used again. The summative reflection gives students the chance to go back through that work, whether it is for the year, the semester, or the quarter and remind themselves of what they have done. This is an essential first step in reflecting on one’s work.
  • Identify work that they think is particularly strong. Students need to develop the ability to think critically about their own work and to recognize when they have done something well and why. Chances are, if they can do that, they will repeat the kind of work over time.
  • Think about what they could do differently. It isn’t enough just to praise oneself for particularly strong work. Students also need to be able to be honest with themselves and point out particular work or a skill that could be improved. They then need space to think in writing about that and come up with a plan for how to improve.
  • Project forward. Learning should not happen in prescribed time allotments. Learning should also not happen in siloed classes. Real, enduring learning is connected across time, across classes, across subjects. Students need a space at the end of the year to be able to write about what they want to do next with what they have learned. This summative reflection helps them do that.

Semester Reflection

Click the image to see the Summative Reflection

Ideally, a shorter, targeted form of this kind of reflection would be happening throughout the year so that students would be skilled in this metacognitive practice. If you are interested in that, click here to see my form of a weekly audit. But, even if that isn’t happening, the end of the year reflection is worth doing. To set it up, the last week of your classes, introduce the idea to your students. Take the template I have provided, manipulate it to fit your context, and hand it out. Give them the week to do it. Encourage them to take their time. Have this be the last piece of work that they do for the year.

I have my students send it to me electronically. It is a lot of emails, but I can respond more quickly. Plus, I want to make sure that they get it back. In terms of feedback, I approach it like a conversation. I either track changes or use the comment tab to ask questions, highlight really interesting things, connect them to resources, and encourage them to make something happen. I have my coach’s hat on when I do this. The feedback is always constructive and encouraging. When it comes to grading these, I normally do not grade them. I tell them that this final piece of work is more important than a grade. Teachers often question whether students will turn it in if there isn’t a grade. When I have established a culture of reflecting over time in this way, and my students are receiving regular feedback from me, it is very rare that a student does not turn it in. Even if you have not been having your students reflect on their work over the year, I think you will be surprised by the number of students who will turn it in even if it is not graded. But, if you want to grade it, I would tell the students that they receive an A for this assignment if they turn it in. If they don’t, they fail the assignment. Enough said.

This summative reflection is not only important for students, it is also important for you, the teacher. It provides a great window into the year, the semester, or the unit, depending on how you frame it. You will get ideas for how you might design next year. And, maybe most importantly, they are going to make you feel good about yourself and about your teaching. I can’t emphasize this enough. Teaching is tough, challenging work. It is crucial to design some kind of vehicle in your class to receive positive feedback. Without joy, we don’t have the energy to overcome the challenges.

How to put the learning to work, part 1: End of Year Ideas for Reflecting on and Reinforcing Learning

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remix (1)

As the school year draws to a close, it is really important to think about how to design a quality ending for both you and your students. What kind of work can you do to end the year in a meaningful and enduring way? The end of the year is a time for taking stock of the work that has been done, thinking critically about it, acknowledging accomplishments, and planning for what needs to happen next. Here are some ideas for how to make all of that happen in the last few weeks of the school year. We’ll start with the Cento.

Idea #1: The Cento

Remember that one of the goals of the end of the year should be to push students back into the work that they have done, remind them of that work, and have them resee it in new ways to reinforce the learning. You want them to think and act in divergent and convergent ways when it comes to the learning that they did earlier in the year as well as remind themselves of what they did and why. This helps the skills and conceptual understanding stick in their brains. The Cento is a creative way to do just that. The Cento is a form of poetry that is completely made up of lines taken from other poems. There is a long and rich history of this kind of work. Here is an interesting example from Simone Muench:simone muench

Wolf Cento

Very quick. Very intense, like a wolf

at a live heart, the sun breaks down.

What is important is to avoid

the time allotted for disavowels

as the livid wound

leaves a trace      leaves an abscess

takes its contraction for those clouds

that dip thunder & vanish

like rose leaves in closed jars.

Age approaches, slowly. But it cannot

crystal bone into thin air.

The small hours open their wounds for me.

This is a woman’s confession:

I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me.

Sources: [Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, Larry Levis, Ingeborg Bachmann, Octavio Paz, Henri Michaux, Agnes Nemes Nagy, Joyce Mansour, William Burroughs, Meret Oppenheim, Mary Low, Adrienne Rich, Carl Sandburg]

In order to make this poem, Muench rooted around in the writings of the poets above and pulled lines that she liked and that she thought meshed well together. The Cento is a wonderful experiment for close reading and writing, strategic thinking, and play. And that is exactly what you want your students to do with the work that they have done over the course of a quarter, a semester, or even a year.

To set it up, share with your students the idea of a Cento poem. Show them Muenche’s example or create one on your own. Talk a bit together about what you notice, how it works, etc. Then, challenge them to go back into their own work from the quarter, the semester, or the year, and create their own Cento poem out of found lines from their work. You can decide the level of constraint that you want to put on this project. You could limit the work to the creative writing that they have done, or maybe you want them to pull lines from the essays they have written, or maybe you want to open it up to everything (creative writing, essays, notes, etc.). You might want to figure out the constraint with the students. Ask them, “What work should we dig back into to make our own Cento poems? And remember, a Cento poem does not need to be created out of other poems. It can be created out of all kinds of found texts. In fact, the more diverse the texts, the better!

Give them several days to do it. It would be a really good thing to actually do in the classroom. I like the image of students with their work sprawled out on their desks or on the floor, digging through it, finding lines that they like. As they do this process, make sure to tell them to keep track of where the lines are coming from so that they can reference them at the end of the poem – footnoting their own work if you will. This requirement sets up a really nice opportunity to talk about how to cite one’s own work.

I would encourage your students to make the poem a half a page to a page long, depending on the amount of work and the developmental level of the students. You want it to be long enough so that the students have enough space to really play around with the material, but not too long so that it becomes tedious rather than challenging. Urge them to think about the following:

  • Line length – make sure to vary it so the poem looks interesting on the page
  • How can you link the lines together so that the poem reads like a unified idea coming from many different sources?
  • How many different sources can you use?
  • Variety of material – try to pick a phrase from one source, a single word from another, etc.
  • Have fun with mashing found phrases and words together to create new meanings.

When they have completed the poem, make sure that they have a chance to share it either with the whole class, in small groups, or in pairs. You might want to collect them and publish them in an anthology. This could start a ritual in your class where your students always publish their work Centos at the end of the year. Over time, you could have a shelf filled with Cento anthologies that your present students can look through. Another idea is to hang them up around the room, gallery style, and have your students and invited guests walk around and read them.

One final reason why I love this idea is because it reinforces for students the idea that the work that we do is malleable and organic. It can transform into other things, other forms. Turning their work into a Cento poem encourages them to always see their work as useful, interesting, and filled with the possibility of becoming something else.

Key Teaching Moves to Make in Differentiating an English Classroom

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Johanna class

Firstly, all classes need to be differentiated. To think that 25 to 30 students in a room are all going to learn the same way, or be in the same place in terms of understanding, doing your bidding, feels kind of Russia 1919 or Germany 1939. Think of differentiation as tapping into the skills and conceptual knowledge that students do have and building from there, not in an effort to get everyone to the same place, but to challenge students to evolve as readers, writers, and thinkers. And remember, we get better at what we do through consistent, mindful practice.

It all starts with relationships

  • Get to know your students – find them interesting and compelling people

  • Let them get to know you as the interesting and compelling person that you are

  • Design ways for the students to get to know each other as people, NOT just as students

  • Have them get together in groups just to get to know each other, not to do school work

  • Idea: Start the year with a questionnaire that gives you a glimpse into their lives. Ask questions that can be ways into interesting work that you can do together. Share back with the students what you learned from the questionnaire. Ask them questions to get to know them even better. Design work around what you learn about them.

  • Great book to read on this: The Social Animal: Hidden Sources Of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

What about reading with students with various levels of skill?

  • Give students choice! – Not all students need to read the same book

  • Idea: Scale the reading so that you can get to where you want to go

    • Start with students bringing in their own books to read – have them connect the books to a big idea you are exploring in a unit

    • Move to small (self-selected?) reading groups around a selection of books

    • Move to one book read by the whole class

  • The “level” of book does not necessarily determine how sophisticated you can get with it

  • Great book to read on this: Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading And What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher.

How can I write with students with various levels of skill?

  • Choose models that are accessible on multiple levels

  • Idea: Start the year with flash fiction or poetry

  • Establish authentic writing opportunities

  • Design project-based work where the outcome can be achieved in multiple ways

  • Idea: Write with your students

  • Let the writing tell you what skills need to be developed – find the pattern and push students back into the writing to work on it

  • The more we write, the better we get at it

  • Have students write reflectively, creatively, and analytically

  • Coach practice

  • Great books to read on this: Inside Out: Strategies For Teaching Reading by Dan Kirby, Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow

 How do we think in a differentiated classroom?

  • Create scaffolds to support students figuring out how to take on a challenge

  • Idea: Develop strategies for approaching the work – have them prominently displayed in the classroom

  • Let the answers to these questions guide the work:

    • When do we know that we have done something well?

    • What is the first step in taking on a challenge?

    • Who can you go to to get feedback/help?

    • What will make this project interesting for you?

    • How do you know when you are learning?

    • How do you know when you are working hard?

    • Why would we want to work hard?

  • Let students flounder….for a bit

  • Look for patterns that guide you in terms of when to step in

  • See if they are able to work their way out of it

  • If not, establish scaffolds through talking with them. Push them to figure out for themselves what they need to do to be successful

  • Idea: Build in a reflective writing component to each project where the students articulate what the strengths are in the project and where the areas for growth exist. Have them discuss how they are going to get stronger in the areas for growth

  • Idea: The Reading Specialists and Special Education Teachers are your friends, your allies, your partners – work with them. Tap their knowledge. Have them come into your class. Plan with them.

  • Great books to read on this: Mindset by Carol Dweck, Brain Rules by John Medina, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyne, Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins

 What about grading/evaluation?

  • Have high expectations and make sure to coach practice

  • Have an evaluation system that enables you to see growth over time

  • Grading of products should be based on quality of the work, not on tasks accomplished

  • Grading of process should be on how well students took advantage of the project

  • Not everyone needs to earn an A to be validated. Be honest in terms of where they are and where they need to go

  • Allow them to make mistakes

  • Evaluate process and product

  • Great book to read on this: Authentic Assessments for the English Classroom by Joann Dolgin

 Overall, what does work look like?

  • Create authentic challenges that enable students to enter where they are – authenticity enables students to use the real-world skill and intelligence that they have and bring it to bear in the classroom to build the academic skills you want

  • Determine the edge of competency for your students and hold them there

  • Model work and learning yourself

  • Diversify groups – homogeneity kills idea generation and doesn’t encourage people to work at the top of their intelligences

  • Make sure that there is a metacognitive approach to the work

  • Design conversations and reflective work around the how and why of what you are doing

  • Idea: incorporate some form of an audit into the learning. See here for an example. 

  • Great books to read on this: I won’t Learn From You: And Other thoughts On Maladjustment by Herbert Kohl, Improv Wisdom by Patricia Madson, Impro by Keith Johnstone, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks

We take small steps in developing skill and conceptual knowledge. It happens over time.

Hack the Olympic Creed with your Students: The Art of the Cut-Up

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ski jump

If you are like me, you’re always looking for a way to bring the here and now into your class in as creative and interesting a way as possible. So what to do with the Olympics? Here’s a great writing (and reading) experiment that will have your students looking at the Olympics and the meaning behind the Olympics in a whole new way.

Take the Olympic Creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Paste it into a document and blow the creed up to 24 or so point so that you can really see it. Something like this:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Make enough copies of the creed so that a group of four or so in your class can use it: e.g. 24 in a class, make six copies. Cut out each word so that it is independent. Put the individually cut up words for one creed into each envelop.

The next day, get your students into the requisite number of groups, and hand out the envelope to each group. Tell them that the challenge is to use these words, and only these words, to create a poem. The only other constraint is that they must use all of the words. The way that they construct the poem is completely up to them. They may add punctuation.

IMPORTANT: when describing the challenge, do not show them the original Olympic Creed! If you do that, it will suck all of the creativity out of this experiment. Another important point: the goal is not for the groups to try to recreate the creed in the exact original wording. Instead, the students are using the words like material, like paint, to create a whole new work of art, a la Gertrude Stein.Gertrude Stein-996e11046cc60620a5e89c3a4491d5222249be35-s6-c30

Depending on the age of your students, give them 15, maybe twenty minutes, to mess around with the words and to create the poem. When I tried this, I took a good half an hour, so this could be a good use of an entire period. The amount of time that you dedicate to it will determine the kinds of poems that are produced. Less time: probably more abstract. More time: probably more narrative in form. Any time spent is well worth it. This experiment encourages your students to think and act strategically, carefully reading the words and critically thinking about the meaning that they want to create by connecting the words to each other. They will also come to appreciate how many different ways they can use the same word, particularly prepositions, articles, and conjunctions. Not only that, they are also honing their skills of interpretation and persuasiveness by working as a group to make their poem happen. While your students are creating their poems out of the found material, sit back and enjoy listening to and watching the divergent and convergent thinking that goes on.

Once the students feel that they have their poems constructed, have them write them down on pieces of paper, exactly the way that they look on the tables. While they are doing that, you might want to go around and take pictures of each poem in its cut-up form. There is something aesthetically interesting in the way in which the cut out words look pieced together on the table. Give them a chance to read it one more time out loud to their group so that they have it in their head.

Then, reveal the original creed on your smart board or written on the blackboard or handed out on a different sheet of paper to each group. Tell them that this is the original Olympic Creed. You can even use the moment to share the story with them about how the Olympic Creed came to be:

coubertinPierre de Coubertin got the idea for the phrase adopted as the Olympic Creed from a speech given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games.

Not much of a story, but it is always good to know where something comes from.

The comparing of the original Olympic Creed and the cut-up versions that the students do should create a very interesting conversation. What is the difference between the original and the new versions? What do we notice about the way the original creed is written? What new meanings are created in the new versions? What do we see differently in the original creed because of our cut-ups? Which do we like better? You get the idea.

For the coup de grace, Have the students type up their cut-up versions with a title and the names of all who contributed to it, and then create a gallery in your room or in the hallway outside of your room where you display the original Olympic Creed and then all of your students’ versions to invite folks to see the Olympics in a new and refreshing way.

This writing and reading experiment is beautifully simple and wonderfully deep in terms of the literacy skill development and learning that happens. As noted above, through this writing game, similar to Burrough’s cut-ups or Tristan Tzara’s Tzara’s Hat, your students will scrutinize individual words, interpret word pairings for below surface meanings, read what they put together many many times, work to convince others that their construction is the best, surprise themselves with what happens when seemingly disparate words are connected, and be ruthless in their editing. When they see the original creed, they will then be encouraged to do some pretty sophisticated comparing and contrasting. They will revisit their own piece and evaluate it for its effectiveness, its uniqueness. They will also come to appreciate how words and phrases can have multiple meanings, depending on how you use them.burroughs&Typewriter(1)

If you give this a shot with your students, please leave a comment and let me know how it goes. Better yet, leave me a comment and share one of the poems created. I’d love to see it. Here is a version I came up with:

But well-conquered Olympic struggle?

Not important

But is the most essential triumph fought to win?

Not important

Take the life games

as not just to have

the most in the thing

But have

the thing in part is

the is