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

Focusing Class Discussion on What Students Want to Talk About #WorkshopWorksForAP

In a reading workshop, students often read their own books at their own pace, books that they choose themselves. While there is space for this kind of independent reading in AP Lit, whole class novels are also important. Discussion surrounding a difficult shared text is critical for building students’ interpretive reading skills.

In a reading/writing workshop AP Lit class, then, how to balance the need to do some whole-class books with the workshop value about student choice?

When it comes to whole-class novels, there is so much room for student choice if you invite them to determine the focus of discussion with the text rather than making these decisions yourself. This goes a long way toward engaging students. It also enables them to struggle with a text authentically as a reader, determining what about it seems most important to discuss in order to uncover meaning.

Much of this I picked up from an AP Lit teacher from Chicago, whose name I no longer have in my memory. He was my instructor in a week-long College Board institute at Illinois Wesleyan in the summer of 2000. I’m also anxiously awaiting the copy of A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts that I ordered a few days ago to see what ideas she has surrounding whole class novels within a workshop setting.

Here are the steps of the process I employ to make our whole-class novels focused on what students decide is most important:


Step One: Everyone Reads the Book

I talked more about this in my post about inviting students to do the required reading in AP Lit. But the idea here is that we don’t start our work in earnest with a text until everyone has read it. I do provide some supports to students as they are reading to help them with comprehension and to encourage them to keep at it (the post I linked to above outlines this). But we don’t get to step two until everyone has read the book.


Step Two: Whole-class Brainstorm about the Book

In my classroom in Illinois where I first taught AP Lit many years ago, I would crowd the class around the chalkboard on the side of my room, ask for two scribes, and instruct the rest of the class to tell them what to write with this prompt: what do you know about/wonder about/think is important or confusing about the book? For most of this past school year, my first year back to AP after about 15 years, I thought I’d try some technology to accomplish this that I didn’t have before: Padlet. If you’re not familiar with Padlet, it’s basically an online bulletin board where people can post notes (see my class’s Padlet brainstorm on Frankenstein). The high-tech approach has some advantages for sure, but what was missing was the collective conversation. Somehow when everyone has computers in front of them, it’s difficult to get them to really talk to each other out loud. They got into some individual back-and-forth conversations on the Padlet, but each student was focusing on/working with a different part of it at the same time. It didn’t match the experience of my students doing the big brainstorm together on the chalk board in the classroom, where they were all looking at and working on the same emerging diagram together.

So for our last book of the year this spring, we went low tech and used the white board in the classroom:

First hour’s brainstorming session to discover topics for class discussion of Beloved. Collectively they wanted to make a timeline of what happens in the text in chronological order, but they quickly abandoned this when it became too difficult, which made them realize we should probably talk about the narrative structure of the text.
Second hour’s brainstorming session to discover their discussion topics for Beloved.

The first task I gave them was to just cover the board with thoughts/components of the book that seemed important, using the same prompt I used in the past. Then I asked them to make some connections–that’s what all the lines are. Lastly I asked them to identify what seemed most important. That’s the items circled in 1st hour’s brainstorm and the items notated with a different color in 2nd hour’s brainstorm.

I did ask my students which approach they preferred, low-tech or high-tech, and some wished we had done the Padlet again, but most preferred the low-tech experience for the different kind of whole-class conversation it inspired. I’ll likely continue to do this low tech in the future.


Step Three: Determine Discussion Topics

I always have the schedule for discussion days ready to go on brainstorming days so that as we narrowed the conversation down to the most important topics, we could go ahead and plan out who would lead which discussion on which day. Here’s what we ended up with for Beloved:

The discussion topics settled on by each class.

I always invite the students to assign one day and one topic to me. They usually make it what seems most difficult to tackle, and they often assign me the first discussion day, especially if it’s coming up quickly (which was the case here). Then we fill in the other discussion days with students as discussion leaders and topics that they determine on their own. You’ll see the topics they chose in the table above. You’ll also see that I had a practicum student from the local university with me this past semester and she took one of the discussion days as well. It’s a requirement for my class that every student leads a discussion at least once per semester. And I give them resources: instructions that include links to other supports they can consult. For our very first book of the year, I model several discussion days for each class so they can see what we’re aiming for: discussions focused on essential questions that get us digging into the text together to uncover meaning.

Our last discussion day is always a Socratic Seminar (my Socratic Seminar guidelines are here). This gives us the opportunity to hit any lingering topics that didn’t get covered on the other discussion days and to try to pull it all together. I always ask the same questions, one at a time, with several minutes of student-led discussion in between them: What’s the most important argument that this book makes? Is it a true argument about the human experience? Why does it matter to you as a human being in the present day? How does this book change you? (inspiration for these questions comes from Mark Edmundson–two of his books, Teacher and Why Read?, have heavily influenced my approach to teaching literature). Students come to these Socratic Seminars with the same ticket each time prepared ahead of time in their writer’s notebooks: a detailed list of at least 10 things they want to remember about the book. Having this in front of them during the seminar keeps it focused on their own individual reading experiences with the book rather than on what MY interpretations are.

But the seminar does give me some space to jump in with any big ideas about the text that I want students to be sure to think about. In the case of Beloved, I wanted to ask the students to think about Morrison’s concept of rememory alongside the past/present narrative structure of the text as being a possible explanation of how slavery trips us up as a country. It’s a traumatic past that constantly surfaces unbidden and affects us in our present day. My students pointed to the example of the two black men arrested in a Starbucks in Philadelphia while waiting for a business meetingwe continue to struggle with race. Morrison offers us a framework to think about that struggle. Our discussion days run by students were excellent, but we hadn’t quite pulled it all together yet to explore what the book was saying about our country’s history with slavery and how that has affected race relations well into the present day. So I made sure that at least some minutes of the Socratic Seminar asked students to reflect on that.


Step Four: Synthesize the Conversation with Some Writing

There are other items in the schedule up there–the passage analysis and the open question timed write. For each book, I devise some kind of passage analysis task that gets students deep into some critical portion of the text and place the task at a point in our discussion schedule so that the close text analysis will inform our further discussion work with the text. With Othello, we analyzed Iago’s soliloquies to figure out what motive he had, if any. For Beloved, we dove into chapters 20-23, the ones where the novel drops us into stream-of-consciousness narration from each of the three main characters to make sense of their deepest motivations through their unspoken thoughts. For the open question timed write, I select actual open question prompts from past AP Lit exams that line up with what the students have been discussing with the text. This way, from the very beginning of our work with a shared text (brainstorm) to the very last thing we do with it (open question timed write), the focus is on what the students find important about the text and supporting them as they work to interpret difficult works of literature on their own, rather than watching me do this important work.


Yes, it’s possible that due to this student-driven approach, we could end up NOT discussing some aspect of a particular text that is likely pretty important. I’m okay with that. Let’s be honest–any one of the books on an AP Lit syllabus could be the focus of an entire course on its own and there would still be things left to discuss. Turning all of this over to the students benefits them as readers and thinkers and human beings, and that’s more important than any particular content about a piece of literature or canonized interpretation of it.

I have benefited from this approach as well as a reader. I know the books pretty well that are on the AP Lit syllabus for my school. I could easily put together a set of discussion topics and plan discussions and lead them all on my own. But then I’m really only hashing over my own interpretations of the books again and again. I cannot tell you how many times my students have surprised me by showing me a new perspective on a book I’d already read and taught multiple times. Every reader brings a new set of life experience to reflect off of the book. Each class full of students gives me 30 new sets of eyes to consider a text. And we each see something different. I choose to structure my class so that it doesn’t actually function if students don’t bring their ideas to the table. And wow, what they have taught me through the years…

In short, there is plenty of room for workshop-style student choice in an AP Lit class that requires students to read a set of novels together. Create space for students to have their own interpretations about the texts and build a structure for the class to tease out and focus on those interpretations. Teach them how to read and make sense of works of literature–the best practice we can offer them in reading their own lives in our complex world.

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, 21st century teaching and learning, AP Lit, blog series, cultivating real learning, engagement, literacy, reading, summer 2018 blog series, teaching literature, teaching reading, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Inviting Students to Read Required Books in AP Lit #WorkshopWorksForAP

Grade distribution for the summer reading exam over The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice

To the right is the grade distribution that describes how my students did last fall on the multiple choice exam over their summer reading books.

What would you conclude if presented with that set of data from your students: did they read the books assigned for summer reading?

The grades seemed pretty strong–only 16 of them (28%) got fewer than 80% of the questions wrong. Given how notorious we ELA teachers are for writing difficult and specific questions over the books our students read, this appears to be pretty strong data suggesting that they did in fact read.

But I wasn’t so sure.

So I asked them.

Only 42% of students reported to have read all of both books assigned for summer reading. 51% said they read one (most often The Great Gatsby) and some or none of the other (most often Pride and Prejudice).

Students wrote on a piece of paper how much of the assigned summer reading they completed and how carefully they read. I asked them for complete and total honesty because in order to teach them well, I needed to know exactly what I was dealing with. I assured them that there was no grade penalty whatsoever attached to what they said, so it would not hurt them to admit to not reading if that was the case.

I discovered that only 41% of them had actually read both books. Over half of them had completed one book only (having read some or none of the second book). Two students completed neither book but read some of both of them. And two students read none of either of the assigned books.

I saw a contradiction between what the multiple choice reading exam showed and what my students told me when I asked them. Had I based my assessment over whether or not they had done the summer reading solely on the exam, I would have been pretty confident that the vast majority of them had read both books. But the majority of them had NOT read both books.

How did they still do so well on the exam?

You know how. Sparknotes. Watching the movies. Shmoop. It’s actually pretty easy to do okay on a multiple choice exam over books you haven’t read as long as you consult enough of these kinds of sources. I know. I’ve done this. That’s how I survived AP English Literature myself as a high school senior. I read not even one of the assigned books and got a B in the class and a 5 on the exam.

I’ve been teaching high school ELA for a couple of decades. I was not actually surprised by how few of my students had actually completed the summer reading assignment. In fact, I surveyed a class of 30 students several years ago to get a sense of how much they read of what was assigned to them in school. Only ONE of the 30 students indicated that she had read every single book assigned in the previous year of school. Most students could not recall even one title of a book that had been assigned to them.

I want my students to read. To ACTUALLY read. And I want them to read because we must read to make sense of our existence as human beings.

So if my goal is that my students will actually read the books, I need different data to help me see if they are hitting that goal. The multiple choice reading test didn’t give me the information I need; there was no reason for me to continue this kind of accountability measure . So as I did back in August, I asked students throughout the school year to tell me about the reading, with complete honesty, with no grade penalty at stake. On the date we were scheduled to begin conversation about each book, I gave each student a note card and asked for an honest report about whether or not they completed that book and how carefully they read it. I read their note cards, wrote a note back to them, put some data in the gradebook about what they said, and ask them to tape the card into their writer’s notebook so they could keep track of their reading over the course of the year.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

The first book we discussed together in class was Gatsby. According to student self-reports at the start of the year about their summer reading, most of them had read the book in its entirety. It was the book they had most likely read had they only read one of the two books. But the summer reading self-report data showed a different story for the second book we discussed in class together, Pride and Prejudice. Most of them had NOT read it. They had some time to read P&P if they hadn’t completed it over the summer while we were dealing with Gatsby. And by the time we started discussing P&P in class, 71% reported that they actually read it in its entirety. I was thrilled. Only 6 of my students reported to have read only some of Pride and Prejudice.

71% of students reported to have read all of Pride and Prejudice by the date we started discussing it in class. This included students who did not read it over the summer as assigned but read it in time for our work with it in class.

I’ll let you scroll through the charts for the rest of the books we discussed together and follow up with some thoughts…

70% of students reported to have read all of Frankenstein by the date we started discussing it in class.
71% of students reported to have read Othello by the date we started discussing it in class.
57% of students reported to have read all of The House of the Spirits by the date we started discussing it in class. (There were several students absent on this day for a field trip.)
70% of students reported to have read all of Beloved by the date we started discussing it in class.

Pretty consistently, around 70% of my students said they read each book completely– except for The House of the Spirits. From talking with my students and reading what they wrote on their notecards to explain what got in the way of completing the book, I think the book’s length and complexity was an issue. Many students told me that they just didn’t give themselves enough time to read it or that it took more time than they thought it would. This will be helpful information to pass along to my students next year. It’s also important to note that it’s uncertain how the 10 or so absent students that day skewed the data.

Another consistent data point was the number of students for each book who reported to have only read some of the book–4 to 6 students. I would have liked to see that number decrease, and I will work on that for next year.

When students wrote on notecards for me to tell me honestly if they read or not, I also asked for them to tell me how carefully they read. It was here that I saw some real growth:

Only 32% of students said that they read the summer reading books carefully.
Only 38% said they read Pride and Prejudice carefully.
69% of students said that they read Frankenstein carefully.
52% of students said that what they read Othello carefully.
61% of students said that they read The House of the Spirits carefully.
70% of students said that they read Beloved, carefully.

I was glad to see the jump from how many students reported to have read carefully for the summer reading and for Pride and Prejudice to how many students said they read carefully for the remaining books. The slight dip on Othello I think is very likely connected to it being Shakespeare. It takes much more time and effort to read carefully, which some students admitted to not having done in their notecards to me due to the difficulty of the text. Several students told me that they started out reading very carefully but then just wanted to get it done.

Thank you for hanging in there with all of my graphs here–by mistake, I purchased a writer’s notebook that had graph paper instead of lined paper and, well, it inspired the graphing.

Putting my purchased-by-mistake graph paper writer’s notebook to good use.

But the point here is this: traditional accountability measures like reading quizzes/tests fail to give us the data we need to really know how our students are doing as readers. If there are high stakes attached to these measures (grades), then students might do whatever it takes to get the grade that they want. Often this includes things that they do instead of reading. If they can still do fine on the traditional accountability measure with out reading, then why would they engage in the difficulty of reading the challenging literature that an AP Lit course asks of them?


My students did reasonably fine on the multiple choice test over the two books that they were supposed to read for summer reading, yet only 41% of them actually read both books. I am not okay with that. I will not use traditional accountability measures to get my students to read. Here’s my alternate approach:

1) Dedicate class time to reading.

If reading is so important, then we need to spend class time doing it. Students will learn to value whatever it is that we teachers decide dedicate minutes in class to. Hence, my students have 30 minutes every Monday to read silently. I tell them that job #1 is reading the books assigned for class. Job #2 is reading other books of equal literary value (I provided to them the list of authors recommended by the College Board for AP Lit). Job #3 is reading anything they want. I have some ideas for next year to provide a bit more structure to the independent reading (a list of contemporary writers doing really incredible work like Jesmyn Ward, George Saunders, Mohsin Hamid, and Paul Beatty and some book clubs to help to cultivate some reading habits for life) (the Man Booker award winners and shortlist nominees has become a go-to for me in my own personal reading of late). The 30 minutes on Mondays for reading has become critically important in my classroom. Students know it’s their job to show up with a book to read. Many use this time to re-read sections of our assigned novels (which I love). I also invite them to use a few minutes of it to head to our school library to browse the fiction section as needed. I can monitor their reading and have some brief reading conferences. And I always try to sit down for at least a few minutes of it and read with them. It makes reading a thing we do together.

2) Re-purpose traditional accountability measures as low-stakes “reading comprehension checks.”

Since I’m not using reading quizzes as accountability measures, I have re-purposed them into “reading comprehension checks.” These are google forms that I build as I’m reading the book myself. It’s multiple choice so I can set the google form as a quiz and the students can get immediate feedback on how they did with the questions. They can go through the form as many times as they want–it will let them know which answers they got wrong but won’t tell them the right answers (look here for screenshots of the necessary google form settings). In this way, working through the form becomes a learning experience–they can use it to check and hone their understanding of the text. I make it available as they are reading so they can check comprehension as they go, but I set a date for completion about a week or so after the book is due for class discussion. As an example, here’s my reading comprehension check for Beloved. It’s a difficult read on so many levels, but the constant movement between present and past in the book makes simple comprehension of what’s happening in the story a challenge. Of course we talk about the purpose of the interplay of past and present in the narrative once we get into our discussion of the text, but I designed the reading comprehension check to help the students to keep track of what happened–present vs. past–in each chapter. There’s a list of plot events for each chapter and their job is to check off which of them happened in the present timeline of the book. You’ll see at the start of the google form that I drew the plot events from an online source (Shmoop). I’m working to model for them responsible use of those kinds of resources–alongside a text rather than instead of reading the book. Especially with a tough book like Beloved, students might give up if they have no help to make sense of things. There are many tools at their disposal that they can use to assist a successful reading of a difficult piece of literature.

3) Use a variety of strategies to support students as they work toward deadlines for assigned reading.

We don’t discuss or write about a book in class until the students have read it in its entirety. In a class like AP Lit, I have always wanted to have the entire text available for our work with it. Otherwise, it’s like trying to interpret a painting when you’ve only seen a little bit of it. I do know, however, that my students need some help along the way for a successful reading experience. I assign discussions in Google classroom (using the “question” feature). Students post a thought or question they have about the reading when we are maybe 2 weeks away from the due date for discussion and then read other students’ posts and choose one to respond to. This becomes an opportunity for me to monitor what they are thinking about the reading and jump in to offer some clarification where needed. And it’s a bit of encouragement to read. The weekly in-class reading time also helps here because I can check in with students if they’re struggling with the reading and offer some individualized instruction. I also launch the reading of each book with a short presentation–who wrote the book, what was going on in the world when the book was written, what the key elements of the text are, what might be difficult, some essential questions to consider as they read, etc. I spend no more than 20 minutes on this, but it lends some context and background to students for their reading and also is a very clear “hey, you need to start reading this book!” And of course having the reading comprehension checks available for students while they are reading can be an important support to them. So I’m not assigning ranges of chapters and working with students as they read, but I am offering some supports to them, suggestions about how to manage their time to hit the reading due dates for each book, and creating natural opportunities for me to monitor their reading along the way.

4) Be an active member of the reading community.

I have to remember that I’m a critical member of our reading community. I re-read the books every time I teach them, and I tell students how it’s going–quick updates at the beginning of class, stories about my efforts to get through a book, etc. I also talk a lot with them about my own reading practice. Over the last several years, I’ve made concerted efforts to read more and to model that for my students. There’s a link in my email signature to my Goodreads account, and I also post that link on my Google Classroom pages so students can take a look at what I’ve read, what I’m reading, and what I plan to read.

5) Frequently collect meaningful data on their reading progress.

I ask students every week how their reading is going. They fill out a google form that takes them only a few moments during Monday’s reading time. The form asks them how much time they spent reading in the past week (I ask for 2 to 3 hours), what they read during that time, how the reading is going, and what their reading plans are for the next week. I look over the resulting data to make plans for reading conferences, and cumulatively over the course of a semester, I end up with a detailed portrait of each student as a reader. This is way better information for me than a bunch of reading quiz scores. This information actually gives me a shot at helping students strengthen as readers–not just for my classroom, but for the rest of their lives. (This is what I say to them on the last day of school, that their assignment is to read books that challenge them as human beings for 2 to 3 hours per week for the rest of their lives.)

6) Do not attach any grades to students’ reading progress. 

This is so critical. You can read much more about my approach to grades in my blog series on grading. But the relevant point here is that students may not be totally honest with us about their actual progress as readers if they know that there is some high stakes grade consequence for what they say about it. And it’s high stakes to our students if there is some kind of score attached to reading progress data that calculates into the overall grade that students monitor so carefully through our online gradebooks. Even in my gradebook where I tell students that the number they see is not their grade but rather a simple metric to let us know if they are getting the work done or not, I don’t let the reading progress data I collect have any impact on the number the gradebook spits out. I build a qualitative data record instead. It looks like this:
The words you see in the last column are the student’s own. They are what she typed into the weekly reading check in google form. I did a simple copy/paste from the spreadsheet holding the google form data to the gradebook–this takes me about three minutes per class. For very little time and effort on my part, I have an excellent qualitative data record on this student’s reading progress. I can use this to get insight into her life as a reader. And she was honest with me because she knows there was no grade penalty if she didn’t achieve the weekly reading goal.


What do you do to invite your AP Lit students to read the required texts?

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 #DisruptGrading, #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, gradebook, making change, motivating students, summer 2018 blog series, teaching literature, teaching reading, workshop teaching | 9 Comments

Heading to Houston for #NCTE18

We look forward to this conversation with you in November:

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

The importance of writing with your students… #WorkshopWorksForAP

I’m teaching AP Lit for the first time in about fifteen years this year. And I’ve started doing something that I never did in those years before: I’m doing the timed writings I ask of them. When they sit down to write, so do I. Under the same time restrictions, they and I both struggle to make sense of a dense passage or of an abstract poem or work to conjure up enough to say about a novel that we’ve read and discussed together.

The first few I wrote were the poetry or passage analysis type of prompt. We all had the same text sitting in front of us, the same question to answer, the same blank sheets of lined paper, the same requirement for blue or black ink, the same chunk of time. I discovered that the task is really challenging, and even more challenging with the limited time. I discovered that my brain maybe works more complexly than it did when I was seventeen–good because I could find more to write about but bad because it was complicated and difficult to reign in concisely in about 45 minutes. The result of me writing with them was some first-hand knowledge of their experience and a better ability to coach them in my feedback as I read their work and talked with them as a class about how they all approached the analysis.

But it was in the “question 3” style essay that we wrote where I really started to wonder why I had never written the timed essays with my students. I found a couple of prompts from the list of past AP Lit exam prompts that I thought would be fruitful for my students to write about Othello a few weeks ago as our ultimate culmination of our work with the text. We had a fruitful socratic seminar conversation the day before the timed writing, which is an excellent prewriting activity. My students have always struggled with clear theme statements that capture what they think a work of literature is asking of us as human beings, so as they spoke in the seminar, I made sure to point out the theme statements that naturally spilled out of the conversation. I encouraged students to list theme statements in their writer’s notebooks and think about which aspects of the text got to those themes–good prep, I thought, for the next day’s timed essay.

And then I went home and spent my evening probably reading student papers and such per usual, not thinking anything of the timed writing task that was waiting for my students and me in class the next day.

And I was woefully unprepared.

I’m the teacher, right? I had all the text details in my head, right? Surely I was ready to write an awesome essay. Hmm.

I struggled. Significantly. When I needed a clear, concise theme statement that lined up with the prompt I had chosen to write to, I couldn’t pull one forward in my head as readily as I needed to. I stumbled through the intro–it took me ten of my precious minutes to write it, and it came out of me in fits and spurts, many words crossed out along the way. By the end of the intro, I had a plan for the rest of the essay, but I struggled even more. I kept asking myself, “when exactly was that moment when Iago said________?” And “at what point of the play did Othello____________?” I had the generalities of the play at my fingertips, but the specific details I needed to write a well-supported interpretive analysis were nowhere available in my mind. It was so frustrating.

The bell rang and I wasn’t even close to being finished. I wrote hugely on my paper where the rest of the essay should have been, “LESSON LEARNED: review theme statements and text details for a more successful writing experience.”

Then I started to wonder how many of my students had had a similarly frustrating writing experience. I know the prep work I needed to do and didn’t do, but do they? Do they know what they should be doing to prepare for this kind of task?

Since then, we’ve made some changes. The last few minutes of every discussion day about our books is reserved for some very targeted writer’s notebook work–collecting theme statements and details from the text that students could use to write an essay arguing for that particular theme statement. Here is one page of notes in my writer’s notebook toward that goal:

Had I not been writing timed writes with my students, I would not have seen–from inside the process of doing a timed write–that my students needed some additional instruction. The few minutes we spent on theme statements and related text details at the end of class discussions this past semester were time extremely well spent. Students reported that they felt prepared for the open question on the AP exam due to this work that we did.

One cornerstone of writing workshop is that the teacher needs to be a writer too. The idea is that writing is best taught by someone in the midst of the struggle of writing. You see things there that you don’t see if you’re standing on the outside, watching your students write and then responding to their writing from there. How long has it been since you did the kind of timed writing required on the AP Lit exam? Get in there and write with your students. Yes, you’re trading the precious time you get when an entire class is busy with something for a class period and they don’t need you. Yes, you have to find time outside of class to do your own prep work for the essay. Yes, I’m asking you to willingly do something that’s kind of frustrating–spitting out a coherent argument about a complex text in the space of 45 minutes or so. But I argue it’s necessary. (And the literature geek in me thinks it’s actually kind of fun!)

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, summer 2018 blog series, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writing with students | 3 Comments


One reason I go to NCTE every year is to listen.

There are people I try to see every year, just to hear what they are thinking about and working on. Just to hear what they think the rest of us need to think about and work on. Ever since I first saw him at NCTE16, Cornelius Minor has become one of those people.

Cornelius was the key note speaker at the CEL luncheon–my first time ever attending the conference after the conference. At the core of his talk was a call to action: support teachers to take on their own classroom-based action research that confronts the problems that plague their classrooms. He framed all of this with a larger conversation about systems that oppress our students, about how when we remain neutral in a stream we go with it, about how when we remain neutral in a system, we perpetuate it. About how it’s not enough to just say you’re against a system that oppresses–you have to actively disrupt it. He presented a lengthy list of places where oppression hides in schools, and grading wasn’t on the list, but it certainly belongs there.

The grading system as we know it–points/grades for compliance and a constantly updating, high stakes grade in the electronic gradebook–fails to empower students to own their learning and growth. It’s a power system where the one who awards the points and grades has all the power and students are left scrambling to collect as many points as they can.

What our students need to be doing instead is honing their skills as readers and writers. Ours is a complex world to read. They need to be able read that complexity if they’ll be able to write their own futures within it.

Cornelius reminded us that what we teach–literacy–at its center is not an academic pursuit. It’s a socio-political one. Literacy sits at the core of democracy. Teaching literacy is a radical concept, he explained, and denying literacy of any human is one of the most vicious forms of oppression that there is.

My no-grades journey has always been about empowering students. It’s always been about creating a classroom where they own the learning rather than waiting for the numbers I put in the gradebook to tell them if they’ve learned anything or not. When it was about the number, the points, the grade, that is all my students looked at rather than the critically important learning they need to do.

When I’ve said in the past “stop grading,” it doesn’t really capture the work we need to do. In most cases, we can’t stop grading. I can’t. I still have to get to semester grades. But there’s nothing that says I can’t get there in ways that will lead to more empowerment for my students. I can disrupt the grading that is expected of me. THAT is what I’ve been up to for the last four years, even though along the way I didn’t quite have the right term to capture it.

So let’s disrupt grading. The blog series I wrote last fall is about that. I’m hoping to turn it into a book–that’s been my focus of late, and it’s the main reason this blog hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should.

Best of luck fellow teacher friends out there with the end of the semester. At my school, we have one more week for finals. I’m buried in semester grade letters–but the stories my students are telling me about their journeys as readers and writers this semester are inspiring. I’m loving every moment of it.

We can make grading a route to empowerment. We can make the semester grade an opportunity for reflection over and celebration of our students’ learning.

We can disrupt grading.

Posted in #DisruptGrading, #NCTE17, #StopGrading, gradebook, grading, not grading, reflections, the system, things made of awesome | 2 Comments

The English Teacher Blues (#ncte17)

Home already, thanks to the magic of air travel. There wasn’t really a venue for this at the conference, but I did a ton of writing this year at NCTE. And I did manage to work up a whole song. Just for you all. So here, in its global premier, is ‘The English Teacher Blues.’


Posted in #NCTE17, things made of awesome | Tagged | 2 Comments

Fear and Loathing in St. Louis (#NCTE17)

I know that sounds terrible, but it was the only good title I could think of. (I’m writing on my phone at the airport, forgive the typos)

I had a great time at NCTE.

I saw old friends, made new friends, and we got Tracey to blog!!!!

That’s a lot of wins. And I like wins.

But my theme for this conference is authenticity, which means being real. And the real is I also heard some tough stuff at this conference.

We were talking at dinner on Friday and someone I really respect (Stevi Quate- check her out, she’s awesome) challenged me to really think through how I would encourage and advise a fellow teacher to start changing things in the classroom in the way that we’ve been advocating. I like being challenged and pushed and it was a fair call, especially knowing how hard it is to enact change under even the best of circumstances.

In our presentation on Saturday many teachers asked about how to do the things we do when there is either subtle or overt resistance to change in departments, schools and districts, and from colleagues, administrators, and communities. Those are serious questions that we are trying to answer (here’s one take from a while back- it’s hardly complete, but it’s a start).

At dinner I finally got the full story about a teacher who nearly lost a job because of what they posted online. It’s a long and interesting story, and I encouraged that teacher to write about it, because it’s a story that needs to be told.

Last night we went to Fountains of the Muse (holy crap people, why didn’t someone tell us about this, and why aren’t you ALL there. Never mind, next year I’m making you go). We got talking, near the end, about the challenge of being who we really are as teachers and people (I’m a musician, and I think that raised some questions, since I’m also a teacher). Several folks shared about the fear they feel around revealing parts of themselves as teachers. We shared a bit about our fears about blogging when we first started- and we did have fears.

And we are judged, and shamed, and silenced. Often. In our departments, in our schools, in our districts, and in our state and national politics. That is the real. That is one of our truths. And we need to speak that truth.

Here’s another truth. There are a lot of us. Together we have a big voice. A really big voice. NCTE is a way to connect with others, to amplify our voice. Find other ways. Make friends and allies. In your school. Your neighborhood. Your union. Your local politics. Your state association. Twitter (yes, it’s a cesspool, but it’s also a great way to connect). However you do it, find your people, find your voice, be heard. We need all of us to join in here. Even you.

Posted in #NCTE17, balancing, community, cultivating our voice, relationship | 1 Comment

“Teachers are Magic, and Magic is Dangerous!” – DJ Older

Yes, I am finally joining the Paper Graders as an official member!  Mrs. B is here! We had an amazing day at NCTE today, including a presentation entitled Stop Grading: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning to over 200 people in a not-quite-big-enough room at the St. Louis Convention Center. Sarah and Jay spoke about how they are teaching students to take ownership of their own learning by creating their own learning goals, becoming better at reading their own writing and finding flaws in their drafts which they can correct. I shared how my IB students practice for their Oral Exams by pairing up and sitting across from each other with one person as the speaker and one as the listener, and while the speaker delivers his or her commentary on a poem or soliloquy or piece of prose, the listener listens, very carefully, and takes copious notes on the commentary being given by their partner. The exercise is one to prepare them for their Oral Exam in January, since there is no way for me to sit with each of my 90 IB students and listen to a 10-minute commentary. They are learning how to listen carefully, take notes carefully, present a commentary in a compelling way, and then give feedback to their partner that will help them improve in their next attempt at an oral commentary. The point being that I am trying to teach my IB students who are getting ready to head off to college, work, the military or world travel how to speak clearly, listen carefully, and help another human being improve their efforts at speaking and listening. These are skills that will help them in college, in jobs, in life, and they are also learning how to be more independent from me, the teacher, and help each other without my interference. In the end, these practice sessions help me as much as they help them, because I don’t need to be listening to every word of 90 students, but can listen in and offer a helping hand when needed.

My day started with a wonderful walk with Sarah Zerwin down by the riverside as we ventured early this morning to the Saint Louis Archway Park and surveyed the Arch itself, along with the park around the Arch, the trails leading down to the river, and the life of St. Louis on an early Saturday morning. We saw a river barge going by, just as it would have many years ago, we saw the sun come out from behind the clouds to light up the Arch, we saw an amazing bronze statue of Lewis and Clark returning from their long exploration to the Pacific Ocean, and we saw a beautiful little cobblestoned section of St. Louis called Laclede’s Landing, St. Louis’ oldest district. The sad part of our journey was that we saw a few runners and Park rangers, but not many other people, a common theme in our few days here in the city that has served as the Gateway to the West. Jay noticed that there seems to be an emptiness in St. Louis, as if the life of the city has been punched out in the last few years. We heard some poetry shared by Noana, a young teacher at tonight’s Fountain of the Muse session after all the other NCTE participants had gone home, that backed up what we were feeling. She lives here, and she wrote a beautiful poem about St Louis, about the old buildings that seem to have black eyes from the blown-out windows, and the empty streets, and she told us that St. Louis has always wanted to be a big city, but is still and ever was a small town.

My first conference activity this morning was going to hear Sara Ahmed, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, and Stephanie Harvey speak on Igniting Kids’ Curiosity and Passion with Student-Directed Inquiry Circles. My favorite part was Sara’s section on Soft Starts, where the elementary and middle schools they work with have a 5-15 minute “soft start” to the day where they come into the classroom, find a book or newspaper or magazine, find a comfortable beanbag chair or place on the floor, and read for a few minutes before they begin class. Another version of this soft start that Smokey Daniels presented was a middle school in Kentucky that has kids waiting at the door to come in and choose to do a dance party or reading or work on hands-on projects for a few minutes before the day of learning begins. The end product in all of these experiments was a group of students who were more settled, more relaxed, and more ready to learn. I thought about how I practice a “soft start” with my high school classes by asking them to pause each morning for 3-5 minutes to do a mindfulness exercise. Sometimes we just focus on breathing, sometimes we do morning sun salutations outside facing the sun or the Flatirons, and sometimes we lie down on the floor, put our feet on the chairs in astronaut position and just take a few minutes to calm our minds and bodies. The result for my students is that they can then come to the work of the day in a more relaxed and more focused mood, and they are able to get more work done in less time, because they have a clear mind and a more relaxed body to get into whatever we are working on that day.

For lunch, I was fortunate to go to the Secondary Section Luncheon where Daniel Jose Older, who has a new YA book called Shadowshaper out, spoke to us about the value of teachers in supporting and encouraging young writers to become committed writers of the future. He said “Teachers are magic, and magic is dangerous!” and he spoke about how his mother, who was a teacher, encouraged him in his writing and creativity, as did his teacher in middle school, who gave him a book entitled Bloodchild by Octavia Butler. He didn’t read it or really understand it until 10 years later, but when he did, it became one of his inspirations for writing his own work. He said he did not see himself in books because he was a young boy of Cuban descent in New York, and he said most books he read in school did not contain black or brown characters unless they were being saved by white men. He asked us “How do you survive the long night of invisibility when you love a genre that doesn’t love you back?” Great question, and one that he is trying to answer by writing YA books that feature young characters of color who are powerful in their own right. Daniel ended his talk with the statement that “Literature’s job is not to protect young people from the ugly world around them, it is to arm them with language to describe what they already know.” Powerful words from a powerful writer.

So what did I learn today? I learned that the best way to get to know a place is by getting outside and walking in the streets and parks and secret sections of town. I learned that soft starts can work for children of any age, and I would say soft starts would even work in an adult work environment too, if adults could put down their cup of coffee and calm themselves for a few minutes before diving into work. I learned that I need to be more aware of the diversity in my classroom, and how I must choose works which speak to all the cultures and colors present there. I learned that “Teachers are magic, and magic is dangerous!” And I learned that spending my time, money, and effort to come to the national conference to present with my colleagues brings me closer to them in the shared expenditure of energy, and allows us to share some of the work we are doing at our high school with the rest of the teaching world.


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