Writers Need Feedback (well, this one does)

“Hello? Has someone joined the call? Welcome,” my sister says after the musical tone (indicating someone new is on the line) sounds.

I giggle and say, “It’s me. Sarah.”

“The author!” says my other sister who was already on the line with the first sister.

I giggle again. It sounds strange to me to hear them call me “the author.”

And then, another musical tone. A third sister has joined the call. (I have seven sisters and three brothers, but just the four of us would be on the call tonight.) We are about to have a book group — about my book — and, yes, I am the author (see my author page).

A few days ago, I sent my sisters an e-copy of my book, and the next day, there was a group text asking for a conference call.

My husband told me that I should brace myself for criticism. He knows that I want to be liked (and want my writing to be liked, too) and feel rejection like a papercut that won’t stop bleeding, but I am at the point in my writing that I really need readers. There are problems with the ending that I just can’t solve on my own (at least not yet), and I want to know if readers catch my allusions and get what I think are clever threads in the narrative. Still, this book is inspired by my family, so I really want to know if there is truth in what I wrote, if I was able to bring alive a part of our lives from so long ago. I want to know if I did something good.

For the next hour, my sister-readers and I talk about the latest draft of my young adult novel inspired my family. I ask them about the reading experience — if it flowed. I ask them what it made them think and feel. I ask them if there were any parts they really liked, and I ask them for help with the part that I am still pondering: the ending.

I listen to my sisters talk about the characters and how the book triggered memories and questions, and I listen to them chime in on the ending, which, as I suspected, did not satisfy. One sister is confused. One sister feels it is abrupt. I take notes easily for there were not metaphorical paper cuts, nothing my sisters said hurt; it was all helpful.

Notes from my conference call

The day after this conference call about my book was, coincidentally, peer feedback day in our 7th-grade writing classes. Writers are working on a four-part blog series on a topic of interest, and they were working on their third post.  Like me, these writers had a solid draft of their piece finished days before, and they were ready to learn how their writing impacted a few readers before publishing it to our blog for teachers, parents, and classmates (and perhaps you, too).

A screenshot of the hyperdoc for a glimpse of the diversity of topics

We do peer conferencing informally quite often (students trying out drafts or quick-writes with a neighbor), but I’ve found that arranging a formal peer feedback day can support writers who need deadlines or avoid trouble-spots. This formal experience also helps writers by requiring them to really listen, attend to a fellow writer, to be the reader. In this stance, they offer a service to their classmate while also benefiting from their fellow writers’ successes and struggles.  Essentially, all writing pieces are mentor texts because every writer is an expert in their topic and voice.

The process is simple:

  1. Arrange the class into groups of 3.
  2. Hand out a guide like the green one below — a notebook or sticky notes work well, too.
  3. Ask every writer to reread their piece silently or in a whisper and write one part on which they’d like feedback.
  4. Then, the first person should tell the writing group his/her needs before reading aloud the piece.
  5. The writing group can take notes, but it is important that the writing group does not see the piece –just listens to the flow, follows the ideas. The feedback is not about grammar or proofreading.
  6. Finally, the writer asks the group for feedback and takes notes him/herself:  1) What did you learn, feel, and/or think? 2) What were the strengths? 3) What was confusing or unclear? and 4) What I need help with is…

Repeat the process for each group member, and then make time for revisions.

All of this presumes the writer is publishing his/her work, sharing it beyond the notebook (virtual or digital). When we write to inform, teach, entertain, and communicate, a reader-audience is implied. We have readers in mind, so it makes sense to try it out on one or two just in case it does not inform, teach, entertain, and communicate as we intended. Of course, writers may not want to hear from said implied reader, may simply want to put that work into the world without interference. I get that. I wanted to put my book out into the world as soon as I “finished” it six months ago, but I was too close to see the gaps. I needed some readers to help me see it anew. Some feedback I applied, and some actually validated my intentions, so I accepted it but did not revise anything. Essentially, feedback is a reader holding up a mirror for you, the writer. The feedback comes with a reader’s prior experiences, familiarity with the topic, and reading stance. It is up to the writer what she does with the reflection, which make be crystal clear and may be distorted.

Writers’ Workshop: The Symbolism in the First Snow

snow day

“I would like to compliment Johnny on an unexpected phrase that was, actually, kind of dark. When your narrator said, ‘I had this desire to kill,’ I was like disturbed but intrigued,” said Paul.

“Yeah, I  know. Dark. I like exploring the dark side in my fantasy stories. Thank you,” Johnny said to Paul.

“Darkness. Death. Like winter coming. Everything is dead and dying,” said Paul. “See? It’s snowing.”

Friday means Story Time in our seventh-grade writing class.  Every Friday five students share any piece of original writing they wish (something “finished” or in-progress) in front of the class surrounded by twinkle lights; two student-hosts facilitate the speaking roster and the post-speaking compliments like the one Paul gave to Johnny.

Our classroom has a wall of windows, and as Paul said “snowing,” 30 sets of eyes turned toward the windows to gaze at the white specks drifting toward us as if on cue. Today was the first snow of the year on this November tenth in the Chicagoland area. A week ago, I was opening windows to keep from sweating, and today, I opened a window to catch some snowflakes and smell winter.

Students kneeled on their chairs to catch a glimpse and then glided closer to the window to gaze at the spectacle as if in a daze. I felt like this was a moment we were having, sharing the first snow of the year. I just glided among the students observing their expressions and listening in on their whispers. Then, I had a thought about Johnny’s piece and what Paul said.

“Glad we could share this first snow together,” I said working my way over to Johnny and Paul. “You know, Paul, you made a comment that is quite relevant to our work here — the connection between weather and characters’ internal struggles or secrets. Have you noticed in the stories you read how the authors set the darker parts of a story in winter? Winter tends to symbolize the death of plants, the ground hardening, the air chilling.  This is could be the part of the story when a character is depressed, sad, losing hope. Then, later, when the character gets better, realizes something profound, figures out how to deal with an issue — well, it is springtime. Seedlings poke their stems up from the now softer earth; the air has that fresh rain smell.  There is hope. But, I am wondering, is that interesting? What might be more interesting?”

“Something unexpected,” said Paul.

“Right. So, in your story, Johnny, I am not sure you mentioned the weather or time of year. One might expect it to be winter as your narrator is feeling dark, but if you set the story in spring, your character could either be coming alive as in discovering his true self or, something unexpected. He’s feeling dark inside as the world is coming alive. You could use setting to mirror the nature of your character or to reflect it back as a source of contrast.”

At this point, almost all thirty students were standing around me, in part because I was standing near the window with the beautiful snow framing my lesson. Essentially, Johnny, Paul, and I were having this writerly conversation, but I could see the stories being written behind the eyes of these writers gazing at the falling snowflakes wondering if these specks of white represent the ending, the beginning, or maybe just something beautiful.

Or maybe they are imagining a snow day in the near future.

Writing Assessment is a Personal Process

“Hi, how are you?” I ask as a student takes a seat beside me.

“Fine. You?” he says averting my eyes and looking at his biography narrative lit brightly on my computer screen.

We’re sitting in a dark corner of the classroom to discuss the student’s biography posted on his blog while the other twenty-nine seventh grade writers are working on the upcoming teacher-for-a-day project. (Each student is researching a grammar topic or literary device to present to the class during writing workshop time. They are mostly quiet knowing their dedicated time with me is coming up.) I’ve been meeting with students for four days now trying to give each one some personalized feedback and, in some cases, instruction on some strategies or conventions.

“Well, I am happy because this story you wrote about your partner is so beautifully written. I can tell you took great care in getting the sequence of events just right, and this part right here? This dialogue you wrote captures the attitude your partner is giving his mom with just the right bit of humor.”

“Thanks. He is really funny but sneaky, so I wanted to capture that by writing ‘he rolled his eyes.'”

“Yep, you did it. Now, remember when we practiced punctuating dialogue? It looks to me like you know how to do it here, but then below, the punctuation is erratic. The inconsistency makes me wonder if you understand it.”

“Oh, I get it. I just want to add a comma here, before the quotation mark.”

“Right. Okay, so that is just about proofreading. I do want to suggest one part for revision. Are you ready?” I ask. “Because this will make the story ready for publication on Monday.”

“Yes. Show me.”

“So, tell me what this story is really about. I get that it is about taking risks and mother-son tension, but what about that? What about after the argument? What did your partner realize or get about his mom?”

“Well, after the argument, he sort of had a better understanding of where his mom was coming from? Like her perspective? Like thinking about her point of view?”

“I think that might be it, too, but it is your story — well, you are doing the work of showing us your partner’s story. Your job as the author is to bring your readers along — us — me and your classmates. At the end here, do you think you can make that perspective idea come through?” I ask writing “1” next to punctuating dialogue and “2” next to theme on his biography checklist document.

“Yeah, yes. I can do that right now.”

“Great. Here is your checklist. Just spend some time on these two parts, and you’ll be ready to publish on Monday. And thank you for taking such good care of your partner’s story.”

“Thank you,” he says.

As he walks away, I get up to invite Julia to confer.

A writing assessment process (never-ending)

Just like the writing is a process, so, too, is writing assessment. As students work on a piece of writing, we are there to support his or her process — brainstorming, drafting, revising with new strategies or techniques, proofreading, resting, coming back to, revising, and on. This is really assessment. What’s working? What’s not? How can we make improvements or try something new? What do we need to workshop in a new way? However, when we come to the end, when a piece needs to stand on its own for an audience on a particular day, well, we might be ready for evaluation: at this point in time, what do you know and what can you do? Writing teachers must embrace the assessment process for an ethical evaluation.

Teach grammar in context (and reteach)

Students write and write, and only when they have a solid draft do I start with mini-lessons on a few skills or techniques they can try. For the biographical sketch, I explicitly taught 2 skills: dialogue and complex sentences. The dialogue was essential in bringing alive the people in the stories, and complex sentences (starting sentences with subordinating conjunctions) help students illuminate time and place, cause and effect — important transition markers in a narrative piece. Students took notes and practiced in their journals, and then we went right into their drafts to find or revise-to-include these techniques.

For dialogue, we just had a conversation on paper:

“I’d like to know what you want to be when you grow up?” Dr. Donovan asked leaning in with a writing between her brows.

“Well, Dr. Donovan, I think I want to become __________________,” I replied _____________.

“And why is that?” she asked.

“Geesh, I guess it’s because______________,” I replied somewhat annoyed.

For complex sentences, we just practiced a few sentences together before moving into our drafts to revise or add this sentence structure.

Whole-class mini-lessons tend to work well for the majority of writers, especially writers who have some experience with these conventions, but some writers will need additional guidance, which is why the conferences are so important: I can personalize feedback and instruction.

Confer individually (personal-ized support)

Making time to confer with students one-on-one is so hard to do, especially when you have 30 plus students, but after students have drafted and revised their writing to try out new skills, this teacher-student (writer-writer) conference is the experience that can really make the difference to a writer. I meet with each writer to talk about the status of her piece, noticing what she does well while pushing her just a little further in her craft. I love to talk about how the piece is capturing humanity and offering something meaningful to the reader before suggesting one or two places to try something new or integrate a technique. This is where I can reteach the whole-class lesson or offer something new that I hadn’t yet introduced to the class but a particular student is ready to try.

Reflection before evaluation (current draft)

After the conference, students go back to their piece one more time with specific notes to inform their revisions. With a line-by-line read through and a few tweaks to wording or punctuation, the piece is ready to publish in its current form. A piece can always be tweaked or reworked, but this is our community-imposed deadline to publish and evaluate progress. 

On the day of publishing, I ask students color code the techniques I want to assess. I’ve already read their drafts and revisions, so this makes it easier for me to evaluate specific skills. In addition to the color coding, I ask students to write a little reflection at the end of their piece to honor writerly choices and reiterate the purpose of the particular form. For example, in this biography piece, I ask students to reflect on the following: 1) what they want readers to notice that is deliberate or innovative — anything that a reader might miss or misinterpret, 2) what they are most proud of or a favorite line,  and 3) what revisions they made after the teacher conference (as a way of seeing what they took away from meeting with me). Perhaps another question could illuminate which parts are still in development from the writer’s perspective. Here’s an example:

Have a publication party (and enjoy)

Every quarter, I set a date for publication to celebrate the work in its current state. I call it our “publication party” and bring some cookies. When students know there are real people reading their work, they will attend to the details that might interrupt a reader’s flow. 

Reading the finished pieces is an enjoyable experience with no need for feedback–it’s not the time. I celebrate alongside other writers. We’re nurturing our community by sharing one another’s writing and offering personal responses, which I guess is a form of feedback; we use 3-perspective responses. 

Evaluation (a judgment at one moment in time)

I use standards-based assessment, which means that I do not score the final piece with a single number or letter. I look at the standards I taught and assess whether or not students are competent in those standards at a specific moment in time.  I never evaluate creativity or judge how one writer’s use of dialogue is better than another. For the most part, if I’ve implemented the assessment process well, all students can demonstrate competency in the standards (and I don’t take home stacks of papers because we’ve used workshop time to assess and because those stories do not belong to me; I’m just part of the process).

Ongoing assessment (not an oxymoron)

The final step in the assessment process does not involve grades. As I read and enjoy the publications, I look for trends in strengths and needs for the next project. Assessment is an ongoing process of observing, feedback, learning, practice, observing, feedback, etc. 

Just like there is a writing process and not the writing process, there is an assessment process for each student not the assessment process. Make time to personalize the process and remember that any ending is arbitrary and temporary, for tomorrow we do not start anew, we continue.

Here are a few sample biographies for your enjoyment. Notice: I wrote one for my partner, Shreya.

Tell me your story. I will listen.

Innovation Summit Participants, This post walks you through the process of implementing this in your classroom, but we are going to actually do this together in our workshop, so save this for later and just click on this, make a copy, and find a partner.

We hear a lot about the importance of building relationships with students, of creating a respectful classroom culture, of designing lessons that are project-based and student-centered, but discussions of how our content fits in with this class-culture framework are often pushed to the side — as if class culture and content are separate.

What would happen if our students’ lives WERE the curriculum?  For the past two years, I have started the school year with a story exchange project that extends throughout the first quarter and then have modified the project for different genres/mediums each quarter thereafter so that throughout the year, the students’ voices, stories, writing, speaking, listening – their lives– are at the heart of what we do all year. This has significantly changed the culture of my classroom and students’ relationships with one another in addition to literacy.


  1. Talk about stories — why they matter and how they are crafted: Show videos of people sharing seemingly ordinary stories but are still engaging, offering a mirror to our lives or a window into another’s. Every story matters. Start class with these for a few days (e.g, nickname, conversation w/grandparent, making/spending money, a person who influenced you). What is the story? What images, colors, shapes came through? What character interaction and movements? What are specific details you connect to or give you a window? What was the discovery/realization looking back?
  2. Brainstorm: Model and do the brainstorm part of the “master form” together. In the model, just get all the ideas out, and then circle the ones you feel comfortable sharing.
  3. Interview process: Model with a student how to use the form — Chromebooks to the side, body language, follow-up questions, tracking time, kind responses
  4. Partner students: I like to partner boy-girl strangers so that everyone is working from the same position of familiarity — decide A and B, A will ask questions first.
  5. Partners work through the interview process (two class periods).
  6. Do mini-lessons for each part of the draft and then give students time in class to draft — lead, middle, end. They’ll have to confer with one another as they go, getting more details.
  7. Organize small group revisions with groups of 5-ish students; they pull up their doc, read it aloud to you and the group, you write in comments/suggestions, the group offers feedback, and so on; then that group revises while you work with another group. You are teaching how to do peer feedback and modeling the writing group experience. After revisions, the writer should share with the interviewee, revise as needed, and seek consent to share.
  8. Publishing: Publish to the class blog for in-class reading and feedback; have read aloud time on Fridays to practice speaking, listening, author’s craft text evidence, and complimenting.

Sample Schedule

Master Form: Brainstorm, Interview Guide, Drafting Space

  • Google Doc (make a copy to edit)
  • PDF
  • Rubric to guide the drafting and revision process based on your mini-lesson work. Students and peer groups should use this to self-assess toward publication.

Sample, Completed Form

  • Google Doc with annotations
  • In the comments, I talk through my interpretation of the story and explain my choices. My partner can respond or resolve my reasonings. This is an act of communication and consent.

Sample Stories

Google Docs

  • note taking
  • drafting
  • collaborating
  • revising
  • sharing

Kidblog Publishing:

  • can link to Google Drive (but will be deleted when they leave school),
  • can be written directly into the blog,
  • can be viewed publicly beyond the school or privately within the class or just between teacher and student,
  • teacher has complete control,
  • students can comment
  • teacher can comment publicly or privately
  • parents can comment

In-Class Sharing: Speaking, Listening, Author’s Craft Text Evidence, Complimenting

Students self and peer evaluate their speaking, and add their video or audio to their portfolio.
Students present their stories on Fridays- make a schedule, hang some twinkle lights. Listeners use this sheet to track their noticings, responses to their peer’s stories using text evidence.
Phrases to use to respond to class stories that show the many ways we can respond — to how the author writes, to how the author makes you feel, to how the author is teaching you
Giving and accepting compliments takes practice and can really unite the students in showing mutual respect for the process of creating and sharing stories.

Choosing Choice in Your English Classes this School Year: Books and Writing Projects for Self-Formation and Class Community

If you are like many teachers on Facebook and Twitter this summer, you are reading a lot of great PD books about collaboration and technology and new methods and the “best” strategies.  Maybe you’ve spent your own money on materials for your classroom library (e.g., color-coded genre stickers, pillows, new books). Maybe you’ve reimagined your seating arrangements to be more flexible (and spent money on new chairs and more pillows). Maybe you’ve made anchor charts or posters with the strategies you intend to teach (and spent money on having bookmarks or post cards made to give to each student). And maybe you’ve already written your syllabus knowing this year you won’t spend the first day reading it. You feel accomplished and ready to start the new school year.

However, if you are like me, you decided at the beginning of the summer that you’d abstain from education PD and reimagine yourself to see if there is a person in there anymore who is someone other than a teacher. In previous years, I had a sort of post edutum depression, wondering just who am I if I don’t have a school to go to each day, if students are not waiting to read and write with me. So if this sounds like you, maybe you spent this summer playing with your kids, tinkering with your former or new-found hobbies, or rekindling the romance with your sweetie. And maybe you joined Teachers Write! with Kate Messner and Gae Polisner (among many other authors) and wrote a novel. (Yes, I did that!)

Whether you are the former or the latter, you are ready to take what you learned this summer about education and about yourself and make decisions about your practice. You have your strategies. You have a happier, healthier self. Now how do you bring that process (the experience of becoming better, smarter, healthier, more conscious), that self-formation experience to your students and their literacy lives? Perhaps you plan to take what you learned this summer and apply it to your favorite books, stories, and writing units. Perhaps in your school, the standards are set; the required readings are set; the sequence of writing projects are set — so, again, you will take what you’ve learned to enhance the prescribed content. Still, you did some amazing becoming over the summer, and will your students have that same experience in your classroom?

I have yet to meet my students for the upcoming school year, so I do not know what they will need, which books they will love, what stories they will write, what questions they ponder about our world. I never have in the fifteen years that I have been a teacher; nevertheless, for the first thirteen of my fifteen years, I planned glorious units with the novels, short stories, and poems we’d read, with the narrative, informative, argument essays we’d write — prompts and all. Still, I thought I was social justice-y teacher. We read multicultural books and stories; we wrote about our beliefs and being change agents in the world. However, I neglected the most fundamental aspect of democracy (not the political democracy, but Dewey’s definition of democracy): choice. So for the past two years of my practice, I have made significant changes to my “plans” by, in fact, planning to uncover rather than cover concepts with and through a student’s choice in what they read and write. I have made the classroom a place of self and community formation (still with a social justice-y lens). I have tried to harness the process of becoming, and choice is at the heart of these plans.

So below, I share some books and writing experiences that, I think, lend themselves to lots of choice while also being rather layered and complex in all the good PD we’ve learned: collaboration, technology, innovation, empathy/compassion, flexible grouping, project-based learning, multimodal. You have your PD ready to go. You are rejuvenated by the choices you made this summer to become as you wanted or needed, so move into your school year offering a similar experience of exploration and choice so that your students — like you– can become.

Reading: If you must teach a specific book or story or poem, make time every day for students to read what they want and however they wish (stick notes, journal, talking, no responses; chair, floor, pillow, slouched). The reading response posts below are rather formative, but encourage students to make it their own.

Writing: If you must teach a specific form of writing in isolation, make time every day for students to write whatever they wish, however they wish. And don’t hesitate to admit (even at the cost of some confusion) that there is narrative, information, argument, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in almost every piece of writing. While I have the writing labeled rather restrictively, each post uncovers the complexity of the process and form.


The Pride and Shame of Sharing: Who do I think I am?

There is a big brown envelope in my school mailbox on Tuesday. I order a lot of books from Amazon, but this is not from Amazon; it is from Harvard Press. Inside are two copies of the book Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform.   I feel a swell of pride because the first chapter in this book is written by me.  That’s right. Someone thought that what I had to say about the failure of education reform was good enough to be published in a book that people might buy and read. A sense of satisfaction. That swell of pride lasts the length of my walk to room H103 where I place the books on the counter next to my water bottle and greet students. The first ignores me. The second mumbles something close to ” I want to go home.” Teenagers have a way of putting pride in check.

At the end of the day, I notice the big brown envelope again next to the untouched water bottle and look at the books. A colleague is visiting H103, and I tell her that I have a new book, actually that I wrote a chapter in that new book. She politely picks up a copy and scans the pages. I take a picture of the book and post it on Facebook. The sense of satisfaction re-emerges. I feel a swell of pride again.  I pick up the other copy and begin to read what I wrote nearly four years ago. By the second page, I realize that the snapshot of my teaching life that I shared in this book took place a week after my father died. I included an excerpt from a poem I wrote about him in the chapter — a poem I shared in front of these beautiful teenagers who politely witnessed my sadness in H103 years ago.

“Did you really say that?” my colleague asks. I am pulled from my remembering.

“Which part?”

“The part about ‘with all due respect, let me do my job’?” she reminds me.

I look for that part and am brought back to another snapshot of my teaching life later in the chapter. I had just returned from a year-long leave of absence. I was burning out and needed a break. I was in the principal’s office learning of my new placement in the school. I uttered the “with all due respect”  comment when I was handed a “teacher proof” curriculum and told I had to follow it for fidelity’s sake.

There was no swell of pride that day. My ego was bruised. I had to use that curriculum to keep the job I wasn’t sure I wanted but needed because my husband had just been laid off. I thought my principal liked me, respected me. I thought I had established a pretty good reputation as a teacher (even though I essentially walked away the year prior), that I, at least, had enough clout to do my job without “teacher proof” curriculum, but in that moment, I was put in my place.

“I don’t know what I would have done,” my colleague says. “So you mentioned last week that you are working on another book,” she changes the subject handing me the book.

I take her book, put both books in my bag, wrap my scarf around my neck, and pull on my jacket. I say yes, but I can feel the self-doubt rising in my belly and seeping into my voice.

I say that I have essays from Ethical ELA that I want to shape into, well,  something. There’s a book there – maybe.  I say that I have lots of unit plans that I think other people might find helpful but then halt my arrogance, admitting that there are good people already doing that work far better than I ever could:Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers. I say my husband wants me to write the story of my family but that it’s not ready. I say I think I’d like to try writing a novel, maybe a verse novel based on my junior year of high school. I say most of this out loud and then feel very embarrassed. I think, do not say, What am I saying? Who do I think I am? 

I have caught myself in a prideful rant and pause as my insecurities swell where pride had been. I say that, yes, I wrote a book about reading genocide literature because I had to get it out. I say that I know no one will read it at over $100 a copy. I say that I probably won’t write any of those imagined books because there are smarter people out there, and I should be reading their books.

Then, I think, do not say, why do I write? I think that I write to figure out what I know, even though I usually conclude that I don’t know. I think I write because when I write, I feel like I am making neat and tangible the messy, complicated, beautiful experiences that make up my day and sneak into my dreams (sometimes nightmares). I think I share my writing because why? Attention, validation, support? Why isn’t it enough to just write? Why do I need to put it out into the world? Why do I need to invite others to read it?

As we walk out of H103, I do say, “Who do I think I am? A book about teaching, a novel — geesh? The only thing I know is that I feel no purpose if I am not teaching. Today, I sat in the hallway so my student teacher could go solo, and I felt so insignificant. She did great, by the way. I know that good days usually come after bad days if for no other reason than it is another day. I know that it feels good to say this out loud, but I am no expert. I am right along side every other teacher on this rollercoaster. Who am I to write a book about teaching?”

“You are too hard on yourself, Sarah,” my colleague says. “You’re a good teacher.”

I muster a grin that gently rejects the compliment.  I say, “Thirteen years later, I’m right back where I was at the beginning feeling inadequate, never satisfied, questioning my purpose and place in teaching and, well, in this world. And that book? Like the title, I get the failure, but I just don’t know about the future.”

She gives me a knowing smile. I thank her for listening, exit the building, and walk to my car. I take the book out of my bag then set it face down on the seat.

When I get home, I put one book on my husband’s area of the kitchen counter with my chapter marked. I take the other book to the sofa and begin to look through the chapters. I check Facebook and see a few people have liked my post about the book. I feel good about the likes, and then I feel embarrassed for promoting myself; still, I don’t delete the post. What is this about? On one hand, I like the validation that comes with views and likes, but on the other hand I feel arrogant (i.e., an exaggerated sense of my own importance or abilities) and prideful, which feels yucky.

My husband gets home, sees the book, opens the book, recognizes my name, and asks me if he has to read my chapter; he asks me how many pages it is; he turns the pages in the chapter and tells me that it will take him a month to read it. I stare. Then, he sits on the sofa beside me and reads. I pretend I am reading, too, but feel his eyes on my words and listen to him turning the pages. I desperately want him to see the part about my dad.  What is this about, this desperate moment? Attention? Validation? Support? And why do I feel bad for wanting that?

I think.

I write this thinking.

I read my thinking a few days later.

I decide that I think I know what my public writing is about: It is about having a witness. I want my husband to witness the moment I shared the poem about my dad even if it was four years later. I want my husband to witness my accomplishment: a chapter in a book. I want my husband to be proud of me for doing something important with my life, for being brave enough to share it all.  I want other teachers to witness my experiences, too. I want them to be alongside me in my most vulnerable moments and even the prideful ones because I think they understand. When someone reads my posts or chapter or book, that someone becomes a witness to my life. I exist.

My writing is my testimony.

National Poetry Month is comes at an opportune time for me. I will take a break from writing about teaching for a while. Instead, I will be a student of poetry alongside the teachers and students who will share this virtual space with me. I will be their witness and they mine as we make sense of our worlds with and through verse. Will you join us?

Time to Compare: An Essay of Noticing with YA Lit

“Good afternoon, so this is the final week of the quarter,” I announce to my seventh grade reading class. They have spent the morning with the state mandated PARCC test, and we are in an alternate classroom while the eighth graders take their test. It’s an unusually warm March day, so in addition to testing fatigue, energy is quite low. I’m hoping I can move the mind and body in today’s lesson. I continue,”Remember how we started the quarter by choosing a book study project — genres, subjects, authors? What did you study, Jackie?”

“Basketball. I read Taking Sides and Tears of a Tiger.

“Subject study.And you, Jose?” I ask.

“Fantasy. Genre study.”

“Nice. How about you, Matt?” I ask.

“Lois Lowry. Author study.”

“Thanks. And you blogged about these each week during the quarter. I’ve enjoyed reading what you’ve been noticing about the characters and issues in your books. Well, remember back at the beginning of the quarter how we put in our assignment notebooks that on March 9th a comparison essay would be due?” I ask noticing some heads nodding and some brows furrowing. “Yes? No? Well, today we are going to get started on that comparison blog. You will need a piece of paper and a partner. You have twenty seconds to invite a partner to join you and stand beside your person; we’re going to do some yoga poses. Go! One, two, three…”

About this quarter’s independent reading project

At the beginning of every quarter, we spend some time rejuvenating our independent reading. We reflect on what we’ve read and what we want to read. This quarter, I asked students to read within a specific genre (e.g., fantasy, verse, classics), author (e.g., Simone Elkeles, Sarah Crossan, Lois Lowry), or topic (e.g., depression, basketball, relationships). We spent the first week of the quarter in the library making book lists and seeing what was available in the school library, local library, and classroom library.  I bought a few books to fill some of the gaps.

We set aside some time every day for reading, and I asked students to blog about their books once a week (e.g., make and support a claim about the topic, characters, genre, style of writing, etc., and include text evidence with a personal note). The first ten to fifteen minutes of class was set aside for choice/book study reading, and I was able to confer and monitor their progress throughout the quarter. During this time, we had shared texts going: For eighth grade, it was Night. Having this independent study allowed students a break from the darkness of Elie Wiesel’s experiences to dive into their fantasy or romance books. For seventh grade, it was The Outsiders We discussed issues of class, grief, friendship, and family, which students compared to their independent reading.

Now that we are at the end of the quarter, it was time for that comparison essay. I asked students to select two books within their study to compare in an essay-blog. In a writing-thinking workshop, we worked through the process of writing a point-by-point comparison essay. Below is an overview of the process and sample essays.

The assessment

The graphic thinking-writing organizer

This graphic organizer is really basic. I talk through my own book comparison while students just draw this on their notebook paper and jot down some ideas that come to mind as I talk through some possible options for the comparison points as indicated in the assessment instructions.

The talking-through-while-yoga-posing experience

Before doing any writing, I find it helpful to talk out the thinking and reasoning. Students partner up and take a yoga pose, which may seem silly, but it gets them connecting to their minds and bodies. I project this image on the screen/board to help guide them through a collegial conversation about their books.


The transition-helper-visual-model-for-extra-support template

I offer this visual to students in need of a little extra support; I do not require students to use this template nor even encourage it. Rather, I make clear that paragraphing, topic sentences, and transition phrases help them move through their thinking while signaling to the reader those  moves so they can follow the logic and flow of ideas.

The drafting-revising comparisons

We use Kidblog and Google Docs to compose, so students can choose whichever platform they prefer to draft their comparison essay. I walk around and offer compliments and feedback as they write.  I interrupt every ten or fifteen minutes for students to read aloud what they have to a partner. This helps students check for basic wording, confusing logic, and sentence flow but also hear how other students are working out the comparisons, which may inspire deeper thinking or a shift in thinking for other reader-writers.

Weight of Water
Apple and Rain

Final posts

The “final” essays were posted on March 9th. (I use quotes because if I notice the need for revision, I confer with students about revisions.) One student who did a fantasy study selected Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and Keeper of the Lost Cities: Neverseen by Shannon Messenger. She compared the characters’ dispositions, trust in their relationships, and themes. As she reflects on the comparison process, she notes:

Looking back to when I first read these books, I never thought I’d be able to find so many connections between the two. Their plots are so original and unalike. I’m glad I was able to find similarities between the two so I could understand each of them more. That concludes my comparison of main characters, trust-relationships, and lessons in the books Red Queen  and Keeper of the Lost Cities: NeverseenWalking away from these amazing books, I now realize that deep trust should only be put into those who you understand. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone at all, but that there are specific times to look for signs of future betrayal and times to let your mind guide you more than your heart. 

Another student who did an author study selected Apple and Rain and The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan. She noticed that in both books, there is a missing parent, an English setting, and a love interest; however, one book is prose while the other is in verse.

The value of comparing

I haven’t thought about Marzano in a while, but I recall in reading Classroom Instruction that Works years ago, something that stuck with me: comparing is one of the best strategies for processing information and integrating knowledge. Typically teachers give students the categories or criteria for comparison. In some cases, this is necessary. However, when students are able to decide, to direct their own thinking-comparing, they are free to notice what they notice and process the significance of such as they write. By inviting students to choose their points of comparison, what happened was “divergence in students’ thinking” (16). What they noticed and found relevant was a combination of the texts and their reading experiences (Rosenblatt’s transactional theory) that was unique to each reader. Essentially, student-directed comparisons result in more heterogeneous discoveries and conclusions by students, which is not something the PARCC test could ever assess or appreciate.

Teachers as Writers: Becoming Part of Your Classroom Writing Community

I could write.

At Ethical ELA, we believe in the power of writing to inform and transform.  We write to write; to reflect on our teaching; to recognize that for change to happen, we have to act deliberately; to challenge the status quo; to celebrate the “good” in what we do for the students with whom we are entrusted; to cultivate a culture of teaching for a better humanity; to show that teachers do have agency; and because, as William Faulkner wrote, “If a story is in you, it has to come out.” This week, Lesley Roessing, tells us her story of becoming a writer and inspires us to be writers together.

Lesley Roessing
Ethical ELA Guest Blogger: Lesley Roessing

Teachers as Writers: Becoming Part of Your Classroom Writing Community

by Lesley Roessing

At the end of each summer Writing Institute and my Teaching Writing & Writers course, I ask participants to share what surprised them the most—about the course or about themselves. Every summer more than half of these practicing teachers write, “I never thought of myself as a writer before” or “I didn’t know that I was a writer.” That would astonish me, but it was during my own Writing Institute experience with NWP’s Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project that I discovered myself as a writer.

Even though I had worked as a writer, having written publicity for Doubleday Publishing, I hadn’t thought about myself as a writer as part of my new career in teaching. Sure, I taught writing. But I didn’t think of myself as a writer, other than a technical writer, a writer with accuracy but not any voice. Then I participated in the Institute where we had a free-writing exercise every day for four weeks. And there I discovered my voice. I realized that, through my writing, I could make people laugh—and cry; that I could write about facts but also tell stories.

I could write.


After the Institute ended, I looked through the literacy journals, and noticed that most of the articles appeared to be written by university professors and contained a lot of jargon—methodology, pedagogy—with which I was uncomfortable and words that didn’t match my voice, and a lot of citations. But one day I was reading my copy of NCTE Voices from the Middle and came across a call for a short piece about a lesson that worked in the classroom. I thought, “Maybe I can try that,” and I wrote about a strategy that I created and was employing in my classroom in place of grades, “Miles for Motivation.” That first “article” was only 3 pages long and written in my own voice as an 8th grade educator. When it was accepted for publication, I felt like, not only a writer but a real author. A few educators from across the country contacted me about the article, and I felt like an “expert” (which we all are—we are the experts in our classrooms). [“Miles for Motivation” will be published, with NCTE’s permission, on Ethical ELA January 1st.]

I continued to write and publish in a variety of journals and found that the benefits were greater than I ever thought.

1) As I gained confidence in myself as a writer, I started writing with my students. I added a step in our writing process—after we deconstructed a mentor text, I showed them how I reconstructed a writing, using the ideas, strategies, and skills that I acquired from the mentor text, but making it my own.

2) I begin teaching writing more like I wrote—with choice, time, and sometimes collaborating with others.

3) As I wrote for publication, I shared my drafts—my sloppy copies, as Russell called them. I also shared editors’ letters and comments. I received an email from Art Peterson, then editor of the National Writing Project journal The Quarterly, where he listed ten things he liked about my manuscript, ten questions a reader might have, and ten revision suggestions. I had been teaching our 3-person peer review groups the same process: to state one thing each liked about the author’s writing; one question they, as a reader, had; and one revision suggestion. Excitedly, I showed them the email and was able to demonstrate that this was an authentic strategy utilized in the real publishing world.

4) Every time I had an article accepted and published, my students celebrated with me. They felt that they were being taught by a real author and that my methods actually had meaning. And that successful writing deserved celebration. They even insisted that I display the journals containing my publications for Parents’ Night.

5) Most important was that, as I wrote about strategies I employed and lessons I designed and used in my classroom, the writing made me examine how I was teaching, what I was teaching, and why I was teaching it, and I was forced to analyze what was effective—and what was not. When writing, I had to back up my words with research and results.

6) I also shared student work within my writings; in that way, my students became published writers. I think they put more thought and care into their writing because they could “be in a article or a book.” My first book, The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension, became a class (or all my team classes) collaboration. The book contains 149 examples of student work from my and other colleagues’ students. My classes were involved throughout the entire project. They wanted to be apprised whenever I received an email from my editor, when Andrew’s title won the team naming contest and was approved by the publisher, when their photographers taken by our social studies teachers were accepted for inclusion. They wanted to try new response strategies for the book.

7) We truly became a writing community and talked about writing and read like writers—all of us, including me.

The point is not that I write but that all teachers of writing should think of themselves as writers and should be writing—in whatever way best suits them, personal or public. Every teacher has something of value to reflect on and share. I hope more K-12 teachers will write articles to share their strategies and lessons with other educators. And share their writing with their student writers as part of the classroom writing community. There are many opportunities for publication from state affliliates’ newsletters and journals to national journals.

Take the plunge. Show your students writers that you are a writer also.

Works Referenced:

Roessing, Lesley. “Miles for Motivation.” Voices from the Middle, 10 (4), 2003.

Roessing, Lesley. The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009.

Lesley Roessing is Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University, Savannah, GA.. Lesley is the author of The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009), No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved (Discover Writing Press. 2013), and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Contact her at Lesley.roessing@armstrong.edu or follow Facebook.com/coastalsavwp.

As editor of Connection, the peer-reviewed journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English,  she invites you to submit an article.

A Little Reading & Writing, and A Lot of Building Community

Name Signs_Rachel

Here at Ethical ELA, we pursue what is good and ethical in our practice. At the beginning of the school year there is a lot of business with setting up procedures, but let’s talk about blending the practical and the ethical. In this post, Lesley Roessing starts the conversation. Yes, we have to learn names, but we can do it in ways that honor who we are and celebrate what makes us similar and different — how rich our classroom community is and how fortunate we are to have all of these human beings together for the school year!

by Lesley Roessing

Lesley Roessing
Ethical ELA Guest Blogger: Lesley Roessing

It is the beginning of school. In most classrooms teachers need to become acquainted with their students; in some classrooms—in many middle and high school classroom—students need to get to know each other. It is important to create community in any classroom, but especially in ELA classroom where students will be sharing their writings and their thoughts and ideas about readings and perhaps reading collaboratively in book clubs. Most times, the stronger the feeling of community, the deeper the discussions can go.

I have found that before people can accept and value diversity in others, they need to first see similarities. Teachers and students need to learn more than each others’ names; it vital that they learn about each other, who they are. It is important that teachers help students to forge new friendships, for each class to form an “Us,” rather than and “Us” and “Them.”

To become familiar with students as more than names and for them to become informed about each other, I have found an effective introductory activity is creating name signs for their desks. For these signs, students print their names, forming each letter into an item that tells something about themselves. An L might be a pencil and a book spine. An M can be two mountains showing a favorite vacation spot. One student’s N consisted of a collection of sports paraphernalia: a hockey stick, a golf club, and a lacrosse stick.

I first show my name sign (which I could design for “Mrs. Roessing”):

Students tell me what they can learn about me from my sign—

  • I play tennis and golf.
  • My husband runs with our two Aussies (and a hat).
  • I went to the University of Pittsburgh and taught at Ridley and now at AASU (now known as Armstrong State University).
  • at the time I made this sign, I had written 3 books—but not with a pencil although I like to handwrite my ideas.
  • I am a pescetarian.

Besides now knowing my name, my students now know something about me, actually quite a lot—and the vegetarians nod and smile at me as do the tennis players and dog owners.

Before drawing their letters, students brainstorm, just like any writing. They brainstorm categories of favorites—foods, interests, activities, sports, hobbies, places, games, people, school subjects, etc.  The next step is to list things they like and group or organize the topics in each category. These are the same steps as the Common Core State Standards for Informational Writing mandates, for example

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.2.a Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.2.b Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.

On the first days of classes teachers can be introducing writing concepts they will teach later in the year.

Next students form these items into letters. Designers may use capitals, small letters, or a combination of both. The teacher can advise students to write the names by which they want to be called.

During the time students are designing and creating their signs, classmates chat with their neighbors, sharing supplies and ideas, playing with their names and each other’s names, and communicating.  When completed, the teacher asks students to look at each other’s signs and tell what they have learned about each other. They are reading and interpreting pictures—visual literacy.

It is then they notice the similarities with their fellow students. We see eight cats, six dogs, many musical instruments, sports gear, and almost everyone forms V’s, W’s, C’s, and O’s into pizza slices and pies which leads to the pepperoni versus plain cheese versus best vegetable toppings discussions. Next thing we know, adolescents are chatting with others they may have ignored most of the year.

Name Signs_Rachel

While students are connecting through discovered similarities, they are also noticing the diverse talents of their classmates. Cailtin draws very well, Sarah has a creative sense of color and design, Benjamin meticulously measures out his letters with mathematical precision so that he doesn’t run out of room on his sign, Dave [see above] does not, and Tom thinks outside the box.

These facts, such as artistic prowess, are mentally noted by the teacher and by their classmates and will be important to know when choosing group members for future projects. I found it easy, and beneficial, to note affective traits—which students are sociable and jabber with everyone, who would rather work alone, who is interested in everyone else’s creation, who stays on task, and who are the organizers (“Let’s place sets of markers so that everyone can reach them and each group of four can share a ruler.”).

The signs will remain on the desks until teacher and students all learn each other’s names and become better acquainted. Signs then can be stored in the classroom and brought out periodically for class visitors and guest speakers, substitute teachers, and when new students join the class, inviting them all to join the classroom community.

Adapted from Roessing, L. (2012). No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lesley Roessing is the Founding Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Sr. Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University, Savannah; Editor of Connections, the GCTE journal; and author of The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin Press), No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield), Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved (Discover Writing), and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core (Rowman & Littlefield).