Skip to content

Posts from the ‘PAWLP’ Category

September Snapshot – This I Believe

I’m sure you’ve seen the quote from Michael Linsin, founder of the Smart Classroom Management blog, floating around on the internet, and I’ve made it my motto for this back to school season: “My number one goal at the end of the first day is not that they know the rules and consequences. It’s that they are excited to be a part of the class. That they run home to their parents and say, ‘Oh my gosh. I have the best teacher. I have this awesome class. It’s going to be a great year.’” I want this sense of excitement to carry through the year, but I set the tone with a day one escape room to get to know the classroom and collaborate within groups and a day two book tasting to get them ready to read every day in class. These two opening activities work like magic, and I have them in the palm of my hands.

Since participating in the PAWLP Summer Institute this past summer, I’ve been thinking about first week ways to get my 9th and 10th graders as excited about writing as we’ve been about reading. How can I provide some low stakes, low risk opportunities to build their self-esteem and their toolboxes as writers without focusing on the rules and consequences?

10th graders love to ponder philosophical questions as they figure out their place in the world, so this year, I am using the anthology This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman as a springboard for writing. You’re probably familiar with the short This I Believe segments on NPR.

On day three, we began with a writing warm up – What do you believe?

We read snippets from the editor’s notes at the beginning of the anthology to give students a little history of the project and some advice to writers of the pieces. I captured their takeaways on an anchor chart.

Then we read, round robin style, several examples of these short pieces. I chose from famous and unknown writers, sad and funny pieces, and each round had a task to complete before passing the papers.

After round 3, students shared their observations about the pieces, and I captured this thinking on a second anchor chart.

By the time they left for the long weekend, ideas were stewing. Already, we have a bunch of ideas and moves to try out in their own writing.

On day five, students began choosing the attributes they wanted to try, which they can adjust throughout the process of writing. In a sense, they create their own rubric. This fosters a sense of control and ownership over the piece and guarantees higher quality writing (I promise). Even though we only choose 3-4 attributes to work with, they still keep the others in mind and end up trying out more as they write!

We will continue to write and workshop our pieces this week: each writer will complete the “reflection” boxes to explain how they applied the attribute or move; peers will provide feedback in the “concerns” and “compliments” boxes; then the writer will explain any intentional revision strategies he/she used.

I love this merging of mentor texts and student discovery. When kids themselves uncover what makes writing for a specific purpose more effective, I’ve built excitement and engagement and they feel empowered to write. They now have great examples to refer to throughout the writing process, can participate in a low stakes, low risk first writing experience in my classroom, and have already begun to fill up their own writing toolboxes for the year ahead.

Abigail Turley

Book Review: A Symphony of Possibilities: A Handbook for Arts Integration in Secondary English Language Arts Edited by Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss

A Symphony of Possibilities is an apt title – this new book from NCTE offers a harmonious mix of ideas, from a variety of contributors, to infuse the arts into the secondary language arts classroom. As co-editors Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss explain in the Introduction: “Our goal with this book was to create a resource specifically for secondary English teachers to support them as they integrate the arts into their curricula. Teachers need meaningful examples of how to do the work of incorporating creative writing, drama, music and visual arts into their classrooms so they can challenge their students, expand the horizon for student growth, and, we hope, express their own passions for the arts while offering potential learning touchstones for students.” (xii). Read more

September Snapshot – Kiwi Analysis

by Richard Short

On the first proper day of the year, when the photos and screenings and class meetings are over, and we’ve finally returned to our regular bell schedule, I show my American Literature classes a film about a little bird. 

The primary reading skill we work on in this Honors-level course is analysis. It’s a tricky one, as readers of this blog likely already know, and an intimidating word for some of my fresh-faced sophomores. We practice analytical thinking all year. In this first class period, my goals are to roll out some terminology in an unthreatening way and begin building comfort with the process. I’ll refer back to this simple lesson many times in the coming months as we transition into larger, denser texts, reminding students that this is just like what we did with the kiwi. 

Kiwi! is an artfully moving short film – with no dialogue – that clocks in at less than three minutes. In it we watch as a little bird labors to nail a tree to the side of a cliff. It peers over the edge, and we see that this is the last of many, many such efforts. Donning an old aviator’s hat and goggles, the kiwi then leaps off the precipice.  

The camera slowly tilts to reveal the kiwi’s perspective: by falling through this simulated forest, it is experiencing flight. Tiny, adorable stubs extend, beating furiously, and a single tear rolls from his eye before the bird is lost in the mists below. Then comes the thud – that always gets a reaction. 

I strongly recommend watching it before continuing. I’m linking it here with the creator’s permission:

Level One: The Literal 

Following their initial viewing, I talk about what we mean when we ask someone, “what was it about?” There are a few different ways to take that question. I ask that they begin with the literal. What’s literally happening? If your friend were absent, found out that we discussed a video and asked you, “what was it about?” what would you say? Just the plot. Just what they’d see and hear. 

We brainstorm a list together on the board. There are some key details that need to be acknowledged before we move on, and I nudge them if necessary. It’s interesting how some students will jump ahead, start putting things together and doing interpretation, but I remind them that we want to be strictly objective here. 

Level Two: The Interpretive 

We watch the film a second time. The class is then divided into groups, and given time to discuss another way to answer, “what was it about?” If someone who already knew the plot asked that same question, what would they mean? Groups are told that they need to think a little more deeply, make inferences, and connect the literal together in some coherent way. Why did the bird jump? They talk and I eavesdrop. 

Here they begin to think thematically. They make claims about sacrifice, about naivete. As we start to get their Level Two thinking on the board in a new column, I encourage speakers to connect what they’re saying here to the contents of our previous list. The relationship between detail and assertion is important.  

Typically, there is some disagreement on how aware the bird is when it jumps. Does it realize what will happen? I’ll start two lists, and we’ll see how much evidence can be drawn in support of one or the other. What’s the deal with the tear? Is this a moment of bitter realization, or the achievement of a profound joy?  

Slowly, the “aware” column begins to edge out its rival. We can point to the dozens (hundreds?) of trees already hung, the use of rope and climbing necessary throughout, as support for the kiwi understanding the power of gravity. We can note the happy foot clap following completion of its task. A student this year argued that the ready-to-hand (beak?) costume and lack of hesitation demonstrated that the bird had already given all of this considerable thought. 

The bird’s identity as a kiwi and how that separates it from other birds adds additional support. The music, too, does a lot of work cueing mood. A bouncy, almost silly march gives way to a tinkling melody that is not flatly sad, but bittersweet. There’s a complex mixture of feeling there at the exact moment it closes its eyes (another detail!) and sheds the tear. 

Conclusion (and Level Three) 

And this, I explain, is the game we will play all year. It’s the same moves, the same rules, despite the texts themselves being longer. It starts with the literal. We need to watch (and read) carefully. Little details can affect how we process the whole; for example, if someone didn’t hear that final thud, they might not realize what the bird truly exchanged for its experience and the emotional weight that adds.  

Sometimes the literal stuff is pretty easy, as with an animated short, but sometimes it requires effort in its own right. A work like The Scarlet Letter demands a slow and careful reading, mediated by potentially unfamiliar vocabulary and style, just to understand who’s who and what’s what. Background knowledge matters too. Knowing what a kiwi is, or taking the time to investigate the title, is a major clue in the right direction. 

Interpretation, our second level, is only possible once there is a good command of the literal, especially when we need to defend the plausibility of a given perspective. Without details to corroborate, persuading someone else to see it our way becomes difficult, and we’re left on the flimsy terrain of opinion. The inevitable snarky kid will suggest something outlandish, but when pressed to connect that to evidence the point makes itself, and I will take pains to distinguish between possible and plausible. 

I end by asking that they briefly discuss how we could take this further, further than a fictional bird in a fictional film. In the third level, the applied, students are asked what larger message or wisdom could be extracted from this text. Theme lives here, and moral, and thesis, and all the other meta-narrative goodness that make art worthwhile. Some students wrote about how the film illustrates the dangers of obsession. Others that the greatest dreams require the greatest sacrifice. One even read this as a commentary on ableism.  

Sometimes they ask me what I think. And I tell them unironically that this little bird lives in my heart. No matter how many times I watch it, it gets me every time. The music. Those little wings. Somebody just made it up, and yet it matters to me, and that’s not nothing. In fact, that’s our course. 


September Snapshot – First-Day Bingo

“Who knows the seven dwarfs?”

“Who adopted a pet this summer?”IMG_1558.jpg

“Who plays in the band?”

The room is humming as 20 sophomores buzz about, yelling questions to the whole class, gathering initials to complete their Bingo sheet.  Some travel alone, some buddy up, and some wait in the corner until I gently nudge them.

“Who has a size seven shoe?”

“Who went on a missions trip this summer?”

What seems to be chaos is actually a fun, first-day activity that brings the class together.  They have to stand up, move around, and start talking with each other. And I play along, too–prepared with the seven dwarfs answer so they all have to come to me. 🙂  No syllabus or books this first day; this day is about getting to know each other. Students figure out which students play drums, which ones were born in March, and which ones love to take art.  They frantically help each other and point them in the right direction to record as many initials as possible.  

“BINGO!”  Sam did it!  

We gather back in our seats and all share our interests, our summer adventures, and our family stories.  And we build a community where we will read, write, talk, think. . .and hopefully laugh a lot . . . for the next 180 days.

What are some ways that you build community during the first days?  Would love to read your ideas in the comments below!

Screen Shot 2019-09-01 at 2.33.25 PM.png



September Snapshot – Classroom Scavenger Hunt

Happy September and welcome back to school! In an effort to tap into the wealth of knowledge our PAWLP team has to offer, we are running a regular feature focused on sharing ideas about how we start the school year. Please check in daily to enjoy our September snapshots. If you are interested in contributing one yourself, please contact us!

The Classroom Scavenger Hunt

For years I, like many teachers, spent time early in the school year telling students about the various resources available to them around the classroom. I wanted them to feel comfortable and orientated right from the first week. However, for years, I had students asking where to find the bathroom hall pass in October, or how to sign a book out of the classroom library in November, or where they could sharpen their pencils in December.

So, a few years back I designed a classroom scavenger hunt. As you can see from the image, the hunt invites students to study a map of the classroom, move around the space themselves, and discover through investigation where and what resources are available to them.

scavenger hunt.PNG

I gamified this activity by borrowing an idea Read more

Why teach argument writing?!

c3wp def.PNG

This afternoon I lead my department in a brief 30 minute introduction to NWP’s College, Career, & Community Writers Program. I started by posting the above explanation of C3WP and asking why we should teach our students argument writing. When we discussed, words and phrases like “read critically,” “multiple points of view,” and “respectful” came up repeatedly. We innately know as teachers that it is important for our students to be able to master these skills.

We also discussed the importance of the word finally. Most often we as arguerers take a stand first, then spend the remainder of our efforts reading and researching to support that opinion. However, C3WP’s approach encourages writers to get informed first, challenge their thinking, discuss and revise their opinions, and then finally take a stand. And it provides a wealth of resources to help us guide our students towards mastering this process multiple times throughout the school year.

Read more