Writing Groups to Inspire Young Writers

After having attended the UCI Writing Project Summer Institute for Teachers, I was inspired to implement Writing Groups because with much self-reflection, I realized that I was teaching writing in my classroom, but not necessarily creating an environment that treated my students as writers. I did not want to be the teacher that, like Kelly Gallagher mentioned, was teaching the 4×4 model with a piece of literature each quarter followed by a writing assignment. I never viewed myself as a writer, but after my own experience in my personal writing group last summer, I noticed a new passion for writing, and believed that if I provided my students with this opportunity, they would benefit just as much, if not more than me.

Implementation:

During the first few weeks of the Fall semester, my students wrote the Memory Snapshot paper and I introduced them to their assigned Writing Groups. I used Fridays as Writing Group days and explained the process. Each student needed to bring enough copies of his or her writing for each member of the Writing Group and he or she was to ask for his or her group’s members  to either “bless, address, or press” their written compositions (see screenshot of Google Slides directions below). Students knew going into the process that I was not grading them other than giving credit or no credit for being prepared with enough copies of their writing. At the end of each Friday’s meeting, Writing Groups pick a piece to showcase and I place the writing up on my Showcase wall (see image belows). Writing Groups meet once a month for the whole school year. Below is a list of the writing assignments for each Writing Group meeting thus far.

September: Memory Snapshot

October: Object Piece

November: Open (writing of choice)

December: Mrs. Dubose Speech

January: no meeting

February: Allegory Project

March: Writing Feedback w/ 6th graders

After three months of Writing Groups, I felt the need to do more with my students’ writing, so each class began a blog; I wanted students to experience the feeling of publishing a piece of writing and having it in an open forum for feedback. Now, students meet in Writing Groups once a month and post one composition a month on the class blog. Students also have the freedom to post any piece they would like whenever they so choose. For some students, this is their only outlet to share their writing and explore their creativity. I have embedded class time for students to go onto the blog and read their peers’ posts and offer feedback and or post comments.

Finally, this past month I collaborated with a seventh grade teacher in my district and we used my Writing Groups to offer peer feedback to his seventh graders as they wrote an argumentative essay about drone racing. His students put links to both their planning documents and rough drafts, and in Writing Groups, my students pulled up these documents and offered the seventh graders feedback on how best to improve their writing. My students were very engaged with the process, and the seventh grade teacher commented that his students found the feedback very helpful. I think this collaboration made my students feel even more like writers as they were the “experts” offering editing and revision advice to younger members in their community.

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Excerpts from student writing:

Memory Snapshot:

“Heat, the silent monster attacking me as the gleaming pinnacle of half dome lies in sight, rising above the vast Yosemite Valley. One who dare make the near 20 mile loop to reach this sight will see the end a staggering 2 miles from the rocky peak. I turn to my dad “I can see the top! Are we almost there?” he replies “Were close, but it’s still a little ways.” That is his favorite phrase “it’s a little ways” he uses it whenever we go on these kinds of trips because it maintains hope. 2 members of our party are ahead of me, trudging along the trail as two others are slightly behind. We all have one goal, and it lies 500 feet above us still. That may seem meek to the 5000 we have just accomplished, but the previous miles were nothing compared to the final trials of the dirt riddled trail that lingers with the aroma of pine. Ahead lies step 1 of a 200 foot direct stair climb. Each step is a full 2 feet at least as I scramble to the top. By this point I had completely depleted my water source and my mouth felt like it was filled to the brim with cotton. Yet, I still managed to persist in my climb. The man at the bottom of the stairs had warned us of the ominous storm clouds rising before us. “If it begins to storm, don’t come back to find me, because I’ll be gone.” I could not understand how we could be fearful of a storm in weather that was so excruciatingly burning. “

Object Piece:

Stumbling into my room with blurry eyes filled with tears, I flung myself onto my fluffy couch, wishing that my life ceased to exist. Today included one of the biggest tragedies I had ever faced, and all I wanted was to be alone in the darkness, under a bundle of cozy blankets and silence to mourn in my sadness. Anger unexpectedly washed over me as I violently knocked down anything near me. But then I saw it, and paused. A pillow, soft blue with faded sewn flowers and trees powdered in dust. Nothing that special, as you might think, except for the fact that it had the touch and protection from my beloved grandmother. It seemed like ages passed from her sorrowful death, but it had only happened an hour ago. Memories of her joyful laughter and somber hugs suddenly flip like pages in a book in my mind, moving faster and faster, until it finally stops at the last page.

I am four years old again, running with my bare, pudgy feet on our family’s grassy backyard. It’s a bright morning, with sunlight shining through the clear, azul sky and occasional puffy clouds drifting past. Grandma sits relaxed on a brittle, rocking chair made of cheap, worn-down wood. She smiles at my poor attempt to catch a nearby butterfly, for I am fascinated by its vibrant colors and intricate patterns. I beam back, and walk towards her direction, leaving the butterfly to happily flutter away.

Noticing that she has a fistful of vibrant colored fabrics in her right hand, and an unraveled blue spool of thread in her other, I curiously ask, “What are we playing today, Grandma?”

She chuckles, replying, “No, dear, this is a gift I am making for you. It’s your early birthday present, and I am almost done.”

I excitedly yell, “Oh, Grandma, thank you! What is this gift you are preparing?”

“You’ll see. Let us keep it as a mystery for now,” she answers playfully.

I then sit beside her, watching her slow but steady progress. Examining her careful fingers as she skillfully weaves the needle back and forth through the fabric, and her squinting eyes that strain to see and ensure her accuracy, I begin to realize her immense heart that drives her efforts in working her hardest.”

Mrs. Dubose Speech:

“The Mrs. Dubose of my life was not a singular circumstance or incident but instead was an epic odyssey of ups and downs spanning over a period of few years that would sear a mark into my subconscious, leaving a permanent scar.

The beginning starts in a fifth series BMW parked in a Sprout’s parking lot. Imagine 10 year old me lazily reclining in the passenger seat, regretting tagging along to the grocery store, when my chipmunk face contorts with the sudden awareness of what felt like my entire chest cavity vibrating from the inside. Three Google searches, two helicopter parents, and one doctor’s appointment later, I was diagnosed with paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. That very scary sounding name translates into the heart’s electrical circuit board has extra cells that randomly short out, messing up the pathways (imagine a train track changing when it is not supposed to), causing my heart to beat over 200 times per minute. A simple surgery could correct it, but I decided that was too serious of a solution to what seemed like a not so serious problem, and I agreed to “wait and see what happens.””

Links to Class Blogs:

http://1516lam1.blogspot.com/

http://1516lam2.blogspot.com/

http://1516lam4.blogspot.com/

http://1516lam6.blogspot.com/

Reflection:

I knew almost instantly that implementing Writing Groups was going to change how my students and I viewed writing in the classroom. As I walk the classroom during Writing Group days, the conversations I hear about writing and revision are almost inexplicable, especially coming from young thirteen and fourteen year old boys and girls. What warms my heart is when I say that this week is Writing Groups, and I hear an overwhelming, “Yes!” The following outlines the changes I have observed in my classroom since Writing Group Implementation:

  • Student desire to get effective writing feedback from peers
  • Students feel part of a community within the classroom
  • Students believe their writing can be improved with practice and revision
  • Students pay closer attention to author’s craft while reading (mimic writer’s moves)
  • Students are developing a growth rather than fixed  mindset about their writing

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Fostering Creativity

Last year I showed my students Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about schools killing creativity and we had a discussion about whether they agreed or disagreed with his argument. Every student felt that during their school day, creativity was definitely NOT a skill that their teachers were trying to foster. Sadly, many felt that even their own parents killed their creativity, as they were told not to pursue their love of music or art, as it would not provide a stable income for them in the future. Right about this time, we were finalizing our study of the allegory, Animal Farm. I figured the best way for students to understand the purpose of the genre was to write their own allegories and I made it a goal to encourage both written and artistic creativity. It was a huge success, so this is now a unit I implement every year.

During the process, I encourage students to either develop a movie or book plot that symbolizes a historical event of their choosing. The steps include researching the historical event, diagramming plot, writing a scene or chapter passage, designing a book cover or movie trailer and presenting to the class.

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Outline for Project HERE.

Student Outline Sample #1

Student Outline Sample #2

Sample Book Covers:

Allegory Book Cover
Mixture of both hand drawn illustration and electronic text
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Made with Canva
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Mixture of both hand drawn illustration and electronic text

Sample Presentations:


A huge part of fostering student creativity is offering students choice. This year, I had students ask if they could use certain tech tools and or create book trailers instead of book covers, and my response was always “go for it!” Sir Ken Robinson says “we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it;” our job as teachers in the 21st century is to reverse this trend and the only way to do so is to make a conscious effort to design learning environments that “educate [our students]” into “their  creative capacities.”

Robinson, Ken Sir. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” TED Conference. CA, Monterey. 2 Feb. 2009. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Let’s Take a Walk Down My Writing Lane

During my unit, Power, Leadership and Change, my students write a literary response essay about the novel, Animal Farm. My goals are to improve their thesis and topic sentence development, along with their quote integration. Here are the steps we have taken during the writing process. Now that I am looking at the final products, I realize I still have work to do; therefore, I am adding a new step and continuing the revision process.

1. Thesis Throwdown

I have six prompts to choose from and students work in Lit Circles to develop thesis statements for each prompt. See my post about this step here. The idea was inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog post. Check it out!

2. Rough Draft Document w/ Model Essay

I use Doctopus to share a document that breaks down each step of the essay (this can be done w/ Google Classroom). On the document, I have a model RTL essay about another piece of literature written by a previous anonymous student. After Thesis Throwdown, students work on their RTL introductions on this document.

Sample RTL Intro

3. Introduction Gallery Walk

The next morning, I get to school early and print six anonymous introductions written the night before by the students (I have access because I sent out the Docs via Doctopus; you can do this w/ Google Classroom). I attach these to what I call my “parking lots” and Lit Circles walk around critiquing the introductions. I then randomly ask one to two students per Lit circle to share our “areas of growth” as  introduction writers. I then require students to open up their Google Documents and revise, paying attention to  these “areas of growth.”

4. Topic Sentence Class Give and Get

Once students have revised introductions, they write their body paragraphs one at a time. After writing their first body paragraph, I print out anonymous topic sentences written by my students the night before (a class set- 35 different topic sentences). As a student enters the class, I hand them a topic sentence. During the Give and Get, students try to meet up with as many students as possible to get feedback on how best to revise the topic sentence assigned to them. After about five minutes, students report to their Lit Circle parking lot and decide whose topic sentence has the most room for growth (this may or may not be a topic sentence written by a group member). They then attach it to their parking lot and revise it as a group. Representatives from each Lit Circle then share the original sentence and revised version. After this process, students then sit down, open their Google Documents and revise their own topic sentences that were written the night before. Finally, I assign the writing of their next body paragraphs with time to write in class.

5. Quote Clash

This activity is much like Thesis Throwdown. The goal is to help students write clear quote sandwiches as evidence to prove their thesis statements. I share a Google Document with the Lit Circles that has room for six quote sandwiches. I then one at a time display a quote on the screen and Lit Circles have six minutes to write a quote sandwich (context, smoothly integrated quote, and analysis). When the timer goes off, a secretary then posts the quote sandwich on the class Padlet wall. Groups then must vote for the quote sandwich that is the strongest. If their vote matches mine, they earn a bonus point. Throughout the process, I stop to discuss strengths and areas of growth of the quote sandwiches posted to the Padlet wall. This activity occurs before a revision day, where students then must review and revise their quote sandwiches, paying close to attention to pointers discussed during Quote Clash.

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6. GoFormative Assessment and Revision

I love using GoFormative to have students score class writing and make revisions. I will add screenshots of student writing and ask students to score with a rubric (4 point scale) to see if  they have the ability to recognize what makes strong writing. I  screenshot samples of low, middle and high writing and ask students to explain their scores and/or revise the sample writing to make it stronger.

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7. Score w/ Student Goobric

On the day the RTL was due, students used the Student Goobric extension to self-assess their writing with our school Literary Response rubric. This was my first time trying it out and we did have some hiccups, but for those students that had no technical issues, it was beneficial to give time for reflection. The students that had technical issues used a printed version of the rubric, which is not as convenient for me, since I have to have these with me while I am grading. With the Student Goobric extension, wherever I am with my technology, I have the ability to see their self-assessment.

On this day, I also had them highlight their thesis statement and topic sentences and leave me a feedback question with a comment explaining which activity helped their writing the most. I will use this feedback to guide my lesson planning during our next writing process.

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8. Offering Feedback with Kaizena

Because my students left me specific questions about their essays, I wanted to be sure I spent time giving adequate feedback. However, I realized as I started the process that this was going to be quite time consuming (130+ students). I tried opening the documents and offering feedback with the Google Voice Typing, but I found that it often misspelled my words, which was even more time consuming to fix. My Digital Learning Coach mentioned Kaizena, so I played with it this weekend. I sent out a Remind 101, offering students a few bonus points if they joined my Kaizena classes. I also added the shortcut addon to my Google Document app (this allows me to add student papers to Kaizena even if a student hasn’t added himself/herself to my class yet). Yesterday, I offered feedback to at least 40 students from home. I LOVED the voice comments capability and the ability to add lessons. There are curated lessons, but you can also add your own. I have links to my favorite videos/pdfs/web resources for skills such as quote integration, analysis, thesis statement writing, etc. With my added lessons, I can highlight the students’ text in their essay and quickly provide them with a link to the resource.

Kaizena

Because what’s most important to me is my students’ writing growth, I am going to extend the due date after I have provided feedback to ALL my students in Kaizena…this is a long Writer’s Lane, but I am sure the walk will be well worth it!

 

 

Let’s Have Fun!

During my 13th year of teaching, I was working with one of my APs to institute Instructional Rounds on our campus. With a small group, we read the book and then before beginning the implementation process, I asked him to observe my class with a form we created. During the debriefing, which was the best post observation conference I have ever had (not because it was all commendations, but because he made me self-reflect), he asked, “Would you want to be a student in your class today?” It was a simple question, but I was silent for a few minutes, and while I would say it was an engaging lesson, my answer was just “I think so.” When he left, the question resonated with me and till this day, it still does. This has motivated me to make a concerted effort to always make sure that as I make choices about learning objectives, tech tools and lesson design to also make my class engaging and fun. Here are a few lesson ideas I have implemented that you may want to try and/or adapt.

1. Blocks for English Humanity

Yes, this is adapted from Cards Against Humanity…hahaha! One weekend I played the game for the first time and had a blast! It made me wonder how I could adapt the game to fit some of my English objectives. I had some wooden blocks I ordered from Amazon, and had two ideas: 1. use them to practice sentence types 2. use them to examine literary devices in our literature. I picked the latter for now, but still have intentions to try the sentence types route somehow.

Each Lit Circle receives a block with literary devices written on each side. During each round, one student acts as a judge and rolls the block. The others are reviewing the previous night’s reading to search for an example of the literary device showing on the block. They then type them anonymously on their group’s Padlet wall. The judge gets to pick the quote they feel best exhibits the device and the student who wrote that quote earns a point. The judges rotate and the goal is to be the student with the highest score in the Lit Circle. I give each winner (6 per period) 1 bonus point for the reading quiz that follows.

I love this activity because one, students are forced back into the text to review, and secondly, because students are forced to have conversations about author’s craft. I often overhear students talking about the author’s intentions or whether the quote is in fact the literary device that the student is suggesting. Finally, it’s fun!

Student Directions

2. Thesis Throwdown

I learned about this activity from Catlin Tucker’s blog. I adapted it a bit, but the idea is the same. My students are in Lit Circles and competing to earn points. I project a writing prompt on the screen and students have 4 minutes to work with their group to construct a thesis statement. I use Doctopus to manage a Google Document that is shared with me and their groups (I haven’t switched to Google Classroom yet because I love that group sharing a Document and assessing w/ Goobric is so user friendly w/ Doctopus). I encourage students to use the comment box to revise/edit and collaborate as they devise a thesis. Once the timer is up, a group secretary must post the thesis statement to the period’s Padlet wall. The groups must then pick the best thesis statement during the round, but cannot vote for their own. I give groups who vote for my pick a bonus point to encourage them to judge wisely and not strategically for a win. After the final round, the team with the most points wins.

I love this activity because students get to work with all leveled writers to see and hear the process of devising a thesis statement. They then also have access to every group’s thesis statements on the Padlet wall to see samples as they write their literary response essays. There are also great teachable moments for me, as I can explain why one thesis statement is stronger than another, and how best to revise weak thesis statements.

Thesis Throwdown (1)Thesis Throwdown Pic

Thesis Throwdown

3. Team Textual Tussle

I use Team Textual Tussle as a way to review a night’s reading AND to practice writing with quote integration. I pick words or phrases that are significant from the previous night’s reading and display them one at a time. In Lit Circles, students must write a quote sandwich that shows the importance of the word/phrase. Each student must write on a separate sheet of paper and also be assigned a letter a-f in his/her group. After a couple of minutes in, I will call out a letter. Each student that is assigned this letter must run up and attach  his/her quote sandwich to the group’s parking lot (on my white boards). The first group that has a STRONG quote sandwich earns a point. Throughout the process, I will place the quote sandwiches under the document camera and explain the strengths and weaknesses. Just because a group is first to put their quote sandwich up on the parking lot does not ensure them the point. If the writing has weak quote integration and/or analysis, I will move on to assess the next group’s quote sandwich. The Lit Circle with the most points after all the rounds wins.

Team Textual Tussle Directions

I am always looking for fun, engaging activities to teach writing and grammar, so please share your ideas!

Today Tomorrow Always

I have been at my new school site for a year and a half now and as a fourteen year Veteran English teacher, I can say with extreme confidence that I have refined my craft exponentially within this time. When you think about this statement, it is actually quite absurd. When I started I was single, childless and living at home about 3 miles from work. I had the time, energy and passion for my new career. Flashforward 13 years and I am married with two children, ages three and six…YIKES! So what revolutionized my teaching?

  1. Teaching in a 1-1 school

  2. Working with a Digital Learning Coach

  3. Attending the UCI Writing Project Summer Institute

Teaching in a 1-1 School

Every student that enrolls in my school is checked out a laptop. The District LMS available to students is Haiku. At my previous school, I dabbled with Edmodo, Nearpod and a few other tech resources, but I will say without the access, it was very difficult for me to hold my students accountable for following through with lessons created with these tech tools unless I reserved the computer lab (there were 3 for the whole school). With Haiku I have the ability to assess learning, flip my teaching and embed/ upload ALL my unit resources. Knowing that each student has the access with their laptops makes what I can do with Haiku in and out of class limitless (see screenshot of my Haiku page).

Haiku Sample

Working with a Digital Learning Coach

Because I was going to be in a school setting with 1-1 technology, I signed up to be a technology fellow, which meant I would work with a DLC (digital learning coach) once a week on my prep period. Let me first say that I didn’t have just any DLC. My school’s DLC is Crystal Kirch…THE Crystal Kirch. If you don’t know who she is, check out her blog “Flipping with Kirch.” She is phenomenal!

Crystal and I would meet and discuss my lessons and learning objectives and then together, we would find engaging ways to teach my lessons supported by technology. We would have a coaching cycle that started with pre-planning, lesson implementation and then debriefing. Although I was giving up a prep period every Friday (yes, Fridays!), with all honesty I can say that without her support, I would never be the teacher I am today. I hope districts, schools, and teachers realize the power of true coaching. We expect our students to grow academically throughout their school years, so we should expect our teachers to continue to grow professionally, and with skilled coaches and open minded teachers, growth is inevitable.

One of the strategies I added to my “tool belt” was an Edcafe inspired by an Edcamp I attended last school year. With Crystal’s support, we planned, implemented and revised this strategy and it is now one of my favorite lessons to engage students in meaningful, academic conversations. If you’d like more info about Edcafes here is my guest blog post on Crystal’s site.

Attending the UCI Writing Project Summer Institute

A respected colleague of mine recommended that I apply to attend the Summer Institute last summer, and because I was fortunate enough to have time and energy, I applied and it was the best professional development experience in ALL of my teaching career.

During the Summer Institute, along with guest speakers like Kelly Gallagher and Jim Burke (an English teacher’s dream), we were involved in writing groups, both professional and recreational Book Clubs and workshops hosted by the attending teachers. My experience made me reevaluate the way I was teaching writing. I came to the realization that I never treated my students like writers; I didn’t even see myself as a writer.

This year, my students are WRITERS. They attend monthly writing groups and provide each other with feedback and commendations. I have a wall to showcase each writing group’s favorite piece and we have now just started publishing our writing on class blogs. I am so proud of their growth this year. It also helps when I say that this week is Writing Group and they yell out “Yes!!!”

Sample blog 

So today: I am grateful for all the motivation and support mentioned above.

Tomorrow: I have to reflect upon a new lesson idea inspired by this book that I read to my daughters tonight.

Always: I will strive to become a better teacher because my students deserve it!