The Re-Write Blog

Annotated by the Author: Why Having Students Annotate Their Own Writing Is My New Favorite Writing Instruction Tool

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Several years ago, the New York Times introduced one of my favorite writing classroom resources: Their Mentor Texts column, where seasoned writers annotate their work with the motivations, methods, and writing moves behind a piece previously published by the Times. Their first annotation, an article about a tiny T. Rex, was an instant hit in my composition class and helped me to solidify many of the themes we’d been working on, ranging from the importance of crafting compelling leads to how to engage in a real writing process.

Last year, this wonderful resource went to the next level, with the column adding a sub-column where the teenage winners of their student writing contests do the same with their winning submissions (see below).

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Things That Are Working Right Now: Using Celebration as a Teaching Tool During the Pandemic

This is the third in a series of posts I’m running about what is working inside my pandemic classroom. If you have things that are working in your classroom right now, please reach out. We teachers are better when we work together, and I’d love to share what is working in your class with others!

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Of the adjectives I’d use to describe this moment, celebratory is not one of them; in fact, it might be the antonym of how I feel as I look out on this grey morning and think of the news dominating the headlines today: Frightening new Covid variants, staggeringly high levels of economic hardship, and the looming specter of a previously unthinkable assault on our capital still hanging over our democracy.

Of course, there is also some good news too. We are on the backside of this dark winter I’m seeing out of my window. My state already has more vaccinations than overall Covid cases. Amanda Gorman just gave us a poem for the ages. These things are cause for celebration, but I still find myself struggling to celebrate even these wonderful things, given everything else going wrong.

In a time like this, a post centered around celebration might seem odd or misplaced, but it is precisely because of how dark and difficult this time is for so many that I have come to believe that we teachers need to, now more than ever, use celebration consciously as a pedagogical tool in our classes.

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Looking for the Poetry in Every Student During the Pandemic

A few days ago my parents, in a fit of fall-cleaning, boxed-up assorted artifacts from my youth that were collecting dust in their basement and dropped off a surprise trip down memory lane on my front porch. And so my daughter, who loves such fragments of “the old times,” as she calls them, and I spent the evening digging and laughing our way though old photos, newspaper clippings, and momentos until we got to a large stack of papers at the bottom, the sight of which froze me in mid-sentence.

Sitting there was something I’d long given up as lost–something that is now of great professional interest to me: my high school and college papers, complete with the feedback my teachers gave to me.

As I began to draft Flash Feedback three years ago, my initial hope was to start the book by reflecting on these old secondary and post-secondary papers and feedback that I received as a student, but after months of unsuccessfully looking for them, I eventually wrote them off as lost to a pre-digital age and moved on. And yet, years later here they were, perfectly preserved in all their analog glory.

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Three Things That Are Working

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I originally planned to take a few weeks–maybe a month at most–off from writing at the start of the school year to get accustomed to being a remote teacher (we have been online the whole school year). That was over two months ago, and yet only recently have I started to feel that I am, maybe, finding some semblance of balance when it comes to teaching to boxes on a screen (or at least enough that I can stomach looking at a keyboard and screen a little while longer after yet another Zoom-filled day).

I plan to have a full-length post coming after Thanksgiving, but, given that there is so much that is distinctly not working across the educational landscape at the moment, I wanted to quickly share today three things that are working well in my remote classes, as now, more than ever, we need to exchange tips and ideas in real-time. So without further preamble, here they are:

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What the Life Cycle of a Star Can Teach Us About This School Year

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If I remember my high school science classes correctly, stars like our sun spend a good long time burning brightly at the center of their solar systems, providing the light and heat and gravity that keep everything moving and, in our case, alive. But as many a poet reminds us, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, once their hydrogen is gone and after brief explosions, most stars settle into new existences that consist of gradual cooling and general diminishing of their once radiant dominance.

I’ve been thinking about the life cycle of a star a lot in regards to this school year, as there are a few similarities. Generally speaking, the role of teacher has long been to be the undisputed sun at the center of her/his/their classroom. The classwork, class structure, and class community have all traditionally orbited around the teacher, with the students acting as satellites of sorts, satellites whose trajectory is almost wholly dependent on the sun they orbit.

But last spring after our educational systems largely exploded, many teachers faced a reality that was not unlike the reality that a star faces after it has blown up. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes on a Zoom call likely knows that even the most dynamic presenters just don’t shine as brightly on Zoom as they do in person, and the gravitational pull of a class from a distance just isn’t the same as when thirty five bodies are all crammed together in a 500 sq. ft. room.

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How Do We Talk and Write About Race and Equity from a Distance? A Q+A with Matthew Kay

After a summer of protests that was bookended by the tragic shootings of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, I want to conclude my series on major questions going into the fall by looking at a question that I hope teachers across the country are thinking about closely: How can we discuss issues of race and equity (through conversation and writing) if we are teaching from a distance?

To help me with that, I was lucky enough to digitally sit down with Matthew Kay last weekend to hear how he will be approaching conversations about race remotely this year (he is starting fully online, with the potential to switch to blended learning at the quarter). For those who don’t know him, Kay is a high school teacher from Philadelphia, the founder of the Philadelphia Slam League, and the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom.

Regular readers will likely know that Not Light, But Fire has quickly become one of my all-time favorite teaching books since I read it last winter. What makes it such an essential read (seriously, everyone should buy this book) is that while it does give clear and thoughtful guidance for approaching and structuring conversations about race, it also does so much more. It is a masterclass in building meaningful connections and relationships with students; creating a safe, supportive, and engaging classroom–the type of classroom where discussions of race can thrive; and engaging in meaningful writing instruction, as Kay views writing followed by student publishing as essential next steps after any good conversation. 

I should also note that this interview happened on Saturday, the day before Jacob Blake was shot by police and three days before two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin were killed. Those shootings and deaths, while not discussed in the question and answer, underscore just how important it is for us teachers to think carefully and deeply about how we, even from a distance, can support our students in discussing, processing, and writing about traumatic events like these during this year.

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Creating a Culturally Responsive Community of Practice: A Guest Post by Chris Butts

Today’s post is written Chris Butts, one of the co-authors of Planning Powerful Instruction, a book (actually two books, as it is broken into two levels: elementary and secondary) that introduces the EMPOWER model of inquiry through apprenticeship. I had never heard of inquiry through apprenticeship or EMPOWER until I attended a session by Jeffrey Wilhelm at last year’s National Council of Teachers of English conference, but I have been using both ever since when designing my lessons, as they are fabulous tools for thinking about lesson design. In today’s blog post, Chris Butts explores the role that one piece of the framework–priming–is playing in making his classroom a more culturally responsive place this year.

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What Does a Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

Last year I wrote a piece called Rethinking the First Day of Class. Its premise was pretty simple: Humans are more open to changes in perspective, behavior, and motivation in moments that mark a “fresh start” (more on this “Fresh Start Effect” here) and the second students walk into our rooms, they begin doing the calculus concerning the value of our class, and how valuable they find it matters a great deal. Put these two together and the first day of class is incredibly valuable real estate–real estate that is far too often squandered with taking role and reading off of a syllabus.

The post goes on to discuss how my first day has shifted from logistics and boilerplate icebreakers to something closer to that of a hook in a piece of writing that both piques the students’ interest and establishes the key themes of my class.

This year though, much of what I normally do on the first day won’t work, as my school has decided to go remote for at least the first six weeks. This has me thinking a lot about my question of this week:

What Should My Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

Like the other posts in this series of questions, I don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to share the voices that are guiding me and what I’ve got so far in the hopes that it might help others to plan their own first days. Also, I recognize that some have started school already and many readers will be doing blended learning or distanced in-person instead of remote. For those fellow teachers, I have tried to design this post to have lots of good stuff for you as well. Ok, onto the post about what I’m doing my first day…

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How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

Two weeks ago my district announced that we would start online for at least the first six weeks, with the hope of returning in-person after that. My feelings about this were too wide-ranging and complex for the scope of this post, but in short, I was at once relieved that I won’t be spending hours upon hours in a small brick room that has no ventilation (we still have boilers and radiators) with 150+ teenagers who can seemingly spread Covid as effectively as any adult, frustrated at how little is being done nationally to get case levels down to where it would be at least reasonably safe to send students and teachers to school, and deeply concerned about how additional months of learning from a distance will affect many of my students.

My guess is that many of you might be experiencing some similar feelings, and what makes them even more acute for me is that I can do so little about so many of the issues. Our country’s infection rate, the state of our over 100 year old building, and district, state, and national policy lie largely outside of my immediate control.

There is one of these areas of concern that I can impact in a significant way though, and it brings me to my question for the week:

How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

I might not have the nation’s ear or even my local school board’s ear, but my students will be listening to me, which means I have an opportunity to provide meaningful support to them, even if it is from a distance.

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Can Workshop Work from a Distance?

For weeks I have been trying to figure out how I will run a writer’s workshop style class from the various distances that learning might take place from this year: the social distance of six feet, the oscillating in-and-out-of-class distances of blended learning, and the fully online distance from my kitchen table to my students’ houses.

I haven’t been the only one worrying about that either. In recent weeks I’ve gotten over a dozen queries about this exact topic, and I think what makes this question so tricky is that workshop was largely created to eliminate the various distances that traditionally existed in classroom. It was meant to get the students working together in slightly messy groupings instead of working alone in orderly 19th century rows and meant to get the teacher out and amongst the students instead of standing behind the podium at the front of the class.

And yet now, even in the best case scenarios for this fall, we will likely be stuck in rows again, rows that will be even farther apart this time. We will also likely be wearing masks and maybe have some plexiglass and industry-scale ventilation joining us too.

Further, as COVID cases continue to rise in the United States, a great many districts and schools are also opting to replace in-person rows with online ones, boxes lined up in neat columns on Zoom calls.

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