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Talk Tuesday

The intent of “Talk Tuesdays” was twofold: to use the readings/texts in a purposeful way, and invite students to think about discussion, and practice.

Well, that is the intent, and we all know about roads paved, etc. But I think I became too distracted or mired in the concept of ‘accountable talk.’ I’m not sure if you know my connotative negative bias toward the word ‘accountable’ when it comes to students. Accountable talk is a buzzkill idea. There. I said it. However, sometimes students think it’s going to be a free-for-all talk fest, and, well, sometimes it is. And that’s okay. I would rather have things turn more raucous than censored.

But somehow, and I’m speaking purely for myself, putting the descriptor ‘accountable’ on anything makes it taste like educational cardboard. If we start thinking about what are real purpose is, what we want students to be engaged, and even enchanted by, is sharing ideas in a passionate, “oh oh oh!!” way–and it’s okay if not everyone is excited about every topic. I know I’m not, and that honesty with students helps them know that sometimes they are not as emotionally invested in a topic as others.

What Great Listeners Do by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in the Harvard Business Review provides clear expectations that could be easily modeled and role-played in class. The TL:DR version is great listeners help build the spark of an idea. It’s not a ‘you have a problem and I’ll fix it’ but more like an engaging gear, making an idea move forward. (Spouses take note.) This article is going directly into my teaching strategies with writing workshop, too.

Key ingredients exist in any interesting conversation:

  • An emotional stake (personal connection and empathy)
  • Ambiguous, essential questions that have kaleidoscope viewpoints
  • Allowances to shift or pivot with new information (see my substantive form)
  • Metacognition: understanding one self in order to monitor and assess how important the topic or theme is to one personally; extrapolate to a larger scale

There are multiple pathways for discussion, too:

  • Socratic Seminars
  • Town Hall meetings
  • Turn and Talk
  • Writing Workshop (next post)
  • Think, Pair, Share
  • About a thousand others (dang my hyperbole!)

The trick is to make sure students are listening, and having a chance with their say. It can come in the form of real talk, or on a class discussion board, etc. Two strategies I use are what I call the “ambassador of the table” idea. Whether or not I choose or they choose, there is an ambassador from each group who shares out what the group has said. Also, if it’s a small partner group of 2 to 3, each person has to share what the other said, and it’s always paraphrased. The person who is not speaking can then agree or repudiate what their partner interpreted.

And please– don’t force introverts to talk in class. Find another way.

How to Listen Better

Five Ways to Listen Better

Here are a few resources I’ve created or collected along the way:

Town Hall Meeting Guidelines – provided by Doug Selwyn

Speaking and Listening CCSS 8th Grade with annotations

Substantive Student Talk Graphic Organizer — I created this to help guide discussions


What do you have to say about this?

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Metacognition Monday

Made with Repix (

In the 8 Days a Week post, I touched on some of the alliterative devices used to help frame a week. Frameworks help me focus: inviting students into my brain requires some house rules, ya know.

During my cohort’s masters program, our primary mentor and educational goddess, Dr. Schulhauser, introduced us to this word, ‘metacognition.’ She eased us into with masterful prestidigitation, a pedagogical slight of hand, we didn’t even realize we were deeply engaged in a lesson until she showed us what lay behind the curtain: we were thinking about our thinking.

But like all masters, understanding metacognition is deceptively simple. Though I’ve tried ‘Metacognition Mondays’ for a few years (except last year), I’ve been doing it slightly askew. The year before last, the wheels came off the bus. I told students that Mondays would be for reading, and then on Tuesdays we’d talk about it. Right. Nope. Of course I did all the tricks of the trade, but for obvious reasons to everyone else but me, reading time on a Monday was meant with resentment and oftentimes outright hostilities. I wonder now if I had strong guiding questions, or allowances for confusion? Was my classroom culture safe enough? Or were they just too tired and sleep hungover from the weekend to think at all?

My standard anecdote when introducing metacognition is to first explain the parts of the word:

meta: (overarching, bigger), self-referential

cognition: thinking

lost found

I bring them back to a time/place when they became lost from a parent. This is nearly a universal experience. What tends to happen is when conjuring this memory many students become engrossed in their story that the conversation becomes a bird-walking exercise. (You may want to caution students before using this metaphor, or allow for time for them to write first.) The point of the story is all of us move confidently through the world, and then WHAM we are lost. And we know it. And then finding our way un-lost is the trick.

unknown unknowns hell

Regardless of Monday morning morning-ness, metacognition is the key that unlocks all other discussions and learning. It’s that important. Every instance of close reading, writing, graphic organizers, student self-assessment, reflection, formative assessment is structured by metacognition. All learners must know when they’re confused or lost in order to grow. That confusion may come in the form of a misunderstanding, a mistake, or even reluctance. Perhaps even defiance. If a student feels too lost, the desire to simply give up can be overwhelming. Be clear with one and all: not everything is going to be an easy path, and it’s different for every learner.


One of the most comprehensive articles is Metacognition by Nancy Chick for Center for Teaching.  Stop reading this, and go read that.

And then read this to see why it’s important if I haven’t convinced you.

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Literacy Dance Party!

Hey, Summer!! Going by too fast, time to dance! Clean out the garage and DANCE!

Oh, okay, I’ll do a little writing first.

Don’t believe me, just watch!

Lisa wrote on the N&N site (and thank you!)

“Thank you for the blog post in which you explain your alliterative days of the week. (I use a similar idea in my history classes.) I now have some drill down questions: Do you read whole class novels? If you have the students write each day, how do you structure the writing? Do you fit in grammar? How do you work with such discrete topics? I find that I like a reading piece to be at the hub of class and then the spokes are the writing assignment, grammar, oral presentation, etc. What do you think?”

These questions made me realize I never stop thinking about this stuff. 


Whole Class Novels:

It Depends.

Usually, no. Unless you count that time I ‘jigsawed’ The Hobbit. And I will do Absolutely True Diary. I prefer to do units that serve both the Social Studies and ELA content areas, and provide multiple texts and genres to serve the unit’s demands. Rarely have I ‘taught’ a whole class novel, and I’m not sure I’ll start now.

Structure Writing:

In 2015 I participated in my second Puget Sound Writing Project invitational, which includes teacher research or action. My contribution included a question I’m still not sure how to answer, and that is, ‘if there’s close reading, can there be close writing?’ given mentor texts, etc. The Writing Thief inspired me.

Also, my writing philosophy is closely tied with my fine arts’ days — throw something down on the canvas, make a mark, and then develop. Direct instruction for writing develops from common things all middle school writers do, and then the feedback/conferencing speaks to the individual writer. I use a lot of portfolios, writing goals, genre exploration, etc. In December for the past several years we’ve done a Drabble-A-Day using a lot of image prompts, RAFTS, etc. WriteAbout is a great resource, too.

Writing Closely Prezi


Sometimes grammar is placed in a mini-lesson, based on things I’m noticing students doing, or not doing. This is when some stations or small group work comes in handy, or information based on exit tickets, quick quizzes, or surveys. Students will always need to know some basics:

  • Parts of speech
  • Sentence structures
  • Active v. Passive
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Site words
  • ….feel like I’m missing, oh, say, about a hundred other things…

Grammar and writers’ craft are so closely connected, this is rich for close reading with a mentor text and discussion.

I have some book suggestions, etc. I’ll post later. I’ve been enjoying using Grammarly, too, as a way to get instant feedback that’s more precise than any Microsoft Word function.

Discrete Topics:

This is a tough one. Our ELA/SS district’s vision is all about skills. (Spontaneously starts singing Meghan Trainor’s All About The Bass in my head.) On the other hand, they’ve done a great job of providing single title novels, so if a teacher wants to teach a whole class novel she/he can. Over the years, I’ve noticed I usually don’t do a whole class novel, maybe one. Mostly I use short stories, excerpts, poetry, etc. and am heavy on the writing.

This may be the toughest to answer. In most cases, I created a unit based on Understanding by Design. This is my palette, and where my teaching creativity resides. There are enduring understandings and then essential questions that are flexible and ambiguous enough to provide multiple access points for students to construct their notions of themes and ideas. We’ve done thematic units such as Journey of the Hero, Voice, Coming of Age, etc. These units include a variety of novels for choice and instructional needs. I always go back to Lucy Calkin’s ‘Black Diamond Ski’ analogy. Read what you want, try to find a ‘just right’ book, but don’t be afraid to stretch.

These thematic units come first, and then the discrete topics help fill in the knowledge to support the big idea, so it really doesn’t matter. Or rather, that’s all that matters.

Note: this is really tough for eighth grade students. Heck, it’s tough for adults. Many of us just want the Q&A, the answer, and the points. And there is some legitimacy to this. If everything was close, deep reading and thinking and we never gave our brains a chance to be bored, or alternate in activities, well, we all know how that turned out.

Not sure if this was helpful, but gave me a great place to start. Sometimes just throwing ideas out there, asking the questions, and hearing others approaches help me the most. Any ideas you think of and want to add please go for it!

PS And now to go find book titles….

And keep dancing!

Older posts that might help:

Gluing the wings back on

National Writing Project

Stitching Together Themes

Memoir Writing Presentation:

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8 Days a Week

"Time Hopping"
“Time Hopping”

Let’s pretend we live in a world where no students are ever tardy, there are no altered schedules (no joke: last year there were no fewer* than eight to ten different schedules depending on whether or not it was a morning assembly, afternoon, late start, etc.) The class period is 50 minutes long, after a four-minute passing period, where all students have hydrated, taken care of bathroom necessities, and enter the classroom, crossing the threshold to a new adventure. That’s the dream. The reality is students, and teachers, are…humans. The school day feels less like a nurtured, creative maze and more like a gauntlet. The big question on the Notice & Note site is a pragmatic and all-too-real scenario: just how do we teachers use our time with students to maximize learning, growth, and engagement? Perhaps this is the only pedagogical question worth asking.

Last year I had the pleasure of having block classes: I taught Humanities, and at that my 75 minutes was squeezed. Whereas a science or a math teacher has the science and math standards, which are abundant and demanding, ELA/SS has a complex web of standards, so ‘two content areas in one.’  I loved it, though, and knew when I let go of that teaching assignment to return to 8th grade, that was a teaching luxury that proves to be difficult to relinquish. But I did it for years, and can figure out how to refine it and make it work again.

If a student’s day is their personal journey of the hero, then the first step is to get them to cross that threshold. I try to create and embed routines, as well as design and decorate my classroom so it feels ‘other worldly.’ And like the flight attendant speech we’ve all learned to ignore after years of travel, I don’t hesitate to remind and refresh students about those routines.

When planning the scope/sequence of the year, I go big picture/thematic to monthly, to weekly, to daily. For years, I tried this:

Metacognition Monday: focus on reading through a lens, discuss fix-up strategies, usually a passage intended for Talk Tuesdays.

Talk Tuesdays: just like it says — small group discussions, possibly Socratic Seminars, etc.

Write It Right Wednesdays: focus on a writing skill, genre, concepts –mini lessons. I try to write every single class period.

Thematic Thursdays: this one is less constrained — perhaps a concept discussion, literary elements, big question/burning question concepts, read aloud, connect with film for Film Friday, other texts that connect, media pairings, etc.

Film Fridays (Friday Fives are also due on Friday –five vocabulary words) Film Fridays are not guaranteed, but usually a short film from Vimeo, StoryCorp, TedTalk, etc. I have a list of tens of short films and am shark-like in my never sleeping hunt for great little shorts. For these films, often I’ll use a Levels of Questions graphic organizer or What It Says graphic organizer; sometimes, *shrug* I just let us enjoy the film.

One big change for this year is instead of a standard entry task, which isn’t time-cost beneficial, I’m switching to ten minutes of reading. How we as a class will manage and use that ten minutes for The Book Whisperer’s challenge is to be determined.

A caution: one year, someone from the district needed me to change my and my students’ routine based on her scheduling needs, and I realize I must have seemed inflexible. The thing is, though, especially for a high-impact, high-poverty school, is that many students have too much chaos in their lives, and the routines of school are safe and necessary. Never apologize if your classroom timeframe is what’s best for students. Ever. I just saw a student who’s just graduated from college, and I asked him what he remembers, and he was clear: how I made them feel supported. I was honest and supported them emotionally.

I guess the point is — and the only wobbly advice — it’s your job/life — how do you want to construct your day? How do you want to feel after every class? And before the next one? I’ve adjusted my time talking, and when I do need to impart information, make it very clear on how long I’ll talk, and keep my word. (No pun intended.) Like backwards design, consider what are the essential elements you want your students to keep and sustain their learning? The answers on how to schedule your, and their time, will become clearer. I have to pack a lot into those 50 minutes: I don’t assign homework but try to do flipped lessons that don’t depend on internet service, as many of my students don’t have access. I’m going to have to get real creative and resourceful this next year, and I’ll share this challenge with my students. The more they see that I’m thinking about them, respecting their time, and honoring their commitment to learning, the more it fosters engagement.

Like ‘backward design,’ consider what are the essential elements you want your students to keep and sustain their learning? The answers on how to schedule your, and their time, will become clearer. I have to pack a lot into those 50 minutes: I don’t assign homework but try to do flipped lessons that don’t depend on internet service, as many of my students don’t have access. I’m going to have to get real creative and resourceful this next year, and I’ll share this challenge with my students. The more they see that I’m thinking about them, respecting their time, and honoring their commitment to learning, the more it fosters engagement.

Look to Pernille Ripp for more ideas on how to manage the hardest thing of all: time.

Someone also posted Kelly Gallagher’s suggestion on how to use time: (click to enlarge)

kelly time schedule
This may not work for you or your students.



*Always trying to brush up on my grammar. And I have a nerd crush on Grammar Girl.

Some resources:

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Next Level Stuff (revised)

So, your students are fully versed in many close reading strategies, they’ve noticed, noted, whispered, and have mountains of texts and ideas. Now what? Well, the Short Answer Response and the Funnel/Hourglass analysis, that’s what! I have begged, borrowed, and outright pilfered these ideas from two great mentors, Kim McClung and Holly Stein, and provided some Google doc links, too.

The Funnel Paragraph in Literature Analysis

Funnel Paragraph Lesson Plan Template/Example

What It Says graphic organizer – student example

What It Says for The Raven

Funnel Chart graphic

Example of Funnel Paragraph with my notes/based on Steinbeck