This is the planning framework that Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher used today to walk us through their thinking about how to make sure they increase the volume of their students’ reading and writing. It was beyond helpful to see how they thought about a year, and then a unit, and then a class–all connected, all anchored toward clear overall goals, all backwards designed and scaffolded together for student growth.
Today I will write to think about my big plans for the fall semester for my seniors. I talked big picture ideas with my teaching colleagues last week. There are three of us teaching the class in question–a year-long reading/writing/speaking/listening/thinking class for seniors who do not choose the AP or IB courses our school offers. About half of our seniors choose this class–7 to 8 sections each year. I LOVE the class. Every year we’ve gotten closer to a full-on reading/writing workshop. This past spring, we added a blog space where students published their most impactful pieces of writing from the year. And we ended the year with a celebration, the first ever class Hootenanny, which turned out to be awesome.
The blog, the Hootenanny–all of this is to show students that their words matter, that their ideas are important, that they can impact our world. This is the focus of the big, essential question for the course (determined by our department–we identified essential questions for each class, 9th-12th, that build upon each other): How will you impact our world and your community?
For this next year, here’s what we’re thinking:
- fall semester focus: inform and explain through narrative
- reading: start with core text (Into the Wild by Krakauer) then independent reading/book clubs
- writing: end with a feature-style, research-based piece, but scaffold to it throughout the semester with weekly drafts and three thorough revisions
- spring semester focus: argue through and about art
- reading: book clubs (a selection of novels reserved for the course), core text (A Place to Stand by Baca), independent reading
- writing: weekly drafts again and two to three thorough revisions and some sort of major piece of writing that we haven’t figured out yet
One Unit/One Class
Now this is where my thinking diverges a bit from Penny’s and Kelly’s. I will not organize by unit, and my planning template to make space for as much reading, writing, and conferencing as possible is a weekly template rather than a daily template. There are clear structures in place to hold it all together:
Structure ONE: Weekly Drafts and Thorough Revisions My thorough revision task aims to get students to revise–you know, not just fix the errors/edit, but to engage in an extensive back-and-forth process with readers. Students choose a draft, get feedback from peers (comments in the margins in the google doc), revise toward those comments and anything else they want to do (working in suggesting mode so I can see every change they make), turn in to me for feedback, keep working in response to my feedback, turn it in again, and keep going until it’s clear the student has learned something from the piece of writing and we can call the revision task complete enough.
This process can take a while, so we don’t do this on every piece of writing the class asks of students. I can read and respond to three of these from each student without it taking over my life. But they must write waaaaaaaaaay more than that. Last year, my colleague Jaime suggested that we have them write a draft every week–start and complete a DRAFT of a new piece of writing every week. The hope was that this would get students into a consistent writing practice, that they would maybe start to think about their daily experiences through the eyes of a writer. We loved this. It got them writing regularly–producing the kind of volume that they need to improve as writers.
Our first day of school is Friday, August 19. Between then and Thanksgiving break, we have 13 weeks of school. In that time, students will turn in every week a weekly draft or a thorough revision of one of those weekly drafts, with the expectation of three drafts thoroughly revised (the first one in week two, a result of a revision/peer feedback boot camp that we’ll do together, and the remaining ones by weeks 7 and 12). This creates windows of time for them to turn in those revisions rather than one due date for every student, thus they will come into me in a staggered fashion rather than all at once, making it more manageable for me to get them back to students quickly with my feedback.
Yes, they turn in the weekly drafts to me. Yes, I look over them so I can see that they are working, get a sense of what they’re working on, and record in my grade book that they did the work (this takes me very little time on Friday afternoon, even for the 90 students I’ll have in my three sections). No, I do not write feedback on weekly drafts. I don’t have enough time and neither do you. They need to write more than we have time to read and respond to (Kelly also talks about this here). They do get my feedback on those weekly drafts via conference conversations. But when it comes to the time I will spend on written feedback, I reserve this for the back-and-forth work on the thorough revision task, a task designed so students MUST read and consider my feedback as they revise.
Structure TWO: The culminating piece of writing For about three weeks around Thanksgiving, we’ve blocked out time for focused work on students’ feature articles. Did you read the Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing this year? IT’S AWESOME. And terrifying. And confirms the visions I had when I lived in the Pacific Northwest of the huge tsunami taking over Seattle (I have ocean issues). And it’s an example of relevant, engaging, research-based writing that integrates narrative. I’m so excited about challenging my students with this genre (see more awesome features here). Knowing that we are working toward these feature pieces by the end of the semester, I’m thinking about all the concepts my students will need to think about to be able to get there. Well there’s narrative–the best feature articles pull the reader in with story. And there’s the ability to explain things clearly–statistics, events, background. Features often include all of those things. And since feature writing comes from the world of journalism, there are interviews. Yes, journalists do a lot of research in texts, but mostly they talk to people.
Narrative, explaining stuff, and interviews–those are the three big anchors to get students into feature writing. There are smaller things–like how to start and how to end, how to document sources, how to write crisply and cleanly–these things will come up as students are ready for them. But for my planning purposes, I’ll be thinking about the three big anchors.
I loved Penny’s and Kelly’s concept of taking several laps through argument in the unit they showed us today. I want my students to take several laps through narrative, through explanation, and through interview. These then become my focus points as I’m thinking about those first 12 weeks of the semester where students are working on nine weekly drafts and thorough revisions of three of those weekly drafts.
Now is a good time to talk about my weekly planning template. It’s pretty simple. I see my students four times per week: Monday/Tuesday/Friday for 50 minutes and Wednesday OR Thursday for an 85 minute block.
- Monday/Tuesday are reading focus days: start with 10 minutes of silent reading/reading conference time. Then the goal is to plant seeds for their weekly draft for that week via reading: conversation about texts we’re reading, read short texts together, mentor text study, talk about independent reading books. This includes notebook time to capture ideas/get started on weekly drafts.
- Block and Friday are writing focus days: start with 10 minutes of silent reading/reading conference time. Then writing mini lessons on block day (tied to mentor texts whenever possible) and writing/conference/peer response group time. Fridays are all work/conference time–get that weekly draft or thorough revision over the finish line by the end of the day.
This weekly rhythm works for me. I love the rhythm of starting with reading and discussion and notebook time to plant seeds for writing at the start of the week and then moving those thoughts/words onto the screen to bring later in the week. But some of this is purely practical: we have only three sets of computers (one lab and two chromebook carts) for the 17 teachers in my department, and we agree to use them no more than two days per class per week.
What texts will I put in front of them to read and discuss on Mondays and Tuesdays? Narratives, explanations, interviews–several laps with each. We’ll discuss them to get ideas to write about, and we’ll read them like writers and use them as guides for writing. Students will use them as models/examples for their weekly drafts. We’ll use them as fodder for writing mini lessons: writing interview questions, crafting narratives, explaining effectively, research… Oh, and Into the Wild? That’s a huge feature writing mentor text. Krakauer is a journalist. The book uses narrative. It explains stuff. There are passages that are the result of interviews. We can keep going back to it again and again (and maybe we can use some of their independent reading books in this way too).
By the time we get through the weeks focused on weekly drafts and thorough revisions, students should be familiar with all the pieces they need for those feature articles. The needs of the culminating piece of writing–rather than individual units based on writing purposes–structures our work.
Structure THREE: The punch list Students need a bit of guidance in making decisions about their weekly drafts that will move them along toward that feature article at the end of the semester. I provide a simple punch list:
- write a narrative about you
- (because they are writing college application essays in the fall of senior year and we like to help them with this)
- write a narrative about someone else
- (because they will need some narrative in their feature articles)
- interview someone and include the interview in a piece of writing
- (because they will need to include interview research in their feature articles)
- try to make the reader laugh, by being clever, not inappropriate
- (because humor is a powerful way to engage the reader, even in a feature article)
- revisit something you wrote a while ago (before this school year)
- (because nothing is ever finished and we want to remind them of this)
- explain something complicated
- (because an effective feature article will require this)
- write something connected to one of your independent reading books
- (because they need to articulate their thinking about their reading)
- write something connected to our shared core text (Into the Wild)
- (because they need to articulate their thinking about our core text)
Students can check off multiple punch list items with one piece of writing–a personal narrative that’s funny, for example. And once they check everything off, they can write whatever they want for their weekly drafts.
This creates so much space for students to make choices, to have agency, to direct their own work. The punch list scaffolds that choice toward the overall semester goals.
The punch list also gives me more structure for weekly mentor text study and writing mini lessons. We’ll have to talk about how to write smart funny for example–looking at models, picking them apart, practicing it ourselves.
The three weeks earmarked for the feature articles will not be the first time students will have heard about the task. They’ll know about it from week one: using several research sources and interviews, write a feature article to inform the reader about a social issue that is important to you. Knowing about this task, students can make choices in their independent reading that will help them with their research. Knowing about this task, students can make choices with their weekly drafts that could even create individual pieces of writing that they could weave into their feature articles. This weaving will become a focus for mentor text study and mini lessons as we work on the features. For example, Dean Potter’s girlfriend watched him launch his fatal base jump in Yosemite–how did the author of “Lost Boy of Yosemite,” use her story to structure the entire piece?
There’s no way that I will have time to read and respond to 90 lengthy feature articles in the last few weeks of the semester. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll conference with students as they work. And they will provide feedback to each other. We’ll publish their features for real people who matter to them–perhaps in our class Have an Impact blog space. I’ll be but one member of that audience rather than their audience of one. (why won’t I “grade” these pieces of writing, you ask?)
If you’re still reading, thank you. I know this one was kind of long. But it really helped me to think through this stuff by attempting to explain it to you. Let me know what you think in the comments. Got ideas or suggestions or questions? Please let me know!