Weekends without school work? Is it actually possible?

Yes! It IS possible to have weekends without school work.

We’re several weeks into second semester, and somehow I’ve succeeded in not having to do any school work on the weekends.

(Except for reading the books I teach. That I have still been doing on the weekends as needed. But I really don’t consider that work so much…)

This is revolutionary for me. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t have the shadow of papers to read invading every single school-year weekend.

Yes, my students are still writing and I’m still reading their writing and responding. No, things aren’t piling up. I’m keeping up with the work.

This all came about as a matter of necessity. I have a book deadline coming up, and I need to make progress week by week. I need huge chunks of time to write, and I have those blocks of the time only on the weekends.

So I had to find some way to free up my weekends for that work.

This is my 22nd year teaching. Funny how I’m still learning things that I should have figured out years ago.

Here’s what I’ve figured out:

ONE: I’m in control of when my students turn work in.

If I’m slammed with a bunch of work at once, it’s MY fault. I know that I get overwhelmed when I have more than one class worth of papers to review at any given moment, so now I work to keep this from happening.

For years, when I’ve voiced exasperation to my brother (a truth teller in my life as a sibling often is) about how much student work I have to get through, he has said, “well, who gave them the work?” HA! I would think. My students need to write and there’s no way around that.

That is true. But I ALSO have way more control over what I collect from them and when I collect it than I realized. I can control the flow of work I need to look at if I am more intentional about it.

Here’s another thing I’ve recently figured out: if I know my evening time will be compromised (like as it was last week for two nights in a row of parent/teacher conferences), I can plan to NOT collect anything from my students on those days. I’m trying to avoid the work stacking up.

If I won’t have my usual time to read and respond to their work, then I won’t collect it.

This means maybe students will take a week off from the normal routine, and they’ll appreciate that. This means maybe students will still do the work, but I won’t look at it. This is okay at times too! This means maybe students will do the work, but they’ll share it with each other instead of turning it in to me.

TWO: I can set due dates that are not only reasonable for me, but reasonable for my students.

I do not set due dates over a weekend. I won’t look at the work anyhow, so why collect it then? Whenever possible, I avoid Monday-at-school due dates too and stick to Monday evenings through Thursdays as due dates for my students to turn work in.

I also avoid 11:59pm as a deadline–why on earth would I want to encourage my students to be up working on stuff for my class at midnight? Sure, they can turn it in earlier, but remember what it was like being a teenager? Were you more likely to leave it until the last minute or turn it in early?

I can encourage healthier study habits by giving my students reasonable deadlines that don’t encourage them to be working when they should be sleeping (or weekending–they need time away from school too!).

I didn’t see a lot of this until my own kid hit high school. I have found myself annoyed when she has to turn something in by 6pm on Sunday, for instance. We might be in the middle of a Sunday evening family dinner and she dashes off to get something done. Of course she could have turned it in ahead of time, but the deadline could have been at a different time as well so that it didn’t even suggest the possibility that she might have to duck out of a family dinner to do school work.

THREE: I have narrowed down what it is that I actually look at and respond to.

My students need to write far more than I’m able to handle on my own.

It’s okay if much of the work my students do gets a quick glance from me and that’s all.

I spend my thorough feedback energy where it matters most–on the work my students will revise and keep working on so I know my feedback efforts aren’t wasted.

FOUR: I can stagger when students turn things in.

This year, I teach two sections of AP Lit, two sections of our non-AP/IB senior language arts class, and one section of journalism (I advise the school newspaper).

My senior LA students turn in a draft every week. I used to schedule their weekly drafts due on Fridays, leaving me two stacks of drafts to get through over the weekend.

Now I collect the weekly drafts on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Due to our modified block schedule, I see one of these classes on Wednesday, and the other one on Thursday. I can easily get through one class worth of weekly drafts in about an hour. So what I collect on Wednesday afternoons, I return on Wednesday evenings. What I collect on Thursday afternoons, I return on Thursday evenings. Students get their work back from me quickly, and I roll into the weekend with no weekly drafts to look at.

More staggering: my AP Lit students do timed writes every other week along with peer feedback. I make notes in the gradebook about what comes up in the peer feedback and glance over their timed writes to get a sense of how things are going, but I don’t do feedback on these.

My students do choose one timed write to revise with me, back and forth, until we decide they’ve learned what they can with it. These take me a while. When I collect two classes worth of these at once, I feel like I will never get them done.

So this semester, I made a schedule where I collected these from a third of each class last week. Another third of each class next week. And the last third of each class two weeks after that. On the days I’m collecting these, I get no more than six total (three from each class). I can handle six of these in an evening. Easy.

So far, I’m returning these to students usually the day they turn them in (or the next day). They’re getting immediate feedback. But the best thing is that I don’t feel overwhelmed.

I also advise newspaper. I use the off period I have before that class meets to read and respond to anything I need to for that particular day.

FIVE: I block out time each week for ongoing curriculum planning.

Due to our modified block schedule, I have the longest chunks of time for prep on Wednesdays–so I reserve my off-periods on Wednesdays for planning all of my curriculum for the following week.

I make my plan for the the week and post it to my Google Classroom pages. I pull together/create all the materials necessary too. This keeps me always planned ahead of time, always thinking ahead, always ready to go. And NOT having to do my lesson planning every single day–just once per week. Of course I make adjustments as I go, but this takes only bits of time. I get the bulk of the planning done once per week.

SIX: I set rules for myself and honor them. 

Curriculum planning always gets done on Wednesdays at school. If for some reason I don’t finish it at school, I must finish it that evening.

In the evenings, I respond to all student work that came in that day (now that I’ve staggered when it comes in, I can almost always accomplish this!).

I don’t collect anything on Fridays so I don’t have any work staring me down over the weekend.

I don’t do school work on Sunday evenings. My lessons for the week are already planned. I can catch up on any student work that comes in over the weekend on Monday.

SEVEN: I get serious about off-periods at school.

I aim to use my off periods as efficiently as possible.

A screenshot of the google keep note that is my on-going to do list.

A few moments of goal setting while I’m eating my breakfast helps. A running to-do list on a Google Keep note helps. I love that I can access my Google Keep notes on my phone or my computer. Daily goals about what I want to accomplish help me to keep focused, and that makes me much better at using my off-periods at school effectively.

And if what I need to do on an off period is work through a stack of student papers, it’s okay for me to hide out somewhere in the school where people can’t find me to get this work done. I love the people I work with, and I love talking to them. Usually I can work with them nearby and get my tasks completed on my off periods.

But sometimes I need no distractions, no conversation, no on-the-fly collaboration discussions because I just have to get through some student writing. I’ll take my computer and hide out in a corner of the school library and get the work done.

EIGHT: I quit social media.

Okay, not totally. But I did delete my Facebook account last year. I deleted my Snapchat account over the holidays. And I haven’t looked at Instagram for several weeks (and I will be deleting that account soon, too).

All I have left is Twitter, which I value for the professional connections it makes possible. But I control the time I spend there.

The time I’ve gotten back because I’m not endlessly scrolling through social media feeds has helped me to keep on top of my school work during the week.

I did add the NYTimes crossword app to my life, and I enjoy distracting myself with that every day for a bit. But this is so much better for my brain than the endless scrolling that I used to find myself doing on social media.

NINE: Exercise and sleep.

I get some sort of exercise 6 days per week. Walking, running, hiking, or yoga. I plan ahead and work my plan. Exercise helps my mood and my thinking. I’m a better human when I make the time to exercise.

I’m a night owl and love staying up into the wee hours but it doesn’t work well with how early I have to get up on school days. So I need to get myself to bed sometime between 10 and 11.

This means there are times I don’t get all the student writing read and responded to, but that’s when I get super focused on my off periods the next day to get the work done.

A typical Mon-Thurs afternoon/evening for me is home by 4ish, exercise and dinner done by 6/7ish, family homework time by 7ish (my husband is also a teacher and, as indicated earlier, my daughter is in high school. We all have homework pretty much every day).

If my school work is done before I need to go to bed, I’ll read a book–or write something. Without being able to waste time on social media because I’m not on social media anymore, I’ve found I actually have more pockets of such time on my week night evenings. I mean look at me, I’m writing a blog post on a Wednesday!) (and I’ve already read 12 books for 2019…)

TEN: Be kind to myself when things don’t go as planned.

Things come up. Life feels out of my control. Time slips away that I thought I was going to have. I just have to make a new plan and stay focused on getting it done.

ELEVEN: Be kind to my students when things don’t go as planned for them as well.

I work with students when life comes up and they need more time. I frequently negotiate extended due dates with individuals as needed.

I want students to feel like they have the time to do their best work. I want to help them think ahead and manage their time responsibly. I want to offer them a bit of grace when life throws curve balls at them (just as I’ve appreciated this kind of grace from others in my life).

Yes, there are times when the due date is really important for some bigger reason, but most of the time, I can be flexible.

I’m honest with my students about why and how it helps ME to manage my time and workload and life when they hit my due dates, and most of them do hit my due dates most of the time.

When they see me working hard to get their writing back to them in a timely manner, they work hard to get it to me on time (and talk to me when they can’t).

It also helps to work with colleagues who are good at setting boundaries around their school lives. Jay, for instance, is working on his second album as a singer-songwriter. He has very healthy boundaries around his school work so he has time to do that other important work. For years he’s been encouraging me to not do so much work at home–I mean they don’t actually pay us for the work we do on the weekends, right?

With some careful planning and setting some clear rules about my school work this semester, I’ve managed to (so far) leave school at school on the weekends. I’m hoping I can keep this up.

What are your tricks to manage your school work so it doesn’t take over your life?

Posted in #StopGrading, AP Lit, balancing, feedback, gratitude, making change, muddling through, not grading, planning, reflections, teaching, teaching writing, time | Leave a comment

Our Most Important Conversation: Equity

This post has been percolating for a while now, ever since I left NCTE in Houston.

Until now, all I’ve been able to cobble together so far are a few disconnected notes in my writer’s notebook:

  • I need to sit with my discomfort.
  • I’m a teacher with privilege OF privileged
  • What can I do?
  • What does it mean to be a good ally?
  • I can’t be so terrified that I’ll mess something up that I don’t even start.
  • When I don’t actively disrupt, I perpetuate.
  • I thought I got it, that I understood the issues. But I have so much to learn.

That last one is the one that’s been nagging at me most.

See, I’m writing a book right now. I’ve been working on it–with the care of a very patient, supportive, and insightful editor–for about 3 and a half years. It’s about grading practices that support readers and writers better than the typical percentage/points-based approach.

I’m writing the book to share what I’ve learned on my classroom journey over the last few years as I’ve worked to circumvent the negative impact that traditional grading was having on my students. I want to place the book meaningfully in the most important conversation we are having right now about education: equity.

My thinking about why the book matters really started coming together after seeing Cornelius Minor talk at CEL in 2017. I had this a-ha moment: grading practices are one of the many places oppression hides in schools. If we don’t actively change our grading practices, we perpetuate the grades-for-compliance exchange that organizes schooling by forcing students to work for grades, and it hurts our students. All of them.

Some students buy in to what they get in the grades-for-compliance exchange. Instead of focusing on learning, they focus on point collecting to get what they want out of the exchange–grades they can cash in for college admissions or car insurance discounts or scholarships.

Other students don’t buy in to what they get in the grades-for-compliance exchange (or the tricks of point collecting are a mystery to them). They end up with constant reminders that school is not for them because they remain, perpetually, on the bad end of the grade scale.

In neither case are students actually focusing on the important learning they need to do.

Last weekend, I finally read Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. I’ve had it since NCTE. In the chaos of the end of the semester I just didn’t get to it until now. I read it within about 36 hours in between the various tasks that filled up my last weekend of the semester break. It’s powerful pedagogy. I love his call–through what he terms “reality pedagogy”–to teach in ways that work for the kids who are sitting in front of us. He challenges us to actively seek to understand who they are and how they think and what matters to them, bringing into the classroom their culture in ways that show them that who they are matters. He offers concrete methods for doing this, and the stories from his classroom and the classrooms he’s worked with are inspiring portraits of what’s possible in classrooms across this country.

Here’s where I need to wrestle with my privilege. I’m white. I teach (and live) in a college town in Colorado with a healthy tech industry. It’s a safe place to live. I have miles of hiking trails about a ten-minute walk from my front door.

The school where I teach is also a ten-minute walk from my front door. Though Colorado’s school funding is abysmal, things are better here thanks to high property values and voters who nearly always say yes when the school district asks for funding. My district has one of the highest salary schedules in the state, which draws really strong candidates anytime we need to hire for a position.

My school is one of the best public schools in Colorado (based on test scores, high #s of national merit finalists, low #s of our students who need remedial courses in college, continual success of athletics and fine arts, and a vibrant set of extra-curricular activities). We have the books and supplies we need in general. You should see the million-dollar mountain view out of the nearly floor-to-ceiling school library windows–the heart of the school. As teachers, we have a lot of freedom from a stable administration that supports innovation. My job is pretty secure. My life is pretty secure.

This post, by Tricia Ebarvia, has helped me to identify the thinking I need to do. I’m grateful for her honest and insightful writing on this topic. She articulates things I didn’t even really realize I needed to be thinking about. Because here’s the thing: I thought I got it.

I grew up in an urban neighborhood in Denver. I went to schools with classrooms full of kids of all colors and varying socio-economic status. My family decided to move to the suburbs right before my 9th grade year, so my high school experience was in a less diverse school. By the time I was finishing up college and looking to do my student teaching semester, I chose to go back to my roots, to an urban high school, where I would be surrounded by the diversity my life had lacked since my family chose to leave the city eight years before. After that, my first three years of teaching were in a high school just outside of Seattle in a district more diverse than the schools where I’ve taught since. Even so, due to my early years of growing up in a city surrounded by diversity, I thought I got it.

But what I was missing was this: my slice of the city life during my childhood was a privileged one.

I have always been grateful that my childhood was stable, my home life secure, that I had everything I needed. My parents struggled to pay for college, but it is a privilege that I had parents who even could pay for college.

I got out of college with zero debt and the title to the car I had been driving for the previous few years. I didn’t have much money, but I was steeped in the wide-open possibilities that someone of privilege takes for granted. Yes, the idea that I could move wherever I wanted, find a place to live, and get a job was a certainty that I didn’t question.

So I took off to launch my adult life. The journey I started just a few weeks after I finished college led me through three states, two school districts, one master’s degree, and almost nine years before I made my way back home with a husband and daughter collected along the way. Rather than settling in Denver, or in the suburbs where my parents were still living, we chose the college town, and here we’ve been ever since.

I know this is an excellent place to raise a kid (strong schools, safe neighborhoods, healthy activities, easy access to healthy food), and I do not regret that this is where my daughter’s childhood memories reside. But in choosing to be HERE, throwing our money into the local economy, weaving our way into this community and fitting in to what it is, we perpetuate what it is.

I live in a mostly white community that considers itself progressive but is largely clueless about actual diversity because we don’t see much of it as we move through our lives from day to day. As such, we contribute to social stratification based on race, even within our own community.

So while I thought I got it, what I was missing was this: I have so much to learn.

I have, over the years, found myself defending my school and community from people who write both off because of the privilege people assume is there. The privilege IS there, yes. But we also have some of the challenges that more diverse communities have. In the 13 years I’ve taught in my school, our population of students of color has grown from around 15% to around 25%. Our free and reduced lunch students have grown from around 4% to around 10%. We’re adding resources we didn’t have before to support students we didn’t have before.

The changes in our student demographics are notable, but mostly, I do teach the privileged. I can keep doing what we have always done because it’s easier and it works (if our test scores are the indicator), but then I have to own the ways I’m perpetuating a system that will produce citizens who will go on to perpetuate social structures that oppress humans. As Cornelius Minor explained in his 2017 CEL keynote address, systems are like machines that keep operating until someone actively turns them off. If I don’t actively work to disrupt the way the systems of our society run, they will keep on running, and I will be complicit in that.

Back to my notes in my writer’s notebook–what can I do?

  • Educate myself. It is not the job of the people of color in my life to teach me about diversity or the need to decolonize schools or how to examine my own privilege and bias. I must do this work myself. I’m reading about it. I’m following conversations in Twitter about it. I’m attending conference presentations about it. I’m writing about it.
  • Listen. When I do find myself with an opportunity to hear from a human typically marginalized by our world about their experiences within it, I shut up and listen, even if what they say challenges the way I’ve always understood this world to be. ESPECIALLY when what they say challenges me.
  • Seek stories of others. In 2019, I will read books written by marginalized voices wherever possible. If I hope to create a classroom that disrupts the way my students move in our world so they can disrupt oppressive systems, I have to break apart/ disrupt/ problematize the understandings of our world I carry with me, one story at a time.
  • Speak up. This is the one that I know will challenge me the most. But I must, despite how terrified I am that I’ll mess something up. (There’s my privilege again–if I choose to stay silent, my life goes on as it has, safe and secure with plenty of opportunity for me and my family. Many don’t have the privilege to stay silent.) I must speak up, wherever I can, both in and out of my classroom. I love this call to be a co-conspirator rather than an ally:

Being a co-conspirator—forget “ally”—means thinking about the areas in which you have power and privilege and then actively, consistently using your voice to advocate in those areas you have power and privilege to make visible those who are marginalized. (Thread)— Tricia Ebarvia (@triciaebarvia) November 20, 2018

Friends, lives are at stake here.

Our country’s heart and soul are at stake here.

Yes, there are a lot of conversations in education that are important, but THIS one trumps all of them. I really see no point in doing any work right now as an educator that does not help us down the road toward equity in our schools as intentional work toward equity in our world.

I need to create classrooms that show my marginalized students that their voices matter. I need to create students who will use their voices to speak up for the marginalized in our world. I know that grading practices sit at the center of this because what we emphasize with our grading is what we are showing our students is most important. Competing for points to cash in for grades at any cost? Or using grades to get students focused on the literacy skills they need to hone to be full agents of their own futures?

I need to keep examining my own biases, privileges, blind spots, and misunderstandings of human experience. I need to actively seek the places where I am complicit with structures that oppress and marginalize so I know where I can resist. I need to invite my students to do this work too.

I want to close this post by pointing you to some of the resources that have been useful for me beyond what I’ve already mentioned in this post (and please send me yours in the comments):

  • The teachers behind #DisruptTexts are inviting important conversations about the texts we choose to teach. And they are four teachers heavily involved in equity work beyond the #DisrtuptTexts work. If you’re not already following them in Twitter so you can read their threads and blog posts and see the resources they share, you should be (that’s Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia Torres.
  • I lurk in Twitter more than I tweet. Aside from the #DisruptTexts Twitter gold on the issue of equity and decolonization, there’s also the conversations happening around the #ClearTheAir hashtag. I’ve found several folks there that have been important for my thinking, like Val Brown and Christie Nold.
  • Maja Wilson’s book, Reimagining Writing Assessment from Scales to Stories, breaks down the damage of any grade scale that we might use in the classroom. They’re all nothing more than a good/bad binary, and we can’t divorce them from their insidious roots in the birth of the educational measurement movement. Wilson shows that around the beginning of the 20th century, with the influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, very early efforts of educational measurement used scales to justify social stratification for the benefit of keeping some in the higher ranks of society and others in the lower ranks. The ranking we do in schools via grades (or any other scale we use on a rubric, for example) continues to do this. I’m hoping my book will help teachers figure out ways to avoid continuing this damage.
  • I love the powerful optimism and practical strategies for making change in Cornelius Minor‘s We Got This. I have already given it to the teacher I’m mentoring at school and will be talking about it with a group of colleagues later this week.
  • And everything I’ve got here, on a Pinterest board. I’m collecting Twitter posts/threads and articles I come across that help me think about equity.

How are you doing this work? How can we work together on it?

As always, thanks for reading.

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, equity, grading, literacy, making change, not grading, reflections, teaching, the system | 4 Comments

#NCTE18 Write More, Grade Less Presentation Materials

We had a great conversation today with the folks who came to our session. Thank you!

Keep doing the great work you’re doing to get your students to write more, relieved of the stress and pressure of an ever-present grade. Keep finding ways to make YOUR responding work more manageable and joyful.

Keep in touch–hope to see you next year!

Click on the link below to access our slides. I added a slide at the end with links to the resources you asked for in the presentation.


And click here for Sarah’s blog series on grading for even more details.

Posted in #NCTE18, gratitude, making change, on the road again, presenting, professional development | 3 Comments

#NCTE18 Saturday: “Do your work.”


That’s what today created for me. A strong sense of urgency to change how we are doing things, collectively, for the benefit of every single one of our students. This urgency has been building from the other sessions I’ve attended (#DisruptTexts, I’m looking at you), but Dr. Christopher Emdin’s key note address today stoked it exponentially.

I’m going to write tonight to figure out a few things that I really want to have straight in my head by working to explain them here to you. Help me out if I am missing something or get one of the pieces wrong.

After the general session this morning, Jay and I stood on the edge of a hall outside of the auditorium with our heads spinning, thoughts reeling, processing what we had just witnessed in Emdin’s key note that was part church, part challenge, part pep talk, part academic argument, part appeal to his fellow teachers who care intensely for the kids who people our classrooms.

I’m one of “the rest of y’all too” that the title refers to. I ordered his book immediately and paid extra so that it will arrive on my doorstep in time for me to take it with me on my family’s road trip to Iowa next week for Thanksgiving.

I’ll start with this–my students’ response a few years ago to the name of a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched. I had never heard the term ratchet before, but they explained it to me as something like this:  

In the section of Emdin’s talk about this, he gave an excellent example to help us understand this term. He talked of someone he knows who said, “I get it! I have a friend who is ‘golf ratchet.’ He can play fine, but his form is kind of messed up, so I never bring him around my actual golf friends.” So Ratchet = anyone who’s form is outside of what is expected–meaning appearance, or behavior, or mannerisms. And often someone who is “ratchet” is assumed to not be particularly intellectual or academic.

He explained how sometimes schools expect only one way really for students to be academic and intellectual. It’s the way of the dominant culture, and it squeezes out students of color and tells them that their ways of interacting with ideas and the world are less than.

But like the “golf ratchet” example, they can play fine even though their form might be different.

We must make space for all “forms” of our students, all ways to BE a student, to interact with ideas, to move through a classroom. This is what Emdin asked of us today. And it’s about more than just our students–the norms and expectations that school expects simply mirror the norms and expectations of society. We see those norms and expectations asserting themselves in moments like when a Starbucks employee called 911 last spring on two humans who had been there for only two minutes without ordering a drink (they were waiting for a business meeting). Or we see them at play when a police officer shot a security guard a few days ago after he subdued a gunman in a bar. That security guard is dead now. He had a 9-month old child and another one on the way.

Lives are at stake. We must shift people’s perceptions. We must do this work in our classrooms to lift up our students to do this work in the world. Their voices have impact; we need only to use our classrooms and the literacy skills we teach to amplify them.

There’s more. Emdin pointed out that the term ratchet has been around for a while:

This is where the science teacher that Emdin is did a very ELA teacher thing–he took this process and used it as a metaphor to help us understand something about schooling. If we just keep doing what we’ve always done (i.e. asexual reproduction, the same teaching methods showing up again and again, generation after generation of teachers) the system will mutate harmfully and irreversibly. It will get worse and worse. It will harm students more and more.

But we can stop this. Emdin asked us to think about what in each of us is ratchet–what about us goes against what is expected? THAT, he said, is what we each need to find and lead from. It’s how we will push back at damaging societal notions of who is smart and who is worthy and who is intellectual and who is not.

This is how we shift perceptions. Starting with our own.

He left us chanting together–inspired by one of my heroes, Toni Morrison–that we will refuse to be consumed by or concerned by the gaze of the other. I.e., we must be strong to do what is right by our students, even if it goes against what others expect of us. Unapologetically.

Let’s do this.

“So get into your classroom on Monday and do your work.” –Christopher Emdin

Posted in #NCTE18, making change, on the road again, professional development, the system | 2 Comments

NCTE 2018- The thing that made the problem won’t fix the problem.

Ah NCTE. Apparently I didn’t know how much I needed you.

I’m blogging this morning because I went out and had fun last night. Houston, as it turns out, is a pretty good town to run a conference in. So I have my coffee, and the thump of Margo Price’s band has somewhat subsided. Jeff Wilhelm and Jim Burke’s session was packed to the gills, so I’m out here collecting my thoughts.

I saw some great presentations yesterday. Kyleen Beers, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher talking about creating communities of readers. That was terrific.

Kate Flowers and Anna Osborn discussing assessing independent reading (a bear I am wrestling with right now).

Jen Mitchell and Karla Scornavacco showing us how to use digital storytelling to engage kids in some really deep thinking about narrative and storytelling in amazing ways. (yay Colorado- way to represent).

And Mitch Nobis and Andrea Zellner taking apart graphic novels and showing what a rich complex experience they are and how they are meaningfully different from traditional text only narratives.

Whoa. That was a lot. It got me all fired up. Then we went out to dinner with some Colorado folks and had a great conversation. I could write a thousand words on each one of those sessions and just have scratched the surface. And nobody’s got the energy for that.

So what’s the theme? Z dropped a post last night about ‘what surprised her.’ You should read it. It’s good. She used one of Penny Kittle’s favorite questions about reading.

What’s rattling around in my head is something that comes out of our preparation for our session tomorrow (M.49 Write, More Grade Less). It seems to underlie a lot of what I’m responding to in both reading and writing workshop right now.

If what we did from kindergarten through eighth grade didn’t make them readers and writers, doing more of that in high school won’t make them readers and writers. Kids won’t want to read and write all of a sudden. They will want to read and write when they have something they want to read and write about, and the space in which to find their voice and the right to say what they want to say. If that is startling to you, start with Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide.

Penny Kittle said yesterday,

If what they learned so far is that reading and writing is not for them, then running your class like a college lit course  probably isn’t going to change that. They have to be invited in to reading and writing, not ordered. And if your work structure and assessment structure isn’t inviting, if it reinforces the message that reading and writing is not for them, then, to be blunt, you are hurting the children. Because, and I think we can all agree on this, we really can’t afford to have more people in the world who think reading and writing (and the deep rich reflective thinking that goes with it) are not for them.

If you want to see some of our thinking about how to change up what you are doing, come to our session tomorrow morning. We don’t have all the answers, by any means. But we think we have some ideas.

By the way, the music scene in Houston is awesome.


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@missmargoprice rockin Houston last night. #texas #livemusic

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#NCTE18 Friday: What Surprised Me

“What surprised you?”

Kylene Beers said this morning in her session with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher that If you take nothing else from her talk, take this simple question as an awesome invitation to get students to talk with each other about what they read.

Yes. I love this question. In fact, I’ll use it to reflect over today’s text, the sessions I got to attend.

What surprised me?

ONE: The eloquence, wisdom, poise, and confidence of the morning key note speakers. It was a “heartbeep moment” (Olivia Van Ledjte–a moment that changes the way you see humanity). Jordyn Zimmerman’s talk brought me to tears: she was “desperately tired of being silenced” by schools who saw her as less than due to her differently-abled brain. I loved her advice: “greet students in the hallway, even if you don’t know them, even if they don’t respond.” I will remember this. Zephyrus Todd reminded us that our LGBTQ students want to be treated with normalcy, for us to “love them just like they’re any other person because they are.” Xiuhtezcatl Martinez affirmed what I have been telling my students: “putting power into the hands of the youth is what the world needs more than anything right how.” He’s so right–watching my students talk and listen to each other about our world gives me so much hope. I just want to hand it over to them already. And Marley Dias for president, right? I loved her charge to us, to awaken our students to the experiences of others because “most people are asleep to the problems of others.” This IS my charge, but sometimes the landscape of the day to day eclipses it–the bells keep ringing and all those little things I need to do to keep my classroom running never seem to go away… but I want to stay laser-focused on this work. I’ll keep Marley’s words in mind. (I missed the remaining students–had to leave a few minutes early.)

TWO: Actually, the eloquence, wisdom, poise, and confidence of the morning key note speakers did not really surprise me. Young people are all of those things when we get the heck out of their way. The students reminded me that I need to continually work on not impeding what is possible for my students to accomplish and become in my classroom and in our world. We need them to be fully present change agents right now. We need them desperately. I want to play backup. I want to listen, support, think through with them, help them problem solve, show them how to use literacy skills to impact their world, to be activists, as Liv said, because they are thinking beyond their own lives and experiences.

THREE: This sobering moment from the session with Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, and Kelly Gallagher: One of Penny’s college students, when speaking about his high school writing experience said, “it wasn’t like the teacher wanted to have a conversation with you about your writing. You could go see her if you wanted to.” Ouch. Do my students ever think that about me? I hope not; I actively check in with them every week as they write in my classroom. But am I showing them that I really do want to have conversations with them about their writing? When I make sure I sit down for that conversation with each of them, I do. When I even schedule the conversations in advance (as I’ve been doing the last three weeks as they’ve made their way through three drafts of a major piece of writing), I show them that I’m planning time and space with each of them. This matters. I will do more of this.

FOUR: Jay and I realized during this same session (Kylene, Penny, and Kelly) that because we literally teach NEXT DOOR to each other one class period of the day, my seniors should be having conversations with his freshmen. That particular class of my seniors is the quietest, most perplexing group of students I have ever taught. There is a majority of naturally “quiet kids” in that class (confirmed by having had them in my class as freshmen too), but I don’t want to just leave it at that. I want to help them talk more, to use talk to learn, to use talk to connect. How might it change the dynamic if they have to talk to a 9th grader as part of what we’re doing in class? Lots to think about here. I loved Kelly’s suggestions for how to teach kids how to have good conversations–firstly, have good conversations with them. And I loved the flipgrid videos–I’ve been wanting to use this tool. Might finally take the leap.

FIVE: Kate Flowers took us through a mini reading ladder activity. She asked us to write down the last three books we’ve read and then rank order them from least to most difficult. Then we were to write one sentence about how we defined difficulty as we ranked the books. Then we talked to each other, and a few people shared their lists and thinking out. I defined difficulty based on how much work it took me to keep my eyes on the page and my mind focused. But that was not how other teachers defined it. I was struck by how much thinking about our individual reading process came out of this. As I listened to teacher after teacher talk through their rank-ordered lists, I knew I had to throw this task at my AP Lit students. It was incredibly meaningful even just for considering a few books and writing one sentence… My focus in my AP Lit class is building readers, and I love what the task will tease out for them about the reading journeys they have been on. Thank you, Kate, for making me actually try out a mini reading ladder. Of course I had read about the approach through Penny’s work, and I knew it would be powerful from reading the examples she provides, but I had never sat down and actually tried it myself.

(and then I left in the middle of that session–and missed Anna Osborn’s entirely–so I could catch at least some of the conversation Kylene Beers moderated between Ernest Morrell, Pam Allyn, and Kwame Alexander.)

SIX: When I walked in the room halfway through the session, Beers, Morrell, Allyn, and Alexander were in the middle of a conversation about the books our students need: books that represent them more diversely, books that provoke their thinking, books that reflect our world authentically. Kwame repeated a few times that the books will do the work–meaning the right books will help our students to know and think about the ways our world marginalizes and oppresses; we need only to give students the space to talk about them. I love this. So much. And Ernest gave me the question I need to launch the second semester with my senior lit class: If you could change your community and/or our world, what would you change? I can’t wait to get my students started on this work. AND I have always felt incredibly guilty as an ELA teacher who really doesn’t like Hemingway. I discovered I have a friend in Pam Allyn in this. Thank you, Pam. I will stop apologizing for this Hemingway issue.

SEVEN: Kwame Alexander answered the final question from Kylene with a poem. And it was perfect. She asked, “How do we respond to that person who wants to silence us?” His answer? This.

EIGHT: Sometimes the best way to do the conference is to skip out on a round of sessions and go outside on a gorgeous day and walk a bit to get some local food for lunch. It was Jay’s idea. I’m grateful.

NINE: The knowledge was flowing SO FURIOUSLY in the #DisruptTexts session with Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, and fellow Coloradan Julia Torres that I couldn’t keep up in my notes and had to resort to photos of their slides to capture what I wanted to hang on to and come back to and reflect on (which was everything). This is such an important conversation, and I was lucky to have as my insightful shoulder buddy for turn and talks during this session Amy Rasmussen of Three Teachers Talk. Between this session and the one with Beers, Morrell, Allyn, and Alexander, what I really want to do with my AP Lit class is make it nothing but texts that disrupt the canon–both for whole-class reads and book groups. Contemporary. Voices that write about what we’re dealing with NOW. Marginalized voices. Counter narratives. Including stories that don’t perpetuate a damage-centered narrative (Tuck 2009) about people of color. LOVED Julia’s framework for addressing resistance to work to disrupt the texts we typically put in front of students:

  • When you feel defensive, ask: what are you protecting?
  • When you don’t want to change, ask: what are you maintaining?
  • When you make choices for students rather than making space for their choices, what’s the message you’re sending?

I love that Tricia, Lorena, and Julia asked us to step up. They did not mince words. They did not sugar coat anything. This is the work we need to be doing. All of us. Now.

And Kate Flowers has the best possible counter to anyone who says they can’t make change or that they have to keep doing things that don’t help kids because they’re told to: “That’s not good enough.”

We have voice and agency over what our students experience in our classrooms every day. Let’s make it the best we possibly can to honor their individual journeys as humans and to make our world kinder and safer and more inclusive.

THAT was a full, empowering, exhausting, 14-pages-of-notes-in-my-writer’s-notebook day. See y’all tomorrow.

p.s. Come think with us about getting students to write more and us to grade less, Sunday morning, 9am, 372F. M.49. Please help us to spread the word that even though the program has our session tagged as elementary, it’s intended for a secondary audience. We’ve put in a request to get this changed in the app and online, but the change hasn’t gone through yet.

Posted in #NCTE18, AP Lit, making change, on the road again, professional development, surprises, teaching literature, teaching reading | 1 Comment

Write More, Grade Less. Come see us at #NCTE18 (M.49)

With Monday off for Veterans’ Day, we’re looking at two more days of teaching before we are Houston-bound! Can’t wait to catch up, NCTE peeps, and to meet new folks too.

Join us for this important conversation–bring your ideas so we can learn from you.

Posted in #DisruptGrading, #NCTE18, #StopGrading, motivating students, not grading, on the road again, presenting, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writing | Leave a comment

Where I Want to Improve my AP Lit Reading/Writing Workshop #WorkshopWorksForAP

I walked away from my first year back to AP Lit this year in many feeling a sense of accomplishment. Students seemed engaged. I loved hanging out with them every day. They learned some things. They worked hard. We laughed some. I miss them!

But there are some key areas where I want to get better. Teaching is hard. Teaching reading and writing is hard. AP Lit teaching is hard. WORKSHOP teaching is hard.

I have been actively working toward a workshop classroom since I first did the Colorado Writing Project summer workshop in 2009. Every year I get closer. But I’m still trying to get there.

Here are the places where I want to get better:


1) Book Groups. I really want my students to develop reading practices that last for life. Book groups are things that humans sometimes do–I’ve been a part of several and they keep me reading. My favorite book group started this past January, though. Three of my AP students asked me and a colleague if we would be a part of their “third hour book club,” which we all had as an off period. I cannot tell you how awesome it was to meet with them on a Friday during third hour every few weeks or so to listen to them push and challenge each other about the books they had chosen to read. We read five. Five challenging books on top of their heavy course loads and busy lives. Every time I sat there with them talking about these books in a discussion space they had created themselves, I thought about how to replicate the same for my classes.

From my experience, it seems successful book groups need a few things: people who share some interest in talking about books, some commitment to the group, and time reserved just for the book group to discuss a book they all read together. I think I can cultivate conditions for these things to happen in my classroom. I already have an independent reading component to my classes–I can add the book group as a path toward the independent reading goals of 2-3 hours of reading per week. Maybe I’ll ask each student to read at least one book per semester in a book group and I’ll block out a book group day in class. We’ll make it somewhat celebratory, but serious, student-directed conversation will happen about their books. I have some more ideas rumbling around in my head about this–maybe I’ll chat it out with third hour book club when we meet in a couple of weeks on book #6. (The students were very clear that graduating from high school did not mean the automatic end of this book group!)


2) Independent reading. As I said above, there’s already an independent reading component to the course. I ask for 2-3 hours of reading per week with 30 minutes provided in class on Mondays. Their priorities for the reading are first, the books we’re reading for class, second, any book of equal literary merit, and third, any book they want to read. The choice is incredibly important, but I want to put more options in front of them for the choice bit. A colleague and I are working on a list of contemporary authors who are writing complex and wonderful and brave and important works of literature. I’m talking Jesmyn Ward, Paul Beatty, George Saunders, Mohsin Hamid (to name a few). (The Man Booker award winners and shortlist nominees has become a go-to for me in my own personal reading of late). These are books that show students that literature can make powerful statements on our current world.

You may be thinking that a decent classroom library is what I need for this. And you’re right. But there’s a critical problem with this in our school: 17 language arts teachers share 10 classrooms. We cannot count on the same classroom from year to year, and we cannot count on teaching all of our classes in one classroom in a given year. Last year I had all of my academic classes in the same space. Next year, they’ll be spread between three classrooms. This makes the logistics of building a classroom library over time difficult. But we do have a fantastic library in our school with a great fiction collection. The librarian is always happy to order more books for us too.

I will remain anchored on choice for the independent reading requirement in my classroom, but I will put some options in front of students that will show them the powerful literature being written in our world right now for that reading priority #2, books of literary merit equal to the books required for the course.


3) Disruption. If you’ve not had a chance to check out any of the #DisruptTexts conversation on Twitter, head over there right now to see the recent conversation on The Great Gatsby. I sent the conversation to my two colleagues who also teach AP Lit and had some conversation about it at our planning meeting a couple of weeks ago. I think that the conversation surrounding disrupting texts is so critically important. Gatsby is on my syllabus. But I want my students to interrogate it (and all of our books) so much more.

The more I thought about it (and explained what I was thinking to my teaching colleagues), the more I realized that I wanted to use disruption as a frame for the entire year anchored on these three big questions:

My writer’s notebook notes on our recent AP Lit team planning meeting, thinking about next year. I wrote this down after I explained to my colleagues how I wanted to use disruption as a framework to organize my entire class next year.

The first one: How were authors working to disrupt their world? Here are the additional questions I’ll throw at my students: What problem might the author have been addressing with the book? How do you know? How successful was the text as a disruptor? Where did it fall short?

The second one: How can we as readers disrupt the text? I already give my students a list of questions from different critical perspectives. But I think that working under the frame of disruption will encourage students to draw on some of the questions more meaningfully. A feminist reading of Gatsby is important, for example. And I will ask my students to disrupt the list of questions too–which questions aren’t there that should be? In short, I want to cultivate more critical readers. I want them to be looking carefully at humans are portrayed in texts, whose stories are missing, how that affects the success of the work.

The third one: What about our world you do you want to disrupt? And how will you accomplish this through words? My class ended on the Semester Long Piece of Writing this year, which was essentially a multi-genre paper using our books to answer the question, “What Does it Mean to be Human?” (more about this in my post in this series about sharing the feedback load). I think I’ll use the multigenre paper again but this time using a different question, one about disruption. This would put students in the role of author looking to use words imaginatively and artistically to disrupt the way society deals with something in our world, and the books and poetry they read for the course will be their mentor texts. I can’t wait to see what they do with this.


4) More flexible groups. This past year, students essentially sat in the same groups for entire semesters. There were benefits to this–some groups gelled significantly and really got to know each other’s work. They became mini communities within my classroom community that students turned to for feedback on writing, for discussion about the reading, for helping each other with the class. But I would love the ability to have a few different groups for each student–a writing group, a reading group, a class discussion group…

It’s been a furniture problem in the past. The student desks are so difficult to move around–heavy, awkward. It’s just easier to set them up and leave them as they are.

But behold the classroom where my AP Lit classes will meet next year:

Under construction.

Our entire school district is in the middle of a multi-year bond construction project, and construction just started this spring at my school. The language arts department is being relocated in the school, including six brand new classrooms in what up until now has been the school’s cafeteria.

I took the photo during finals week. I was wearing a hard hat because it’s a construction zone. The windows are more exciting than you can realize–as I’ve not taught in a room with windows for several years now. But what also comes with this new classroom is some flexible, easy-to-move furniture that should facilitate the flexible grouping I imagine.


5) More poetry. We had some great poetry weeks this past year, and I want to make more space for it. I invited groups of students to bring three poems (thematically related) to the class for some reading, discussion, and analysis. Two poems had to come from the list of poets recommended by the College Board and the third could be anything they thought was worthy of our time. We looked at Kendrick Lamar. We looked at Father John Misty. We looked at some powerful spoken word poets. I just want to do more of this. And I want them to write some poetry too–maybe that can be my first semester final task. An original poem that works to deliberately disrupt something about society. They could read it to the class or we could make an anthology. Then they could use the poem in their multigenre paper for second semester’s final task. All I know is that at AP training last summer, our instructor told us that the poetry free response question on the AP exam is always the one students struggle with the most. More practice (reading AND writing poetry) will only help.


6) More conferences. In my classroom workshop, this is probably what I struggle with most. Making time for them. Figuring out the best way to collect my notes on them. Making conferences a key component of the course.

In my other senior language arts course that I teach, I’m much more consistent with writing conferences. Students have about two class periods to write each week, and while they do this, I circulate and have conference conversations with them. In AP Lit, most of the in-class writing time is filled with the timed writes that we all do together. If I’m writing with them, there’s no time for conferences on those days.

And reading conferences: I am still figuring this out in both of my language arts classes. I know I need to get more systematic and intentional about them, and I need to be more consistent in recording my notes in a way that is most useful for planning instruction. If you’ve got ideas for this, I’m listening!


Where do you want to improve your AP Lit class? What ideas do you have for me on any of the areas I want to make better?

This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

Posted in #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, conferring, making change, planning, reflections, summer 2018 blog series, teaching literature, teaching reading, teaching writing, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Writer’s Notebooks in AP Lit #WorkshopWorksForAP

The writer’s notebook is a key piece to a workshop classroom.

Whatever you call it–response notebook, reader’s/writer’s notebook–the idea is that it becomes an extension of a student’s brain, the place to work out ideas, reflect, plan, wonder, ponder, keep track of, etc.

I’m still learning as a writer’s notebook user myself. I’m filling them more quickly than I used to, which makes me happy, but I’m constantly discovering how to use the tool best for my own growth as a reader, writer, and thinker. It has helped this year to do some thinking alongside Stevi Quate, one of my personal teacher mentors (she was my secondary English methods professor back in 1995 and is now my colleague in the Colorado Writing Project–see her post about launching the writer’s notebook). I am definitely still learning as a writer’s notebook user.

And I am definitely still learning about how to invite my students to use them most meaningfully. Here’s what I did this past year in AP Lit to invite my students to develop extensions of their brain in the form of a composition notebook.


1) Make access easy.

Every August, I hit the local Target when they have just stocked school supplies and I purchase 50 composition notebooks at the cost of 50 cents each. I offer these to my students–they can have them and throw 50 cents at me if they wish. One of my very first assignments in my class is to show up with a writer’s notebook in-hand. Having them right there for students makes this super easy.


2) Make writer’s notebooks a central focus.

I have a set of learning objectives for each of my classes, but there’s always one goal about writer’s notebooks. My students choose three focus objectives for themselves each semester. They track their growth toward their chosen objectives. Making one of these a goal about writer’s notebooks shows students that they matter, that they’re important, that they will be a central component of the course.

I never walk into class without my own writer’s notebook. I want students to see it as an appendage of their teacher. I use it constantly–I make lists, keep track of things, take notes on class discussion, make plans–I tell my students what’s going on in my writer’s notebook and even show them sometimes. If it’s important enough that I’m asking them to get serious about a writer’s notebook, then I should be doing the same.

Different this year, I told my students that the writer’s notebook is the one thing that they need for class (that and whatever novel we’re discussing together). I wanted it to be THE thing that held all of their resources and information for class–no additional binder or folder needed. After discovering biology teacher Lee Ferguson’s resources on interactive lab notebooks, I was able to show my students how to make pockets to hold onto any resources I give them and to file away their timed writes.

One student’s pockets in his writer’s notebook where he stored his timed writes.

I also frequently provided items on half sheets of paper and asked students to tape or glue them into their writer’s notebooks–the learning objectives for the semester for example. Then they could circle or highlight their chosen objectives and do some annotating right there about why they chose those particular learning objectives for themselves. I also loved giving them poems to tape in and write all over.

Freshly stocked buckets full of writer’s notebook supplies.

Another new thing I tried this year was providing colorful tape and tabs and stickers for students. I created eight “buckets”–one for each pod of students in each class. I stashed them away in the closet in my classroom and pulled them out on the days I knew they would need them, but my students knew that they were welcome to grab a bucket at any time if they needed something for their writer’s notebook. I found colorful masking tape and washi tape online for the best prices. And my students’ favorite thing beside the tape was those little, round, brightly-colored price tag stickers that you might buy if you’re having a garage sale. They used them all over their notebooks for a variety of purposes. The bowls came from Target–less than 2 bucks each and in our school colors.

I was lucky this past year to teach all of my classes in one classroom. I’m not so lucky next year–I’ll have three classrooms. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll make three sets of writer’s notebook buckets or shuttle them around on a cart…


3) Ask students to complete writer’s notebook tasks that invite them to do the kind of thinking work that would make the notebook an extension of their brain. 

Here’s my AP class learning objective regarding writer’s notebooks: The student maintains a vibrant writer’s notebook for writing informally and creatively to explore initial responses and emerging ideas about literature. It becomes a visible extension of the mind. I developed writer’s notebook tasks with this goal in mind in order to show students what this work looks like. These tasks generally fell into a few categories:

  • To help us think about the books we studied: From Socratic Seminar tickets to Socratic seminar notes to notes on class discussions to free writing in response to the reading, I asked students to use the writer’s notebook as home base for all of this. Take a look here at how a few students approached this.
  • To help with the writing we did: Students used writer’s notebooks to prepare for timed writes and to prepare for the AP exam. They also did a lot of thinking/planning for the semester-long piece of writing. See a few examples here.

    One student’s page to track her reading goals for the semester. The yellow book on each shelf identifies a unique reading goal–“school,” “expand my mind,” “explore,” and “for funsies.” She colored in the books when she read them.
  • To track growth toward students’ individual learning objectives: A few weeks into the semester last fall after students had gotten used to what the work of the class looked like, I had a day in class where students chose their learning objectives and we talked about how they could use their writer’s notebooks to track their progress and growth. Students did a variety of things, but my favorite was the book case that one student drew, each shelf a unique set of books toward a certain reading goal she had, particular titles written on the spines, books colored in when she read them. Awesome! I also saw calendars where students made regular notes about their learning goal progress and pages where they collected evidence of how they were doing. I blocked out time in class for students to show each other how they were using their writer’s notebook to track their learning so they could steal each other’s awesome ideas.
  • To stay organized: Students made tables of contents and tabbed sections and numbered pages and clearly labeled items and even used different colored pens for different purposes. I made a few general suggestions for how to approach staying organized and talked through my own strategies.
  • To make the writer’s notebook totally yours: Whenever I have a big thought I want to hold onto, I write it in huge letters on a blank page and draw a cloud around it, for example. Students did a range of things here, from margin notes to drawings to photos. I loved this margin note from a student who challenged herself to regularly annotate what she had written to capture her thinking about it all:

This was in the margins on a page where she was writing down her answers for some AP exam multiple choice practice that we were doing together in class. I love the simple honesty of this, how it captures what she was thinking at that moment. Yes, the work we ask of students in AP Lit IS hard–close reading of complex text for the purpose of articulating your own interpretive analysis of it? Difficult indeed.

And I’m excited to try out some sketchnoting–great resource here for students that came across my Twitter feed this week:




If you’ve read any of my blog series on grading, you’ll not be surprised that I use no rubric, assign no points, or even “grade” writer’s notebooks at all. Having and using a writer’s notebook is a requirement in my class that I monitor every single day in my class. But I never collect writer’s notebooks.

I consider the writer’s notebook the student’s individual space. The very first year I used them years ago, I collected them every so often figuring that I needed to make sure students were using them for what I was asking them to use them for. This was also a few years before the moment I stopped grading traditionally, so I was in a different mind frame about assessment and grading–needing to hold students accountable for the work via points and grades.

But here’s what I noticed that first year when I collected students’ writer’s notebooks: they didn’t seem very authentic. They didn’t seem like the students were really using them in genuinely meaningful ways. The reasons for this are many I’m sure, especially that I wasn’t very good at inviting students to make them meaningful. I’m learning and getting better at this. There’s something powerful for students when I tell them that the writer’s notebook is THEIR space. They control it. They design it. They determine how integral it will become to their work for the class.

That’s not to say that I never look at them. I look at their writer’s notebooks all the time. I assign tasks periodically that I need to check. In a conference conversation, we might look together at something in the notebook and talk about it. Every so often, I invite students to put their writer’s notebooks under the document camera so the class can see something there. I don’t collect the notebooks, but I pay attention to how students are using them from day to day. (Check out my post on sharing the feedback load with students for a fuller discussion of what student writing I DO collect, read, and respond to.)

At semester’s end and at each 6-week grading period, my students self reflect/self assess toward the three learning objectives they’ve chosen for the semester. Their semester grades are based in part on their documented growth toward those three objectives. For students who have chosen the writer’s notebook objective, I get extensive reflection on how the tool has been working for them. Here are some examples. The first speaks to the importance of a writer’s notebook as a place for students to work through their thoughts, especially if they’re reticent to speak up in class:

At the start of this semester, I wrote in my writer’s notebook that I wanted to use my notebook to “write about ideas of my own” because I am often too intimidated to discuss my own ideas about books in front of the whole class. I have found my writer’s notebook to be a valuable space where I can write about and expand on my own ideas without feeling nervous to share my ideas with the entire class. I turned my writer’s notebook into a extremely helpful resource that I have used throughout the semester to keep track of my thoughts about books, as well as a space to plan for and brainstorm about timed writes.

And from another student–I love the clear focus here on making the notebook more relevant to her thinking:

Last semester was the first time that I was able to have a journal I stuck to and filled out almost everyday and I was able to carry that into this semester as well. I think the main area of improvement came in the relevance of everything I wrote down this semester. I did a better job of recognizing what I already knew and wrote down things that really mattered to me. Likewise I tried to recognize what I didn’t know and needed to work on, writing it down more thoroughly. I continued to take extensive notes for socratic seminars and book discussions. I continued to write free writes and poetry in my blank pages and my favorite part of my writer’s notebook this semester would definitely be that. I think this learning target has really helped me with organization and understanding what I do and do not already know.

This student describes how she went beyond note taking and did some reflective writing to learn from what she had written down in class:

I have put a lot of work into maintaining a writer’s notebook that illustrates my ideas. In my writer’s notebook, I have jotted down my interpretations of class text and taken very detailed notes for all of our class discussions and socratic seminars. For example, for each of the discussions I have jotted down important points that other people have started and then made individual interpretations of those thoughts, such as making theme statements based off of presented ideas. It has also been a place where I can store class handouts and mt timed writes. In having all the information I need for this class in one place, I have had a very easy time looking back on my notes and handouts and using them for other activities. Overall, my writer’s notebook has been a very useful tool for me regarding my growth as both a reader and a writer.

This student articulates growth from having to force himself to use the notebook to reach for it when he needed ideas and talks about how much this helped him for the AP exam:

I chose this as another one of my learning objectives because I wanted to have a vibrant writer’s notebook that I could constantly reach for when I had an idea, or was struggling to find one. To better understand class discussions, various texts, and possible themes, I found it very helpful to write it all down. This really helped me track my growth and understand what I needed to improve on in all subject matter. I initially wanted to work on this learning objective because at the beginning of the year,  I felt like I was forcing myself to work in my writer’s notebook. I did not want that to be the case. Fortunately, I now recognize the effectiveness of journaling your thoughts. In addition, keeping an extensive writer’s notebook better prepared me for the AP test at the end of the year. Through collecting data on all of our books and discussions, I was able to go into the test with something in mind to write about.


I aim to do a better and better job each year of figuring out how to invite my students to make their writer’s notebooks the thinking space they need to support this difficult but worthy work. What are your strategies?

This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

Posted in #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, engagement, motivating students, summer 2018 blog series, teaching reading, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writer's notebooks, writing, writing with students | 2 Comments

Sharing the Feedback Load With Your Students #WorkshopWorksForAP

Our students need to write frequently, every day even if we can swing it. But at a typical student load of 150 or more students for each teacher, it’s simply not possible for us to read and respond to every piece of writing they do in our classes.

Some simple math reveals this. Let’s say I spend 7 minutes on each piece of writing I look at to score (if necessary), respond to, and make some suggestions for growth (and you all know many pieces of writing take more time than this), I’m looking at 17.5 hours of time to do this for 150 students. Even if I did use every minute of my 8 hours of prep time per week to respond to ONE piece of writing from each student, I would still need to find 9.5 more hours that week beyond the school day. But honestly, I’m lucky if I can reserve maybe three of my eight prep hours per week for responding to student work–that’s also the time I need for planning, managing gradebook data, meeting with colleagues, dealing with email correspondence, going to the bathroom, and taking a few moments to just breathe. So most of that time to read and respond to my students comes out of my time beyond the school day.

Properly staggered between my classes so I never get pieces of writing from all 150 students at once, I might be able to respond in detail to three pieces of writing per student per semester. And that is simply not enough writing for them to be doing.

They need to write far more than this, and they need feedback so they can see how well their words are working to communicate their ideas to readers.

Hence, I train my students to help with the feedback load.


Writing Goals for AP Lit

As I explained in an earlier post in this blog series, different from the other senior language arts class that I teach which is primarily a writing course, AP Lit is primarily a reading course. Everything we do should support students toward the ultimate task of the course: interpretive reading of complex literary texts.

That means that the writing they do must provide practice in articulating their interpretive arguments. That means a lot of writing that looks like what they’ll have to produce for the AP English Literature and Composition exam: responding to a prompt to make an interpretive argument about a poem, a passage from a longer literary work, or about a novel or play as a whole.

So my students complete umpteen timed writes in my class–every other week usually. (These are the more formal writing opportunities in the course–they write nearly every day in their writer’s notebooks informally as well.) The timed writes are all essentially “test prep” because I use either actual prompts from past AP Lit exams or prompts I’ve designed myself that look like exam prompts.

But this is test prep that I support. The ability to quickly, concisely, and coherently make an argument about something complicated serves my students as thinkers and human beings. These are skills they will need in life no matter what they do.

So for one class period every other week, we (including me) clear our desks except for some blank notebook paper and a blue or black pen and write for 50 minutes to articulate what we’re thinking about a poem, passage, novel, or play that we’ve been discussing.

Writing is thinking. And these frequent timed writing experiences help us to hone it. This life prep is the actual reason we do it—it’s only a bonus that it helps them prepare for the AP Lit test as well.


How I set up my class to share the feedback load with my students

1) Plan intentionally for which pieces of writing I will respond to and which ones students will respond to for each other.

Here’s the writing we completed last semester in AP Lit:

  • 1/12: timed write #1, poetry analysis (feedback from teacher)
  • 1/30: timed write #2, passage analysis based on Othello (feedback from peers)
  • 2/9: Semester Long Piece of Writing (SLPOW) task #1, general plan/topic (quick feedback teacher)
  • 2/14: timed write #3, open question based on Othello (feedback from peers)
  • 2/27: timed write #4, passage analysis based on The House of the Spirits (feedback from peers)
  • 3/2: SLPOW task #2, one page of writing (quick feedback from teacher)
  • 3/9: timed write revision turned in to teacher to start the back-and-forth revision process
  • 3/14: timed write #5, open question based on The House of the Spirits (feedback from peers)
  • 3/19: SLPOW task #3, three total pages of writing (quick feedback from teacher)
  • 4/12: timed write #6, passage analysis based on Beloved (feedback from peers)
  • 5/1: timed write #7, open question based on Beloved (feedback from teacher)
  • 5/4: SLPOW task #4, complete rough draft (feedback from peers)
  • 5/11: SLPOW task #5, final draft (teacher looks over + letter response from one peer + focus of final Socratic Seminars)

I do the feedback for all students on the first and last timed write of each semester so students and I can have beginning/end of semester data points to compare to look for growth.

The Semester-Long Piece of Writing (SLPOW) was a multigenre piece of writing wherein students used the books we read together and that they read on their own to answer the question What Does it Mean to Be Human? The idea here was a place for some less analytical writing to pull together what our books had to say about the human condition. I asked students to write in at least two genres and got a range of awesomeness from poetry to fiction to dialogues between characters from different texts to psychological diagnoses of characters. One student even choreographed a dance and embedded the video in her paper and wrote to explain how it connected to her answer of the question.

The last thing I want is a stack of 60 extensive pieces of writing I have to go over with a fine-toothed comb at the end of the semester when I’m wrapping up grade conversations with students and taking care of all the things that semester’s end entails. I also didn’t want the audience for these pieces of writing to be only me. What fun is that for my students? Hence, I assigned each student to read one other student’s SLPOW and write a letter in response. The letter was also a ticket for a Socratic Seminar–we had four of them in our last two days together, 20 minutes and 7 to 8 students in each seminar with the rest of the class listening on. Each student had to speak of the SLPOW that they read in the seminar and then use their response to it to keep the conversation going for the 20 minutes. The conversations were really interesting–each distinctly different from the others, and each student’s major piece of writing for the semester got a detailed, personalized response from another human in our reading/writing community and was spoken of in the seminars. Yes, I did read the papers too–but for the purpose of figuring out which student in the class to assign each one too. I did write a short note in the gradebook about each student’s paper though so I could remember what each wrote about, but I didn’t do any feedback/response because I knew that would be coming from a classmate. (If you’re wondering here how these pieces of writing were graded, the weren’t. I’ll refer you to my blog series on grading for more information on my stance on that.)

Notes in the gradebook on one student’s progress through the back-and-forth revision process. The “score” column lists the date I returned each revised draft back to the student for more work. The comments show the learning work the student focused on for each revision–content issues for the earlier revisions and mechanics to perfect things for the later ones.

For the timed write revision–after students had done four timed writes in class, I asked them to pick one and revise it to make it better and then turn it in to me (see here for the instructions for this task). This would then start a back-and-forth process that could last for the rest of the semester where students would revise and I would give feedback and ask them to keep working until I thought a student had learned what the piece of writing had to teach. This enabled some individualized instruction, both in my comments to students on their papers and in the conversations we had about their revisions when needed. This was the place where I did my fine-toothed-comb feedback, intensely individualized to each student. Once we got past that initial March deadline, the continued revisions trickled in, a few per day, enough that I could usually respond to within 24 hours and get them right back to students to keep working on.

In summary, there was frequent in-class timed writing to practice the kind of thinking and writing demanded by the AP Exam–most of these received feedback from peers. There was less structured, individual writing for the semester long piece of writing, giving students an opportunity to synthesize what they were learning and communicate that in a format that worked best for them. Some drafts I read and responded to and some got peer feedback, but in the end, the final draft got extensive response from another student in class as a key component of our final, culminating activity together. And there was intensive revision work on one piece of writing chosen by each student that I read and responded to, giving me the opportunity to individualize writing instruction for each student.


2) Talk about what makes for effective feedback.

I find students are often wary of the value of peer feedback. They just want the teacher to read their writing. I help my students through this by reminding them again why I, one person, cannot possibly provide feedback on all of the writing they need to do and then giving them some strategies for providing feedback that helps writers. I provide a document that I ask students to tape into their writer’s notebook so they can use it as a resource throughout the year. It provides a couple of frameworks for approaching feedback and even some sentence starters for writing helpful, thoughtful comments. With some strategies that they all share, students start to trust that peers can be a legitimate source of feedback on their writing.


3) Provide tools to students to guide their peer feedback.

The bulk of students’ feedback to each other was on our weekly timed writes, all essentially one type of writing: concise, well-supported arguments laying out an interpretive analysis about a piece of literature. As such, it made sense for us to clearly define the task and make sure we were all on the same page regarding what it meant to do this writing successfully.

There’s already a rubric in existence for this writing–the AP English Lit/Comp 9-point rubrics for each of the free response questions on the exam are freely available, and they do a great job defining the task and describing what success looks like. For my students’ use, I’ve simplified the 9-point rubric into what I call the “General Rubric.” I give each student a copy to keep in their writer’s notebooks so they can interpret the 1-9 number score I give them on their very first timed write of the year and so they can provide a 1-9 rubric score to peers when they do peer feedback on timed writes.

I also provide to students a Guide to Comments, something I picked up from the AP Summer Institute I attended last summer in Denver. I’ve adapted it a bit and want to do yet more work on it, but it enables for very quick shorthand response–just numbers in the margins–and students can consult the guide to comments to see what the numbers mean.

Not only do these tools enable quick response for any reader, every time my students consult them to either figure out what a particular number means to interpret the feedback received on their own writing or to determine what numbers to leave on a classmate’s paper as feedback, they are reviewing yet one more time what we’re aiming for with this particular type of writing. They use the tools to complete peer feedback, and peer feedback becomes an ongoing conversation about how to be most successful at this particular type of writing.


4) Create ongoing opportunity for conversation about writing.

My students sit in “response groups.” They are pods of three to four students clustered together for multiple “turn and talk” moments each class period. From “check in with your pod to see how the weeks was” to “turn to your people and talk briefly about how today’s timed write went,” I use the pods for ongoing conversation about the work of our class. With some concentrated effort on community building, I’ve seen these groups gel quickly, to the point where they are talking about their work with each other without my even asking them to. My students’ favorite pod-bonding activity is the group selfie. I’ll challenge them to head out in the school to find one place that they think somehow lines up with whatever we’re talking about in class that week and take a group selfie. I give them only 5 minutes. They post the selfies on our Google Classroom page, we scroll through them on the big screen and each group talks about why they chose their particular location in the school for their selfie, and I print the selfies out and put them on the wall behind each pod.

Those few minutes of community building pay off when I’m asking students to read and respond to each other’s writing. They build trust as a group and are then more comfortable sharing their writing and having honest conversation with each other about it. Over time, they get to know each other as writers and naturally turn to each other for response. Of course I use these groups for the structured peer feedback moments in class, but informally they provide even more feedback to each other.

There are times I do want my students getting feedback from beyond their response groups too. For instance, with the SLPOW as we were heading into the deadline for the complete rough draft, I planned a “speed feedbacking” event in class. Students would stand up and make two circles in the middle of the classroom. Each student in the inner circle would line up with each student in the outer circle. They would have one minute to scroll through (chromebooks in hand) their draft and explain to the other person what they had so far and what their plan was to complete it and then listen to the other person do the same. After a minute, the inner circle would rotate one person to the left and then the new pairs of people would do the same thing with their papers. After seven or so rotations, each student has had quite a bit of conversation with other students about their work and gotten a chance to hear from multiple other students about how they’re approaching the same writing task.

Feedback doesn’t have to come to writers in the form of extensive margin comments in their writing. Conversation about writing is feedback too. Every year I find more ways to create opportunities for this.


5) Make time for peer feedback.

Students will value what we spend class time on, and peer feedback is worth their time. Ideal is for students to do a timed write and peer feedback on it all in the same class period. I can use a 90-minute block period for this. They write. They read each other’s writing and use our rubric/comment guide to do peer feedback, then we talk about what they discovered about their writing.

I made the mistake a few times of rushing the peer feedback by trying to shoehorn it into a 10 minute block of time. This only frustrated my students, which is a good sign. They were seeing the benefits of peer feedback and wanted to do it well. I find 20 minutes is the minimum amount of time for a decent peer feedback session–30 minutes is even better. They read, they comment, they talk to each other, they report out and we talk as a class. At the beginning of the year when I’m still training them, this all needs more structure from me, but by the end of the year, all they need is the block of time.


6) Show students how they can do feedback on their own.

Students don’t always need a reader to find ways to improve a piece of writing, which is of course the goal of feedback. With a few strategies, students can examine their own writing to find ways to strengthen it.

I have a box full of highlighters–pink, blue, green, and purple. We have a color coding key that we use for the entire year: pink = thesis, blue = body paragraph claim, green = data, purple = warrant. I frequently ask students to highlight their papers using this color coding key. A highlighted paper provides some immediate things to think about: the location of the thesis, an adequate amount of data, warranting that’s not very developed, an overly-formulaic paper, a paper with chaotic structure… I model this process early on with a piece of my own writing and think aloud to show them how I use it to find places to improve my writing.

Another powerful strategy is showing students how to use mentor texts. On my Mentor Text Database that I’ve been building for a few years, I have a selection of strong AP-style essays, responses released from The College Board, as well as examples of literary analysis from contemporary publications that I put in front of them to challenge their use of the five paragraph essay–no reason they can’t break formula to find the best structure to support their intended meaning. Simply reading a mentor text and then doing some compare/contrast with their own writing can help students to see some ideas for revision. They need more help from me with this at the beginning of the year (modeling how a mentor text helps me think about revising a piece of my writing) and less as they get better at it. One of my favorite mentor texts to use with them is an argument about anti-intellectualism in our society all bundled up in an analysis of the TV show Friends. The thesis is buried about 2/3 of the way through the piece. It uses an analysis of a text to then make wider point about society. It ends with a list of suggestions. It has a few one-sentence paragraphs. It’s full of voice. It challenges their vision of what an interpretive analysis essay looks like, and that’s the whole point.

And a quick note on grades: inviting students to break formula doesn’t work so well if their essays are graded traditionally. If the formula has always worked for them to get the grade that they want, they will be unlikely to try something different if it risks getting a lower grade. Students need room to take risks with their writing in order to grow–room where there are no high-stakes grade penalties as even a possibility. Sometimes the risks they take don’t work out so well, but they learn a lot in the process. Imagine if that risk came bundled up with a C grade on something? Would that student ever take a risk again? (Again, check out my blog series on grading for more information on my approach to grading and this post for a more extensive conversation about a moment from AP Lit where it became very clear why my no-grades approach to their writing is so important).



How I’m still getting the data I need even though I’m not the one reading everything with a fine-toothed comb

One counter argument that pops up in my head when my students are writing things that I’m not going to be reading in detail myself is this: how will I know how my students are progressing as writers if I’m not reading and responding to everything?


1) I put data in the gradebook on everything they write. 

Gradebook data on one student’s set of timed writes. Except for in the case of the first and last timed write, the comments in the last column are the comments peers left on the student’s work and the scores and comment codes the peer reader selected.

If I did the feedback on a piece of writing, I record in the gradebook the scores, comment codes, and some general comments I had about the piece of writing. If the timed write received peer feedback, I recorded in the comments box the scores, comment codes, and general comments that the peer reader determined for the piece of writing. I have the students write these things on a cover sheet that they staple to the timed writes that they read and respond to so my data entry is quick and efficient. So even though I have read everything in detail myself, I am able to record important data on each piece of writing that reveals both to me and the students how they are progressing with their writing.


2) I look over everything that they write.

When I do the data entry described above, it gives me an opportunity to glance over every student’s work. I can learn a lot about how students are doing by reading the peer feedback comments and zeroing in on the places in the piece of writing that I might want to examine based on those comments. And I leave a few notes when it seems necessary to me. But mostly I’m glancing over to get a sense of how the class did collectively on a task so I can plan my next steps with my writing instruction, and I’m looking at individual students’ work to see where I might need to step in with some individualized instruction. But none of this takes me the same amount of time as reading/scoring/responding to every student’s piece of writing in detail. My data entry and review of their work for one class will take 30 minutes or less–something I most definitely can fit into my week without even having to take the papers home in most cases.

Okay, I don’t look over EVERYthing that they write.

I don’t collect writers’ notebooks where they are writing and thinking and responding to class nearly every day. I know many teachers do collect writer’s notebooks, and I respect that, but I choose to focus my time for response to their work elsewhere. The revisions mostly. I do monitor their use of their writer’s notebooks, though, and have them show me certain tasks completed in their writer’s notebooks frequently. Check my next post in this series for my efforts toward the AP Lit writer’s notebook.


We need not be the sole feedback-giver in the AP Lit classroom. Our students can help, and it’s of great benefit to them to do so. Peer response/feedback in a community of writers is an anchor of workshop teaching–use it to help you manage the paper load in your AP Lit class. How do you work to share the feedback load with your students?

This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

Posted in #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, grading, mentor texts, not grading, summer 2018 blog series, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writer's notebooks | 2 Comments