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Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving each year, I do take time to pause and reflect both personally and professionally. In my professional world right now, the second marking period has started, and I am perusing my students’ feedback forms from the middle of November. I am in the midst of teaching a new unit on the interaction of community and the individual with Romeo and Juliet as my core text. And, the fall semester at West Chester University is almost over; I just need to finish my final paper. Despite some constants and best laid plans, there is much I have no control over. Will we remain hybrid or go virtual? Will my technology work during my lesson? Will Internet issues prevent students from attending class? At times, the questions seem endless. Yet, even though there is uncertainty in my classroom and the teaching profession, I search for the people and moments I am grateful for.

I am thankful for my students. It is a joy to work with them every day even with the struggles of hybrid learning, mask wearing, and unanswered questions. Their patience, technical support, and feedback make our class a better place. I also appreciate them laughing–even at my horrible jokes.

I am thankful for my colleagues and mentors. Although we might be meeting virtually, technology is connecting us in ways pre-Covid meetings could not. Everyone is sharing materials and ideas to help one another out. There are check-ins and how are you doings both online and in person. Even though you cannot see someone’s smile underneath their mask, you know it is there. There is an unsaid understanding of what we are all going through.

I am thankful for my principals and English supervisor who are sounding blocks during meetings, who allow us to voice our concerns and classroom insight. They recognize the crazy times we are teaching in. I feel their support.

I am thankful for reading Laura Rendón’s Sentipensante Pedagogy with Dr. Craig this semester. Rendón’s agreements have reminded me to take time each day to replenish my mind, body, and soul. I have been walking–in the sunshine and rain (as long as it is not a downpour). The fresh air in my lungs and the sun on my face is rejuvenating.

With the long weekend, I am taking time to reflect, rejuvenate, and be thankful–not only for the blessings in my personal life but also in my professional world. I wish the same for you.

PAWLP Anti-Bias/Social Justice Study Group: Our Story By Janice Ewing

How We Got Started

            On the third Saturday of each month, a group of PAWLP TCs and friends meet, now via Zoom, for our social justice study group. This group grew out of an interest and need that emerged during our Saturday Continuity sessions, which also take place once a month.  Our Continuity sessions have the broad goals of carving out a time and space to share questions or concerns about our teaching and related inquiries, writing or presentations in progress, or other collegial sharing. The guiding principles that undergird our sessions are based on the NWP’s (nwp.org) overall philosophy of teachers teaching teachers, and more specifically the NWP Social Practices of Write, Go Public with our Practice, Learn/Engage the Profession, Collaborate/Respond, Lead, and Advocate. We are also guided by our PAWLP mission and vision statements, and the Teaching Tolerance (tolerance.org) standards of Identity Diversity, Justice, and Action, which we intentionally integrate into all our practices.

            Although issues of advocacy and social justice were interwoven through our work together, some of us felt the need for more focused exploration of these topics. One of our participants, Tricia Ebarvia, suggested that we start a group that would be specifically dedicated to the issues of advocacy and social justice, with the goal of educating ourselves more deeply, individually and together, and working to transform our learning into action in our schools and communities.

What We Do

            We decided to use a study group format to give us specific texts to serve as a focal point for our work. We started with So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  Since then, we’ve read several other books, including The Racial Healing Handbook by Annaliese A. Singh, How to Be an AntiRacist by Ibram X. Kendi and the graphic memoir Good Talk by Mira Jacob. We are currently reading Gholdy Mohammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Through our reading, reflection, and discussion we have explored our own identities as well as school and community cultures, and looked at racism through historical lenses and case studies; our inquiry framework had guided us to identify specific goals to pursue in our anti-bias/social justice work. Most of our reading has been of shared texts, but we have also taken time to explore individually-selected books, articles, poetry, and art and share our takeaways with the group. We also maintain a Google doc where participants post additional resources in a variety of media and formats, as well as inquiry questions that these texts have raised or amplified.

Where We Are Now

            Many of our Saturday morning meetings have started with a shared acknowledgement of a recent tragedy or trauma, in our local community or beyond. We also acknowledge the ongoing traumas and challenges that we live amidst, which are not always as startling, but always present and corrosive. When we turn our focus to our study and our ongoing work, there is progress and growth to acknowledge as well, and always, the strength that we find in a shared community. This week, we will meet on Thursday evening. This is a session that Liz Mathews, our facilitator, and Pauline Schmidt, our PAWLP director, have set up to provide a space to reflect and respond together about the recent tragic killing of Walter Wallace, Jr. in Philadelphia, and the aftermath of the election, whatever that will be at that timeWith our texts as a focal point, we share the insights and experiences we’re gaining on our inquiry journeys. We share struggles and evolving questions. Then, we each strive in our own ways to bring our learning to action in our families, schools, and communities. This is ongoing work.

            Our regular meetings continue to be held on the third Saturday of each month, but we’re leaving space in November for participation in the NCTE (ncte.org) conference and related NWP events, so our next regular meeting will be on Saturday, December 19th. Our meeting dates and agendas are posted at PAWLP.org. In future posts, we’re looking forward to hearing perspectives from other participants in our group. Questions or thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

Janice Ewing is a 2004 fellow of the PA Writing and Literature Project and currently serves on the advisory board. She is also an active member of the Keystone State Literacy Association, the KSLA Delaware Valley Reading Council and other professional organizations. She and Dr. Mary Buckelew are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

Treading Water During Online Conversations

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

Five years ago, I made a poster with James Britton’s famous words: “reading and writing float along a sea of talk.” I whole-heartedly believe this statement as a reader, writer, and teacher. Today, I wish I could talk with him—share the difficulties my students and I face to simply have a conversation. I am trying my best to foster meaningful conversations when masks physically silence my students’ voices and technology digitally mutes them. I never realized how much of my writing-reading workshop hinged on students being together and talking with one another until now.

Struggling to move beyond what was and what is drives me to continually re-see how I can best implement breakout rooms and discussion boards. Although Teams and Canvas cannot come close to the authentic and immediate conversations that occurred in my brick and mortar classroom, I am grateful to have the technology.

What I share below are some of the Band-Aids I am experimenting with for student-teacher conferences and student conversations.

Student-Teacher Conferences: Since I cannot pull up a stool and chat with a student or table group, I started weekly small-group Teams conferences based on our hybrid schedule. I am able to meet with all students once per week to discuss their books and/or writing pieces. It’s not ideal (I previously engaged in many more conversations throughout a class period and week), but I have to re-imagine my student-teacher conferences. I invite online students to lower the volume and I use headphones so as to not disturb the students physically in the room; however, I am still available to answer questions for all students. Below is a chart, showing how I separated my conference groups by hybrid 1, online only, and hybrid 2 students. We meet during workshop time. For some meetings, I break students into smaller groups and assign them different times to meet with me.

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Meet with 4-6 online only studentsHybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams
Hybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams

Table-Group Breakout Rooms and Discussion Boards: Students selected the “table groups” they wanted to work with through a Forms, regardless of their schedule: hybrid 1, hybrid 2, and online only. The first time we tried this breakout room, students in school experienced terrible audio feedback and echoing. To remedy this problem, students in school used headphones or group members sat in nearby desks, so only one person in our physical classroom needed to join the Teams call. Even so, the way the breakout rooms work is ongoing and ever-changing as I learn more about my students and my students get to know one another.

For example, each period is set up a little differently. In 2nd and 5th period, students across the different schedules meet digitally. In 4th period, my students and I worked to regroup students by schedule, so hybrid 1 students work together, hybrid 2 students work together, and the online only students are interspersed throughout. This is helping them stay more focused in our brick and mortar classroom. 7th period is a combination of what I mentioned above. I needed to be flexible in order to meet everyone’s needs. Particularly for a group of three students who work really well together. They all have a different schedule, but they meet to work in Teams throughout the week.

Additional Breakout Rooms: In addition to the Wednesday “table group” breakout rooms, students, who are physically in school, turn and talk from their desks while remaining 6 feet apart. Online students join breakout rooms.

Going into this year, I knew online and hybrid learning would challenge the routines of my brick and mortar writing-reading workshop. Re-thinking conferences and group work is a continual focus of mine. I miss the roar of my students’ voices coming to life after reading their independent reading books or completing a quick write. My students miss the opportunity to easily and naturally chat with peers and friends. Through it all, I remind myself to stay present, breathe often, tinker with technology, and trust that my students’ voices will float whether online or in person.

I would love to hear how you are conferring with students and creating opportunities for students to talk and collaborate.

Teacher to Teacher: How Teachers & Students Use Independent Writing Time

By Lynne R. Dorfman

If we want our students to grow as writers, we need to give them ample time to refine their writing skills by flexing their writing muscles during uninterrupted periods of independent writing. This writing time, if at all possible, should occur daily.

Before you send your students off to write, they need a plan of action or a goal – what do they hope to accomplish today during independent writing time? They may focus on a teaching point from the mini-lesson, but they may also have another goal or problem to solve.

While they are writing, teachers observe and offer roving conferences, actively teaching their students in highly individualized ways. During the first 5 – 10 minutes, you can be a kidwatcher. Everyone is writing. There are no conferences, trips to the bathroom or pencil sharpener, or questions for the teacher. During this short period of time, teachers can observe writerly behaviors:

  • Observe posture, focus on the writing piece, where his eyes look in the classroom
  • Does she reread pages from his writer’s notebook?
  • Does the writer appear to be distracted? Is she focused on her writing piece or looking around the room or perhaps out the window?
  • Are there some topics or a writing type that the writer prefers (has more confidence) than others?
  • Does the writer spend most of his time writing or drawing?  Planning or drafting?
  • Does the writer look at the anchor chart from the mini-lesson?

Take some notes. Does the student create or use a memory chain, add to her expert list, or create a neighborhood map or heart map? Does he illustrate a notebook entry or add details to a drawing for his piece of writing?  Perhaps he is writing an annotation for an artifact in his portfolio or conducting research for an opinion piece he is writing. When she drafts, is she skipping every other line to make revision easier?  The notes you take during the first ten minutes of writing time help you learn more about your writers. Circulate around the room to observe who is getting the concept, skill, or strategy, find suggestions for future topics for mini-lessons, or gather information to place students in small groups for focused instruction.

During independent writing, you may offer a tip from a student in the form of a mid-workshop interruption. As you rove you may see a student doing something extraordinary that could be shared with the writing community. These mid-workshop interruptions boost confidence and self-esteem in the writer you choose to highlight and serve as an inspiration to other writers.

During independent writing time, students can meet in a peer conference or return to a previous piece of writing to rewrite in another format – a poem, perhaps. They can reread notebook entries to look for a new topic or even consider abandoning the piece of writing they are currently working on in favor of a different topic. There are many reasons to abandon a piece of writing. Make it the topic of one of your mini-lessons and create an anchor chart with the students. It may look something like this:

WHEN TO ABANDON A PIECE OF WRITING

  • When it feels like a chore.
  • You have no passion for the topic – you are no longer having fun writing this piece. 
  • You are thinking about other story ideas.
  • You cannot visualize your characters.
  • You realize you do not have enough background – need to research and read more to be able to write this.
  • You are not the best person to write this piece.
  • It is someone else’s story (your mom’s or dad’s).
  • Rewrites/revision does not improve the piece.
  • The writing lacks energy.  It does not sound new/original or inviting.
  • It is not a topic for the target audience.

Fletcher (2017) would argue that the most important part of writing workshop is the daily independent writing time, not our mini-lesson. That’s why it’s so important to keep our direct instruction short – about ten minutes. If we plan wisely, we can deliver important explicit instruction and still give our students the gift of large periods of writing time each day.

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow of the PA Writing & Literature Project. She is currently working on Welcome to Reading Workshop with Brenda Krupp. Lynne serves as an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and is co-president of KSLA Brandywine Valley Forge, her local reading council. Last Saturday she spent the morning in PAWLP’s writing group and the Continuity session. She looks forward to attending both groups on Nov. 7th. Look for the links on the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project page of West Chester University. Here is the link for the page:
https://www.wcupa.edu/arts-humanities/writingProject/

Reading Together through Computer Screens

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

My favorite period each day is my small-group Reading class. Despite the fact that they are labeled at risk, my students like to read. Together we enter the joys of fantastical adventures, real-life struggles, mysterious plot twists, and beautiful language. Together we make connections to ourselves, other texts, and the real world.

My reading workshop is grounded in the research of Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Kylene Beers. Reading conferences are foundational to our class. On a daily basis, I read with students: I read to them, and they are invited to read to me. We think aloud and engage in conversation surrounding mini-lesson skills. These conferences remind me of when I was little, sitting on the couch next to my mom. I have very distinct memories of her reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me, and reading Nancy Drew books to her. Those afternoons and evenings fostered my love of reading. They also strengthened my comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, etc.

During distance learning, my Reading class was rocked. Choice, individualized instruction, reading conferences, and think alouds disappeared. I had to find a way to re-claim my reading workshop for the 2020-2021 school year.

Since June, I have been searching for a way to overcome the virtual divide. My big question: How can I read with and to my students if I don’t have their books in front of me.

Then, one sunny, August afternoon, I drove past my local library, and I had a breakthrough: get students’ independent reading books from the library so we both have a copy!

Although separated by computer screens and Covid protocols, neither have posed a threat this year to reading together and engaging in think alouds and conferences. By the end of the second week of school, my Reading students had their books, and I had my copy.

We have been reading together ever since!

Reading: Your Health Depends on It

Today was my first day of in-person teaching 7th grade ELA. It was a very LONG day, but all things considered it went well. No matter whether you are teaching in front of live students, or you are going “live” virtually, keeping yourself and your students healthy is even more important this year than ever! Lucky for me, one of my first loves is actually good for my health.

A study directed by Dr. David Lewis at Mindlab International at the University of Sussex in the UK, found that, “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. “As the paper reported, Psychologists believe this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart.” The best part is that you only have to read six minutes a day – six! No matter how stressed I am, how long my day has been, or how many things are on my “to do” list, I am certain I can carve out six minutes a day. (View a video of Dr. Lewis here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hp3qNlEa2RY)

What are the benefits of reading? I am glad you asked. Reading –

  • lowers blood pressure
  • lowers heart rate
  • reduces muscle tension
  • drops stress levels (up to 68%) faster than walking or drinking tea.

There is just one catch – it can’t be required reading. It must be something you are reading just for fun, so you can really make that great escape.

These weeks leading up to the start of school have been VERY stressful, and I haven’t taken much time to nurture my soul, but there were two bright spots. The night before two of my grandchildren were beginning 1st grade, I video chatted with each of them and read them First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg. They attentively listened to “Nona” read them this adorable story about Sarah Jane Hartwell’s first day of school. They loved it! What I noticed after each reading experience was that I was smiling the entire time I was reading and felt the weight of my day fall away. That feeling changed the way I approached the rest of my evening, and I actually felt more energized.

That experience has shored my determination to make time for reading aloud to my 7th graders. Kids are never too old to be read to, and if it can lower their stress levels (and mine) than it definitely has to be one of my priorities!

So, if you are thinking that you do not have time to engage in reading self-care, here are a couple of ideas to try.

  • Audible books: Use your commute to listen in the car – just don’t take your eye off the road. I especially love listening to books set in other countries, so I get to hear the characters’ accents.
  • Meditation Apps: Many of these apps have sleep stories that help you wash away the stress of the day and fall alseep easier. My sister gifted me with a year subscription to the Calm app and a bluetooth headband. I put on my headband, choose a story, and direct all of my attention to the rich descriptions read by the gentle voice of the narrator. Before you know it, I am out like a light and on my way to a great night’s sleep.

So when you’re feeling stressed, make time to read. The life you save may be your own! Please add your ideas for making time for the daily six minute read in the comments below.