Multi-genre End of Year Project, Reimagined

In my last post, I talked about my 4th quarter plans for distance learning. Essentially, I’m scaling back to just 2 weekly assignments: 3 journal entries and 1 hour of independent reading each week.

Originally, the plan for 4th quarter looked quite different. You can probably relate. I intended to work with students to produce a large multi-genre project as the culmination of our year together. Obviously, this is not an ideal task to undertake in our current conditions. Still, I wanted a way to build some closure into the year. Today our governor announced that schools in my state will remain closed (distance learning only) for the rest of the school year. I spent most of the day sad and teary, even though I absolutely knew this was coming. It’s just so hard to envision an end of the school year without physically being in the presence of my beloved students for the entire last 3 months.

Over spring break I came up with my plan to greatly reduce the weekly work for my class, and got it approved by my principal and curriculum dean. Around the same time, I came across an awesome idea in a Facebook group for English teachers who use workshop in their classes (side note: if you’re not using Facebook groups and Twitter for professional development, what are you waiting for?). It seemed like a perfect way to create a multi-genre product without overwhelming my students as they try to balance distance learning, added responsibilities at home, jobs, and the stress and trauma of living through a global pandemic.

The project, shared by teacher Alexandria Mooney, is called “A Series Of…” and it’s such a simple but brilliant idea. I have been working on adapting this idea to fit with what I already had (very loosely) planned for the quarter, and also to align to the multi-genre project my students will be completing in their English classes.

My goals for this project are:

  1. Provide students with an opportunity to showcase their writing and creativity.
  2. Build in differentiation in both quantity and depth of work, allowing students who are struggling for any reason to experience success, while allowing others the chance to really dig in and excel.
  3. Keep the workload low for my student and for me.

You can see my work-in-progress project here:

Instructions for students

My example

The journals we are doing as prep for the final project

I usually blog about my experience *after* the fact so I can share what worked and what I will change. This time, as we are all scrambling to find meaningful ways to continue our teaching and wrap up our school year, I thought I would share where I am in the hopes that it will help someone else.

I hope you are handling this situation as well as you can, and I hope that maybe you found something helpful in this post.

Making it work in Tough Times: Distance Learning & Workshop

Well, this certainly isn’t the way I envisioned my first year of diving into workshop ending up. Our COVID-19 building closure came suddenly and left us scrambling to roll out distance learning quickly. We had one PD day to come together, agree on expectations and plan our next three weeks. The next day, we were teaching our students remotely. It was a whirlwind.

All that feels like a lifetime ago, when in reality it has been “just” 4 weeks. We’ve wrapped up 3 weeks of distance learning and are on our last day of spring break today. It’s only April 10th, and as of now, we are doing distance learning until at least May 4th, but I think we all know that this will likely go on through the end of the school year.

So, what does this mean for my classes? For the first 3 weeks, I kept the basic structures in place and just slowed my pace to a crawl. We had quick writes about twice per week and writing mini-lessons about twice per week. I assigned a video check-in on Flipgrid and we started working on our theme analysis essays. Since we were no longer reading together in class, and many students did not have books, I reduced independent reading expectations from 2 hours to 1 hour. We were approaching the end of 3rd quarter, so I had students continue adding 5 vocab entries to their personal dictionaries each week.

By the time we made it to the end of our third week and the start of our spring break, I was weeks behind in grading and completely overwhelmed. I’ve talked here about my anxiety before; I’ve never felt so anxious in my life! I was doing everything I could to maintain the relationships I’d spent all year cultivating. That meant writing individual responses to each student. With 120 students, it was too much! But, it felt (and still feels) extremely important. I realized that what I wanted and needed to do was not provide less personalized responses. I needed to have less work coming in to respond to.

One factor I haven’t mentioned yet that I’m sure many of you can relate to is the other type of distance learning: that of my kids. I have three school-aged children, ranging from 1st through 6th grade, and they have a good deal of work to complete each day. My oldest struggles mightily with executive function skills, so I have to help him make a plan for each day and then stick with it. My youngest is in first grade and all of her work is on an iPad. She is fairly independent and self-directed but still runs into issues and immediately starts whining when she does. And my middlest (as we affectionately refer to him) is getting extremely overwhelmed and anxious by the quantity of assignments he sees in his portal each day. He has meltdown after meltdown. Yesterday he spent the whole day on one relatively short test that would have been quite easy for him on paper. On the chromebook, however, it literally took him hours, with many breaks to scream, cry, whine and just generally feel miserable.

So… I’m busy. I’m frustrated. I’m overwhelmed. This week I realized that this isn’t working. Not for me, not for my students, not for my kids. I emailed my amazing principal and instructional coach and told them as much. I outlined a plan to go forward. They were both incredibly understanding and reasonable. This shouldn’t surprise me, because they are excellent leaders. But I think my anxiety got the best of me and I was convinced they would think I was a whiny, terrible teacher.

I did not intend for this post to be this long. So here is my back to basics, super super basic plan. Until distance learning is over, we will have exactly two assignments each week:

  1. Quick Writes/Journals
    Students will complete three journal entries each week. They should total a minimum of 1.5 pages double spaced.
  2. Independent Reading
    We will continue to read 1 hour per week. I have provided a list of digital reading resources for students who have finished their books.

My wonderful school leaders, recognizing that we launched quickly and need time to think, adjust, and regroup, have added 3 PD days on to the end of spring break. So I won’t “see” my students again until next Thursday. To re-launch my course following my new plan, I went all the way back to day one and wrote them another letter outlining how I’m feeling and what I want for them.

I put together this presentation, which I will use to record a video where I read my letter aloud and explain these changes to my students.

I came up with these suggestions to help students plan out their week and manage their time.

I’ve been trying to remind myself and my students that this is one moment in time. It feels enormous now, because it is, but someday it will be just a memory. We will get through this. So I’ll end with the same reminder I’ve been sharing with my students each day:

We can do this!

How are you holding up in all of this? What are you doing for distance learning?

Poesía Revelada

Hi, friends. In the past 2 months, I’ve started 4 drafts, but never managed to find the time to pull everything together to finish any of them. Then, in one night, I found some time and energy, and managed to write not one but two new posts. So here’s my second post of 2020. I hope you enjoy!

The school I teach at has a ton of scheduling quirks, due mostly to the corporate work study jobs our students go to one day a week instead of class. We start earlier in August than most local schools, and go later into June. Thus, our first semester ends 2 weeks after winter break. This means we have one week and one day (4-5 class days) with our students before our semester finals. Since my class, and my final, focus on reading and writing, I did not need to spend five days reviewing. However, I didn’t want to start a new unit, only to be interrupted by finals.

Our first day back, we read, we wrote, we talked about reading and writing, and that pretty much filled the class. The day before exams, students worked in pairs to pre-read one of the readings for the final. That left me with three days, not enough to do anything major, but three days that I didn’t just want to waste.

I was still scrambling to grade their personal narratives (a blog post for another day) and their video book talks (a blog post I finally finished!), so I was NOT about to assign another big project that I wouldn’t have time to grade.

I wanted to do something fun and creative and easy to grade. My students always surprise me with their creativity when given the time and space to freely create. So I decided to try something I’d been wanting to do for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to yet: Blackout Poetry.

The premise is simple: using a page of any book, select words and phrases to form a poem. Black out the rest of the words, preferably making a design of some sort that relates to the poem you’ve written.

Ideally, you would use actual book pages, perhaps from a book that is falling apart or otherwise unusable, but since my classroom library is only a few years old and my books are more likely to disappear than to fall apart, I went a different route. I grabbed a big stack of books off my shelves, went to the copier, opened to random pages, and started copying. I copied two pages per book, and used about 20 different books. Then I made enough four copies of the whole stack of pages, giving me one per student plus plenty of extras when students make mistakes / lose them / change their minds.

I started with some examples that I found online. Sadly, I couldn’t find any in Spanish, but that will only be a problem this year, since I can use the work my students made this year as examples in class next year. After showing the examples and talking a little about the process, we went over the first few steps and students got started.

Rather than retype all of my instructions, here is a link to the instructions and examples I used in class.

Ideas and examples for my instructions came from this blog.

Click here to view some of the best finished products.

Overall, my students had approximately 70 minutes of class time over three days to complete their blackout poems. Some students used every minute and created incredible works of art. Some students wasted time or lost theirs and threw something together at the last minute. In the end, I was happy with how the process went and impressed with the work of most of my students.

What is your favorite creative project for students? What is a project you’re still waiting to try? Next on my list to try: the one-pager!

Scroll down for examples of some of our work in progress. I plan on using these to replace the English in-progress examples in my instructions next year.

Step 1: Lightly circle words any phrases you might want to use in your poem.
My poem in progress…
Student has blocked out the words and phrases she will use and is beginning to black out the rest.
This student used Google to search images to aid him in his drawing.
My finished poem. I’m not much of an artist, and I wanted students to see a less-than-professional quality example as well as be inspired by the amazing examples that I found online.

Video book talks

A multi-purpose activity

In my workshop classroom, independent reading is a non-negotiable. It is a sacred time. If I want my students to become better readers and truly develop a love of reading, I have to give them time to actually read.

As the year progresses, some students start to fizzle out a bit in their enthusiasm for independent reading. Especially students for whom reading has never been enjoyable or never been a habit, it can become difficult to stick with it day in and day out.

I try to do a lot of different activities to introduce my students to the books in my library. I do 1-2 book talks (nearly) every day, presenting books of different reading levels, genres, and lengths. If it’s a book I’ve read, I share about my experience reading it and tell a bit about the plot to get students interested. If I haven’t read it, I will read the back cover or pick a page to read aloud.

I also have students talk to each other about the books they are reading from time to time. We occasionally do a book tasting or book pass, and of course I help individual students find books they might like all the time.

Of all of these, it seems students are most interested in the books their classmates tell them about. When I ask students to partner up and “sell” their books, they often get really animated. Students often add their partner’s book to their “To read next” list, which is a huge success. When they have a good list of titles they’re interested in, they have a much easier time selecting a new book when they finish one.

With this in mind, and knowing I had speaking/presentation standards to work on, I decided to have my students create video book talks on Flipgrid.

I started by creating a planning sheet that students could use to prepare their book talk. On the back, I typed up my own example so students would have a guide as to length and detail. (Mine was probably a little *too* detailed, but you know most students are going to do less, not more, so that’s okay.)

Students worked in class to prepare their book talk presentations, and had the option to record their videos in the hallway during class or at home after school. Most students chose to record at home, where they could change out of their uniforms, make sure they looked their best, and just feel more relaxed. (Side note: I had to ask at least 5 students to please change their smoke alarm batteries after watching their videos and listening to the low battery chirp over and over. I feel like this was an added benefit.)

We created and shared our video book talks on Flipgrid. Students need to download the app on their phones or use a computer to record and upload their videos. Once uploaded, any member of the grid (for my purposes, any member of the class section) can view their video. Students can also record a video response to their classmates. None of mine actually did, but it could be something you require – as in, watch 3 video book talks and post a video response to one of them.

Example Video Book Talks

I might as well admit it now: many of my students hated the vulnerability of this project. And honestly, I was shocked: how could these students, the Snapchat generation, be too embarrassed to record a 2-minute video of themselves and share it on Flipgrid? It took me a while to recognize that the videos would be shared outside of their friend groups and social media circles, so that added a layer of discomfort. However, when I sent out a Remind message, at 9:15 pm, asking if any of my students would let me share their videos with you all, I had 5 responses in mere minutes saying I could share theirs.

For the most part, I told my students that they needed to complete the videos and share them with the class on Flipgrid. However, I made exceptions for students with a variety of circumstances, such as:

  • a few students who struggle with speaking Spanish in front of their classmates because they are embarrassed by their pronunciation
  • a student who is extremely shy and anxious and was essentially paralyzed with fear at the idea of it
  • a student dealing with personal issues with several classmates who was worried about screenshots being taken and used to tease/bully her

All of these students were still required to record a video, but rather than upload it to Flipgrid, I had them show me their video in person and then delete it. I didn’t want them to feel terribly uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to “punish” them with a zero for not doing it, but I did want them to practice the skill of recording a presentation. This seemed like a good compromise, and the students were grateful for this accommodation.

Overall, I have really enjoyed this project. I am now using a video book talk in class each day. It’s been a fun way to introduce new books to my students, and was a great way to get them to practice speaking without having to spend days listening to presentations. I will probably have them do another video later in the year. Hopefully they are more comfortable with it by then!

MCTLC 2019

It’s been nearly a month since I attended and presented at the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Cultures Fall Conference. I may be biased, but I think my state puts on a pretty amazing annual conference, with wonderful hospitality, great sessions and meaningful, important focus strands.

In 2017, I had my first taste of presenting at MCTLC, when my friend and heritage language champion Jenna Cushing-Leubner talked me into being a part of a group presenting on a variety of ways to incorporate social justice topics into the heritage language classroom. Because my topic (free voluntary reading) was pretty loosely related to the social justice theme, and also because of my anxiety, I was the last one in our group to present. I was grateful to have an excuse to rush through everything because we had less than 10 minutes left when we got to my part of the presentation.

Thanks in large part to Jenna’s work, MCTLC created a full strand for heritage language teaching. After attending in 2018, I approached Jenna and said I’d like to present, on my own, about my growth in my heritage teaching and all of the changes I was implementing in my heritage classes. (It’s probably a good time to note that Jenna doesn’t just have fantastic ideas, she also makes them happen. So if you volunteer to present in the spur of the moment, you’re not getting out of it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Fast forward to spring of 2019, when I was writing my proposals for both #MCTLC19 and CSCTFL20 (Central States conference). I proposed a session on moving away from grammar and vocabulary instruction and towards a language arts model in my heritage classes. At the time, I had no idea how transformative my summer PD with my school’s English team, led by Amy Rasmussen, would be. I didn’t mention using workshop model in my proposals because I didn’t know that that’s where I was heading.

I am sitting here in a hotel room on a mini getaway with my husband (he’s sound asleep but the bed was way too firm for me) realizing this post is kind of rambling on too much. I came here to share my presentation with you all, so here it is:

MCTLC 2019

If you make it all the way to the end, you’ll find some great resources and also my rough plan for the year. One thing that’s not there, because it was a plan hatched at MCTLC, is Aracely Thomas’ idea to create a poetry slam for our students from several local (la and not-so-local) schools and get them all together to perform their poems. Stay tuned for more info on this exciting event that will hopefully happen in May 2020.

Be sure to drop your questions or suggestions down below. I’d love to hear what *you* are up to!

Writing Notebooks: Setup, Maintenance & Grading

One of the perks of using the workshop model is that I am using so much less paper and wasting way less time standing by the copy machine. Less worksheets is great for so many reasons: it saves money, and trees, and time, and frustration, and best of all, students aren’t bored or feeling buried in work that doesn’t seem meaningful.

But if I’m focusing on writing, students have to write, so where do they do that? The answer is simple: virtually everything that we write in class goes in the students’ writer’s notebooks. And since everything goes in one place, it’s important to have a system that makes sense and keeps it all organized. It’s also essential to have a system for grading it that is as quick and painless as possible. Today I’ll detail what I’ve done so far this year, and how it’s going for me.

I want to first credit a lot of this back to Amy Rasmussen from the blog Three Teachers Talk. After she came to teach us how to use workshop in our classes, I adapted and implemented many of her notebook ideas in my own class.

I knew that I needed an organizational system that would be simple to setup and easy to maintain. I decided to set up the main components of our notebooks right away on day 2. This allowed us to get in the routine of using our notebooks right from the start. (On day one, students wrote their quick write on a notecard that they turned in at the end of class for me to read.)

Notebook setup & organization

Page 1: This is where we put our reading goal for the year. It is also where we calculate our current reading rate. Students should recalculate their reading rate each time they start a new book. We use reading rate to determine how many pages each student needs to read each week, so it’s important to have an accurate calculation.

This example is from my notebook. I haven’t actually calculated my reading rate, but I probably should.
I had students glue the instructions for calculating their reading rate inside the front cover of their notebooks so they could recalculate each time they start a new book. Unfortunately, despite my constant reminders, most students only do it when I include it as part of class.

Page 2: The second page of our notebooks is where students track what they are currently reading. They haven’t been good about maintaining this list on their own, so I remind them on Mondays to check their list and update it: completed books, abandoned books, and new books they are starting. I ask them to give a brief explanation why they abandon any book.

For next year, I want to add some things our English teachers include on this page: author, genre, date completed. Since I didn’t start the year with that, though, I won’t try to add it now.

From my notebook. I’ve been reading a lot already this year!

Bulk of notebook: The majority of the notebook is dedicated to our daily writing tasks: Quick Writes, mini-lesson notes, writing workshop pieces, etc. We also glue a lot of things into our notebooks: rubrics, mini-lesson notes, mentor texts, anything I want them to have handy and keep from one day to the next. Below are several examples.

Example of a couple pages of quick writes from a student’s notebook. Note how she made revisions in a different color (as instructed).
I had students glue their rubrics into their notebooks. I also asked them to write a reflection on their writing process, what they did well, and what they still need to work on.
This is a review of some figurative language we were working on. I realized that I needed to give students a copy so they could refer back to it as they worked on their writing.

The last page: This is where students keep their “To Read Next” list. I do book talks every day, we do a variety of book browsing activities, and I sometimes use quotes from books in my library for a Quick Write. I always remind students that, if a book sounds interesting, they should add it to their list. Students are accountable for having multiple books on their list when I check notebooks and also during reading conferences.

This list is so important in helping students continue reading after they finish a book. Rather than spend all of their reading time searching for a new book, they can flip to their list and quickly find their next book. Since I mostly only have single copies of books, students need to have multiple titles on their list so they can find something they are interested in that’s available on the shelves.

This student came to me already identifying as a reader, so it’s no surprise that she has a long and varied list of books she wants to read.

2nd to last page: This is where we glue the instructions and start our personal dictionaries. Each student is expected to add 5 entries per week from their independent reading book. They can be words that are new to them, or words they understand but don’t often use in writing or speech. For the personal dictionary, students will work backwards through their notebook.

Personal dictionary instructions (with example entry).

This system allows us to keep things separate and organized in a way that seems logical and easy to maintain. We don’t need tabs or dividers that might fall off or break, and everything has a place.

Notebook Grading

This is the part we all dread. Right? Right! After my first slow, tedious notebook check, I learned some things and made some changes. They made my second notebook check faster and less subjective.

One change was creating a notebook grading slip that works as a scoring checklist. This makes it obvious to students why they received the grade they did. It also made it easy for me to track all of the things I was looking for, which were many because too much time passed between checks. I purposely stapled the slip into their notebook on the last used page and sticking up about 1/4 inch, to help me easily know where to start the next time I collect notebooks.

I made a similar slip for grading personal dictionary entries:

These slips turned grading notebooks into a more streamlined and less painful process. Still, I will make changes going forward. For one thing, I will not be collecting notebooks for more than one purpose at a time – last time, I was checking notebooks, grading a writing piece, and grading vocab entries. Don’t do that! You will regret it! Please, trust me here. That was a really bad decision. I’m also considering collecting notebooks one or two classes at a time to make it more manageable and less panic-inducing.

If you made it this far, congratulations! You are a real trooper! This post is not nearly as exciting or fun as a unit or lesson explanation, but I hope you’ll find it practical and useful.

Do you use writer’s notebooks, or another notebook system, in your classes? I’d love to hear how you manage notebook setup and grading!

Conference time!

It’s been a while since my last post. As tends to happen, life got really busy and time got away from me. Then, a family member passed away in Mexico, and I became a solo parent for 10 days while my husband was out of the country. He’s on an airplane flying home right now, and it seemed like a perfect time to start my next post. I finally feel like I can breathe again.

Of course, that feeling is shortlived. Tomorrow is our first of 2 days of parent-student-teacher conferences, and they are grueling back-to-back 12+ hour days. My husband will get home close to midnight and I have to be at work by 7:25 and then be at my best with parents all evening. Wish me luck!

I’ve always wanted conferences to be mostly student led, but have usually fallen short of making that happen. I end up talking way too much, which is both exhausting (talking for hours straight in your second language with people you don’t know is work) and just not ideal. So I had been ruminating on ideas to make a change this year. Especially considering the massive shift in my class, it seemed appropriate to shift the mental load of conferences to students as well.

So today (yes, the day before conferences), when a colleague who is notorious for having extremely long conferences, mentioned that his goal was to not talk, I laughed. And then I told him that I was thinking over ways to do the same. A few hours later, I started a Google doc collaboration with him and another colleague, and this abstract idea began to take shape. This is what we came up with in the span of about 15 minutes while supervising study hall:

We were able to borrow ideas from each other, and refine our own ideas through our chat comments (the magic of Google Docs, am I right?). Since all but one of my students are heritage speakers (I have 1 student who came through a dual immersion program), I just need to clean up and translate my document tomorrow and I’ll be ready to go.

I titled this post Conference Time because we begin parent-teacher conferences tomorrow, but also because it’s professional conference season. Next week (Oct. 25-26) brings the MCTLC conference here in Minneapolis, and I’m so excited to attend the sessions in the Heritage Language strand! I will finally get to meet some of my fabulous online teacher friends, and I cannot wait! At the same time, I’m already battling my anxiety, because I’m presenting a session on Saturday – eek! It’s my first time presenting by myself, and I’m TERRIFIED. I haven’t even started planning yet, except in my head. I’m presenting on making the switch to being a Spanish language arts teacher,  so I’ll look back through this blog and notes from a less formal presentation this summer. I know I have a lot to share. I just really hate speaking in public. I end up shaking for an hour after it’s over. So if you see me, smile or wave or give me chocolate!

Finally, I want to talk about reading and writing conferences during class. And by talk about, I really mean say that they aren’t going great. This is where some actual training in teaching language arts would be helpful. So I continue reading and attending English department meetings and hope to be able to pop into some classes to observe teachers conferring soon. This is definitely an area of growth for me, and I plan to dedicate a future post to this topic, hopefully with an update that things are improving.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a prize. Unfortunately, I’m fresh out of prizes. But I thank you for sticking with me! I hope you found something useful from my stressed out, sleep deprived ramblings. I just got word that my husband’s flight has been delayed, and honestly I’m not surprised – that’s just the way things have been going lately.

Today my car was vandalized, but in a good way. I left work with a smile, and I know tomorrow’s conferences, while exhausting, will go well thanks to the planning and collaborating I did today.

Room for grace

It’s been way too long since I’ve written a blog post. Truth be told, I haven’t done much writing at all, aside from some quick writes with my sophomores and a sample FRQ for my AP Spanish Lit students. The thing is, I’ve been struggling to stay afloat; most days it feels like my nose is slipping beneath the surface, and I have to fight just to sneak a breath before sinking again.

My days are stuffed to the point of overflowing, and something, or many somethings, has to give. One of those things has been writing. I know that’s not good, because sharing my ideas and successes and worries here has been so good for me as I reflect on my practice. It’s also not good because I feel like I’m letting myself down by not keeping my commitment to writing.

But today I realized something really important. I was advising a new teacher to be creative in finding ways to lighten her load so she doesn’t burn out, and said something about giving yourself some grace in these first years. And it hit me: you don’t need to be a new teacher to afford yourself the same grace you afford to your students and colleagues and family and friends. In the same way that I try to recognize and honor the challenges my students face, the obstacles to attendance and engagement, the distractions and disruptions, I need to be patient and kind and flexible with myself.

Especially as I embark down this path of new learning, I have to be willing to let some things go. I must recognize that I am one person being pulled in many directions. I cannot do everything, I cannot fix everything, I cannot be everything to everyone.

So I’m making room for grace. I’m formulating a plan to take care of myself. I might not write every day, and that’s okay. I might not answer every email or make all the parent calls or stay on top of all the grading. But I will do my best every day to put as much light as I can back out into the world, while also focusing some of that light inward.

Be kind. Show grace. Breathe. Simple reminders for myself as I brace for another jam-packed weekend, followed by another crazy week.

My next post will be about what’s been going on in my workshop world over the past few weeks. I promise. I have lots of updates to share, and I know that’s what you come here for. But I needed this reminder so much today that I thought maybe you needed it, too. ❤

This made me laugh out loud, because, honestly, I tell myself all the time “next week will be better/easier/less busy.” But the thing is, I’m the one who needs to make sure that’s true.

When Magic DOESN’T Happen

Things were off to a great start in my heritage Spanish classes. Students were reading and writing, and talking about reading and writing. They wrote beautiful letters and many finished reading their first complete book in Spanish, ever! And then, sometime in week 3, we seemed to hit a rut. The magic faded. Students started pushing back about reading in class, many were clearly not doing ANY reading outside of class (and that is their only homework for my class), and So. Many. Students were wasting their writing workshop time, even when they knew they had an impending deadline.

At the same time, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with planning, grading, my AP Spanish Lit class, my own kids’ busy schedules, and so many other pieces of my busy day-to-day life. I knew I needed to plan the next writing unit, but I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go next. I had planned to have students write their own author bios, but they just finished doing that in English class, so I decided that would probably feel redundant and not be well-received. However, since I had already started those plans, I was really short on time, and that made me feel even more overwhelmed.

Monday was the due date for the final draft of their name stories. We used “Mi nombre” from Sandra Cisneros’ La casa en Mango Street as our mentor text. We spent all of last week working on using similes, metaphors and imagery in our stories. Then on Monday (which, apparently, was yesterday; why does it feel so far away?), we sat in a circle and each student read their story aloud. While many students struggled to incorporate the rhetorical devices that we had practiced, they did a good job with their first attempt at sharing a story. And although I was disappointed that several students did not complete the assignment, others blew me away with their beautiful imagery, excellent metaphors, and overall well-written, creative pieces.

The name story read-aloud gave me a bit of a boost, but I still had no idea what I was going to teach the next day, and Monday night was parent night. I got home, beyond exhausted, at 8:00, just in time to start the nightly battle that is getting three school-aged kids to bed. When that finally happened, I decided I was too tired to think, and just got myself ready for bed.

With my anxiety growing (about everything: lesson plans, a million upcoming kid appointments, AP work, the 100 name stories I now have to grade…), I made some decisions on a whim. First, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I need a break from the bad news and distractions of my digital life. Second, I decided I also needed a break from writing workshop. I’m not giving up (I AM NOT GIVING UP!), but I am giving myself the space to pause, reflect, and yes, fall back to lessons that are already planned from last year, so I can have a small mental and emotional break.

So today, during our daily reading time, I sat down and read instead of conferring with students. We did a quick write that was already ready to go, and then I introduced some pre-listening questions that I created last year for a Radio Ambulante episode that fits nicely with our essential question for this quarter.

I’m giving myself 2 easy days of reading, quick writes, and listening to a podcast. Last week, my students showed signs of needing to slow down and regroup, even before I realized that was exactly what I needed. Next week, we’ll jump back in with renewed energy and focus, and we will love the crap out of our workshop classroom!

When Magic Happens

I’m back, and I want to tell you about what’s been happening in my new workshop world. We’re two weeks into the school year, I’ve learned all of their names (okay, I know 100% of their names about 97% of the time in my classroom. Out in the “wild” of hallways and lunch duty, it gets a bit sketchy.), and I’ve collected and graded their first writing assignment.

First, some background on the assignment. As I’ve mentioned probably too many times before, I wrote a letter to my students and read it to them on the first day of school. This assignment grew out of that letter: after spending some time looking at and writing about my letter, I asked students to write their own letter. In the spirit of choice, they got to pick who the letter was to and what it was about. Together, using my letter as their mentor text, we settled on some parameters:

  • Their letter should have a saludo and a despedida.
  • Their letter should include some kind of introduction explaining why they were writing it.
  • Their letter should have, at minimum, 3-5 points (bullet points or a numbered list were fine)
  • We agreed that grammar and spelling are important, but since I haven’t taught them any grammar or spelling, they would not be graded on those things. (I added that part, because many students suggested that “good grammar” be required, but I know that most have had no formal education in Spanish.

I was worried that this assignment might be too open-ended for students who are used to a lot more structure and used to responding to very specific writing prompts in their other classes. Certainly there were many students who needed some time to get started. I simply told them “Think of someone you have something you want to say to, and write to them.” Through lots of idea sharing and examples, everyone eventually came up with an idea and got started writing.

So let’s talk about the magic that happened last week. Students asked a lot of questions that started with “¿Puedo…?” and I said yes to everything. Can I write a letter to my mom? Yes. Can I write a letter to the freshmen? Yes. Can I write a letter to myself? Absolutely! What about a letter to you, Miss? Yep, I’d love that! I only said no once, when the student asked if he could write a letter to his dead dog. (It seemed like a thinly veiled excuse to write “Querida perra” in his letter.) Everyone else was surprised that the answer to all of their queries was an excited yes.

A few days ago, a quiet student stayed after class to ask if she could write her letter as fiction. I asked her to explain what she meant. “Well,” she gushed, “I created a fictional character and then wrote the letter from her point of view, of what she wanted to tell someone.” What do you even say to that? All I came up with was, “That sounds really great. I can’t wait to read it!”

I don’t want to give the impression that every single student wrote something amazing. Of course they didn’t. Not everyone is ready to open up, not everyone is drawn to this type of writing, not everyone is completely bought in. But EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. turned in the assignment, on time, and that in and of itself is pretty remarkable.

So what did they write about that was so magical? One common theme was letters of agradecimiento to parents, especially mothers, but also many to fathers. These were so heartfelt and honest that many brought tears to this mother’s eyes (yes, I know, I’m a total sap.) Another was letters of advice and encouragement to younger siblings. Many students wrote letters to me, often because they couldn’t think of anyone else to write to, or just weren’t ready to get very personal. Those letters were still very revealing, both in what they shared and what they chose not to share. Finally, many students wrote really amazing letters to themselves, where they gave their future selves advice or reminded them of who they are and what they want to achieve. They were heartwarming and really helped me get to know my students better.

Some of their letters were so incredible that I wish I could share them with you here. Unfortunately, in my rush to grade them and return them to students, I didn’t have time to take pictures of them. Here are a few that I’d like to highlight:

  • A student wrote a letter to her dad, who had abandoned her family years ago. In it, she not only spoke to the hurt and anger she still feels, but also detailed her hope that her father does not do the same thing to his new family. “Ya no sigas lastimando a gente inocente.”
  • A student wrote a letter to her foster mom who died of cancer before she started high school. This is the second time in our two weeks together that she has written about her mom, so I know that this is important to her and something she seems to be ready to talk, or at least write, about. She mentioned on day one that she could relate to my experience of losing my mom, another example of how powerful my letter to students was in setting the tone and letting my students get to know me.
  • A student wrote a letter to herself, talking about her sexuality and other things that are important to her right now. In the letter she made some comments that raised concerns about her safety and well-being, so I have referred her to social work. This is another important aspect to giving students choice: sometimes they may send a cry for help. Make sure you are listening and know how to respond appropriately.

In a team meeting last Thursday, as our social workers talked about several students who are going through difficult situations, and our dean detailed IEPs and 504 plans, I came to a beautiful realization: I *knew* something, beyond the name, about every student they talked about. I don’t think I could ever have said that less than two weeks into the school year before.

I should probably write a post about all the mistakes I made during this unit, all the things I learned, and all the questions I still have. That would likely be more useful to help me reflect on my practice and improve the process going forward. But right now, coming off the high of reading, and really enjoying, my students’ letters, I wanted to share the end result. For now, it feels really good to have a successful first foray into writing workshop.

Teaching Heritage Spanish using reading and writing workshop

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