Student Design Yields Great Results

Notes from the Classroom Uncategorized

shutterstock_300056177After writing last month about giving my students a “free day,” I began to contemplate the end of the year. It is always such a crazy time: special events, end-of-year celebrations, and unexpected happenings inevitably interrupt instruction so that anything we are doing does not seem to be done well. Students lose their enthusiasm and often their ability to focus.

To counter this trend, I decided to try to harness the excitement of the free day and allow my students to design their own end-of-the year reading and writing project.

Taking a Leap

I told my students what I was thinking: you design a purposeful reading and writing project for the end of the year. You may work alone, with a partner, or in a group. Each project must contain a reading and writing component. If you are using mentor texts, you have to write at least a paragraph explaining how the text helped you with your writing. You also have to design a rubric, using previous class rubrics as a model. Finally, if you can’t come up with anything, I will assign you a text I think you’ll love, and you can read it and write a literary essay about it.

We brainstormed lots of options on the board and then they had time to think. I have to say, I was a bit nervous, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised and, in some cases, astounded.

I’ve had parents tell me that their children have come home saying this is going to be the best end of the year ever. They are excited about their projects and are taking ownership of their learning. Every day they come in ready to get to work, asking me about new aspects of projects, and digging for more information. There is energy and excitement in the room . . . in late May. Wow.

Project Ideas

The best ideas are coming from the students, of course.

One of my favorites comes from three girls who are working on writing fantasy. Two of the girls have been working for a while on a book outside of class. They wanted to bring in the third girl and decided that she would write a companion text, creating biographies of the characters and maps of the worlds in which they live.

shutterstock_392389606Two other students are working on a poetry anthology, analyzing mentor texts and trying copy changes–all the way down to abstract concepts and syllabication. Students are creating board games, informational picture books, and websites. It is a bit chaotic, but totally worth it.

Capturing the Power

I want this kind of excitement and energy all year in my classroom. But how? How do I meet the needs of my learners, deliver the required curriculum, and have the same level of student engagement? I’ve learned a little about Project Based Learning, which seems to fit, but I need to learn more.

This will be the question that sits in my mind all summer as I read and plan for next year. Rather than the best “end of school ever,” I want every year in my classroom to feel like the best learning ever. I suppose that is the never-ending quest of all teachers. Right now, I’m going to enjoy these last few weeks as I watch the thinking and learning in action, and allow this to inspire me for the future.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Relevance: an Apathy Antidote

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_371530516“Just give me a topic. I’ll write about anything. I don’t care.”

Ah! There it is. The dreaded “I don’t care” that makes every teacher want to throw up her hands in despair.

My students are in the throes of their final writing piece for the year–an op-ed. I love the assignment because it pulls together many of the elements we’ve worked on all year, and it asks the students to write a research-based argument with a genuine, natural voice. It provides choice—one of the keys to increasing student engagement.

But what about when choice isn’t enough? What happens when you lead the horse to water and the darn horse refuses to drink?

It’s easy to shrug the apathetic ones off and say they just don’t care, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s certainly an issue that’s been around for a while. A 1988 study published by the National Education Association contended that “student apathy is as common as chalk dust” in American classrooms. That same study also said that while “most educators take pride in their contributions to the winners, few acknowledge responsibility for the losers.”

Yikes. That’s rough.

So what do you do with the “I don’t care” students? As much as I’m tempted to say, “I can’t care more than they do,” I don’t think that’s true. My job doesn’t stop once I’ve led the horses to the water, regardless of how awesome the water is. I have to acknowledge my responsibility for all of my students. And when they aren’t engaged with their writing, I need to continue to seek out ways to help them.

Relevant vs. Interesting

I decided to attack student apathy head-on with this current op-ed assignment, and my first step was throwing out my lists of topics. As a former debate teacher, I have lists of hundreds of “hot topics” that are sure to interest your average teenager. Those lists work for many kids, but they aren’t enough for some.

In their new book, Reading Nonfiction, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst hit on the reason why some of these very “interesting” topics just aren’t enough to catch and hold attention. They explain that “something that is relevant is inherently interesting, but something that is interesting isn’t always relevant. In short, getting kids’ attention is about creating interest; keeping their attention is about relevance.”


Circles of relevance. Click to view a larger version.

Helping my students find that relevance started with brainstorming. I modeled this by using overlapping circles: writer at the center, then our school, then the nation, and finally the world. In each circle, we tried to fill in both serious and non-serious topics.

In my inner circle were concerns and issues that are close to home–my son’s sports choices, the cost of Diet Coke in the teacher’s lounge. As the circles got bigger, my issues got “bigger”–weightier–but I continually reminded my students that even with the weightier issues, I had a personal reason to be invested in the topic. I’m interested in education policy because I’m a teacher. I’m interested in the preservation of the national park system because my family loves to camp and hike.

For many, that day of brainstorming was enough, and they were off and running. But each class still had a few holdouts. So far, I’m discovering that those holdouts simply take time and talk during one-on-one conferences. I wish I had a cool activity or graphic organizer that magically transformed them into focused, motivated writers, but I haven’t found it yet (please let me know if that exists, btw).

For some students, this has been a matter of seizing on one small thing. One young lady groaned and asked, “Can I write about how my stepmom shouldn’t be able to tell me what to do?” She wasn’t seriously considering that as a topic, but what a great one it is! How should parents deal with teenagers in blended families? The more we talked, the more she started to see the possibilities. Yet she needed me to validate that her experiences are important things to write about. Today, she came back and said, “I can’t do that topic. I don’t want it to seem like I hate my stepmom.” So we talked some more about what it means to have a nuanced position, and how her genuine care for her stepmom lends itself nicely to a counterargument.

I’m not sure where that op-ed will end up, but I know that she is invested–at least a little–in a topic that is relevant to her today. Tomorrow, when she doubts it again, I’ll be back with more questions, more talk, and more time. Apathy is as “as common as chalk dust,” but seeking out ways to help students connect to their writing is a good first step to moving past it.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Ending Your Year with Letters

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_161854607When May comes, and the green starts to overtake the landscape, and the purple lilacs send their sweet smell to my side door, I know that summer is near. When I was teaching, I usually would go through a series of states at this point:

  • Exhaustion from all the testing and planning and grading of essays and after-school ceremonies and concerts and plays
  • Panic that I didn’t get through all of the required curriculum
  • Regret that I didn’t give enough feedback to students or make enough emotional connections with some of my kids
  • Great anticipation that summer was almost here and I could make it through these last five weeks and four Mondays
  • Sadness (or sometimes Relief depending on the group of kids) that we only had a few weeks left together in my classroom

After running the gamut of emotions, I would try to regain some semblance of teaching dignity. This usually took the form of writing letters, as a classroom activity.

Two of my favorite types of activities were Letters to Your Future Self and Letters of Thanks to a Teacher. Neither assignment was very formal. I think I tried to tie in some sort of lesson on letter writing, just to keep it legit. Often the “grade” was based solely on completion of the assignment.

Over the years, I have collected lots of stationery and envelopes (even asking parents for donations at the beginning of the school year) and so I would pull out my box and let students choose their paper and favorite writing implement.

Sometimes, with the Letters to Your Future Self, I would include a stamped envelope and have students write: Do Not Open Until the Year 20XX on them, and have them address the letter to their home address (usually after a short tutorial on how to do this!). I would then mail the letters to students in the summer with a short note from me too!

Lasting Relationships

Letters of Thanks to a Teacher always brought about a lot of questions from students. Can I write to an elementary teacher? Sure – I can inter-school mail the letter to them. What about a custodian or lunch lady or counselor? Of course! How do you spell this teacher’s name?! (List of names goes up on the white board.) Can I write a letter to you? Well, only if you also write one to someone else too. Can I deliver it to the teacher now? Nope, I need to grade them first – so make sure I can read your signature! Can I write more than one? YES! I’m not finished, can I take it home for homework? Yes.

shutterstock_144790756I would have the students keep the envelopes open, so that I could “grade” them and also screen for any letter of bad intent (only one or two in the many years did this, but I’m glad I checked in the end).

The best part about Letters of Thanks to a Teacher came later, sometimes not until next fall, when I would catch my colleagues looking in their mailboxes, sometimes greeted by piles of letters from past students, thanking them for some aspect of teaching–or more often the relationship they had created.

The Importance of Gratitude

Giving students time in a full class period to write the letters in a leisurely and yet thoughtful way always made my students and me feel good. You could tell they were thinking about what they would say and how they would say it, and many of them would ask how to spell words and took care in their writing–more so than any other assignment they had worked on that year. This is the kind of forced assignment I didn’t mind giving or grading.

And what was I doing while they composed? Besides helping any student with their spelling or ideas, I was writing my own letters of gratitude to colleagues and friends who had helped me that year.

File_000Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their two year old daughter.

Meeting Students Where They Write

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
Student blogs

Student blogs. Click for a larger image.

Many of my students claim that they “don’t write,” even though those same students wear blisters on their thumbs from texting and tweeting. Texting, 140 characters, commenting, blogging–these are all forms of our students’ writing, and they’re ones we can leverage.

The first step in this shift has to be mine. I have to respect what students are already writing.

It’s tempting to dismiss 140 characters or email or texting as minor forms of communication. But it’s also easy to use those forms to discuss argument or voice, or any of the other things I want my students to be great at. In fact, it’s easy to find plenty of people doing more of this kind of writing than published writers–real writing lives in the wilds of the real world.

Look at email or texts, and what you’ll find are arguments made with passion, humor, evidence–all kinds of evidence used all kinds of ways, all in writing. The trick is looking for it, and in being more flexible in what I consider a final product.

Social Media as Assessment

A recent conversation with a group of colleagues revealed that we have doubts about what we are asking our students to produce as summative products. I think we all can agree that the day of the five-paragraph essay has come and gone, and that ACT writing is really only useful when someone takes the test.

But what about the final essay? Is it time to reconsider the worth of the polished, final draft?

Now, I’m not in favor of abandoning polished drafts, but in expanding our influence over other forms of writing, by valuing them in our practice. Let’s infiltrate the places where our students are already doing writing they care about, and let’s help them do it better.

Take a  quick tour of student blogs and you’ll find a rich environment of writing and argument. My students have been writing on Tumblr for some time. I went there because I found that a decent number of students were using the platform to talk about things that interest them.

As a bonus, Tumblr is a great place to look at visual arguments and voice. Most of my students like to offer opinions about things they care about. Their phones are full of examples of this. So they need openings to develop their ideas, allowing them to write about what they care about. Here again, blogging platforms like Tumblr are a great place to work.

Look at where people, who are not writers, write in “real life.” Almost everyone I know spends a fair amount of their professional lives writing. They use email, texts, and tweets to make arguments in writing. This reminds me how, once upon a time, we treated letter writing as an art. In fact, I remember studying a set of memos for the writer’s technique. So is it unreasonable to treat the 21st century’s Johnson and Boswells with less respect?

Turning Theory into Practice

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A student proposal. Click to view a larger image.

So what does this look like in practice?

For one, before I let my students do almost any “big” project or writing, I ask them to write me a proposal. They have to tell me why they think it’s worth doing, how they’ll go about it, and how they’ll measure the success of the work.

This kind of writing lets me see how well their skills are developing. Even though it doesn’t meet the definition of final draft, doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. A writer who can write a proposal is probably making clear, effective arguments in writing.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 12.27.01 PM

Annotations, Google Doc. Click for a larger image.

In addition to proposal writing, it’s important to create and use places where students can use the skills they develop, in ways that mirror the writing they already do. I like to use or to set up a backchannel using a shared Google Doc.

These both work well to promote discussions about how to use evidence, because students have to link their ideas directly to the text they’re annotating. These tools also tend to support precision and economy in language. The students understand that the audience isn’t going to wade through a “wall of text” to get to good argument.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 12.25.01 PM

Annotations, Click for a larger image.

To many of my students, writing is something that they “don’t do.” But that’s because they have mostly only seen it held captive in textbooks and assignments.

But if they see it in the wild–blogs, texts, online–and with permission from their teachers, they’ll see themselves as part of that writing life.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Setting Individual Goals for Readers

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_171474932At my school, we had a reading goal of 20 books a year for each student. This goal was further broken down into page goals for grade levels — 400 pages each month for 6th graders, 500 for 7th graders, and 600 for 8th graders.

These goals were set for vertical consistency, and for my first few years, I heeded the expertise of my colleagues, and I did as they did. I kept my own reading log. I meticulously tallied student totals for books and pages. I helped kids choose books.

I realized, though, that page and book goals were not complementary. Many of my students’ favorite 8th-grade texts were 200 pages or less, so they were meeting the book total, but not the page total. Then there were texts that were far more that 200 pages, causing students to not meet the book goal.

There are many ways to finagle this information, but I was left questioning what this school-wide goal actually meant for my readers. Also, I saw my struggling learners feel defeat each month when they didn’t reach the goal, or their reading-level-appropriate books were much shorter than those of their peers. Additionally, I had to grade these reading logs, but the grading wasn’t aligned to any standard, except the arbitrary number that my colleagues set.

I couldn’t keep allowing students to fail in this task, so I changed my approach to reading logs.

Personalized Goals

I used the following strategies with students:

1. Students, working with me, set a personalized monthly reading goal.
2. I provided a variety of logs to choose from — monthly, daily, even yearly.
3. Conferences became about setting good goals and making good book choices.

The first month, we started with just a two-week goal. Students were eager to repeat their previous goals, but as I conferenced with them, many admitted that they didn’t often meet those goals. So I asked, What goal can we reach to be successful? They paused and breathed, and set a goal they thought they could achieve based on prior knowledge and experience.

As a result, more students than ever turned in their logs and reached their goals.

shutterstock_323492543As we continued, for many it was easy to double the two-week goal. For others who struggled to meet their goals, the common theme was that they didn’t make time to read daily. So we used a daily reading log, a visual tool that allowed students to see their amount of reading.

This wasn’t a punishment, though. It was a learning activity. Students who felt they established a good reading routine could switch logs at any time. One student, an avid athlete, found the daily log more beneficial because she could see her progress each day, just like her training. She has kept that log all year.

The types of goals also had to shift for students. Some kids set page goals, some set book goals, and some set goals based on the books they chose to read that month. Others have learned to look at the events going on in their lives, and to adjust their goals accordingly.

You may wonder whether students set purposely low goals. I didn’t see that. Each month as we revisit these goals, students who reach their goals set higher goals for themselves. One young woman started with 250 pages monthly and has successfully increased to 600 pages monthly. She wants to finish the year with 700 pages in a month. She says this is the most she’s ever read because she feels successful and in charge of the success.

Outcomes and Recommendations

This is just my experience with a new reading mindset in my classroom. But consider my students’ responses to an open-ended survey with two prompts. For the first prompt, students explained “what I like best about reading logs in this class.” The second prompt was, “What could be improved on in reading logs in this class?”

Student responses included:

  • “I like setting my own goals because it gives me motivation to read more.”
  • “I love that we can set our own goals because we can accomplish what we think is good. There are no easy or impossible standards.”
  • “Your goal is specific and achievable.”
  • “Goals make me feel accomplished.”
  • “We set honest goals.”

Now I know that these goals for my readers encourage their growth and commitment to reading. I recommend allowing kids to set such personal goals, which increase students’ engagement and lifelong skills.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Power of Play

Notes from the Classroom

1Back in January an article came out that had the teachers in my building thinking, We’ve been saying that forever and finally someone is acting on it! The article was titled Turns Out Monkey Bars And Kickball Might Be Good For The Brain, by Christopher Connely.

The article focuses on Eagle Mountain Elementary School, in Fort Worth, Texas. The school has started a project where the kindergarten- and first-grade school day is modeled after that of a Finnish school day, where students have recess more often: four times a day, for 15 minutes each time. What a dream!

The Texas project was designed by Debbie Rhea, a kinesiologist from Texas Christian University. Rhea had visited Finland, which scores in the top or near the top in international education rankings, to see the differences in their education system, compared to the U.S.’s. She realized the largest difference was that the students had more recess.

The teachers at Eagle Mountain, using this Finnish model, are noticing that students are focusing more and are happier. And even with the extra breaks, teachers aren’t having trouble fitting in the entire curriculum. In fact, halfway through the year they were ahead of schedule.

How We’re Creating Extra Recess

Feeling more empowered by this article, several teachers at Loon Lake Elementary, including myself, started implementing regular breaks into their day. “Brain Breaks,” or just a break in the curriculum action, are something we had been doing for a while but hadn’t made as regular or well known.

When you have been conditioned to believe that you never have enough time to get through all of the curriculum, even small changes feel wrong. But our breaks are often as simple as a dance break, usually from Go Noodle, a yoga break from Cosmic Kids Yoga, playtime, or yes, even extra recess when timing allows.

We are trying to work in structured and unstructured breaks to reap the most benefits. The teachers in my building, like those at Eagle Mountain, have seen that after these breaks the students come back more focused and ready to go. We are also noticing that the gross and fine motor skills of these students are improving.

Beyond Kindergarten

3I am fortunate that in my district, when we started the all-day, every-day kindergarten program in 2008, the district stressed the importance of play in the classroom. I am also fortunate that my building principal supports this. We have free-choice play in my classroom every day; this is something that never changes and I hope never will.

I wish the importance of play extended beyond the kindergarten year, though. We as teachers know it is important, but is often pushed aside, with the implication that it isn’t as important, even though it enhances gross and fine motor skills. Play even helps children with their communication and problem solving skills.

Bob Murray, an Ohio State University pediatrician, is quoted in the article above as saying: “If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you’re giving them in their memory, you’ve got to give them regular breaks.” So yes, play also helps with the learning process itself.

Mrs. Tisdall, a first grade teacher at my school, was excited to share a story about an extra recess with her students. Her students came running up excitedly with some white pebbles. They were in a debate about what they were: “Are they insect eggs?” “Are they rocks?” “What kind of insect could have laid them?”

The questions and debate kept going. Mrs. Tisdall just stood back and listened. She didn’t have to intervene; through the power of play and exploration, the students were teaching themselves. Then they ran off and started searching for more signs of insects.

I hope that people continue to research and share the importance of play and not just at the lower-elementary level. An even bigger hope is that educators themselves continue to recognize the importance of breaks and play, and give it a shot.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team. She recently won a technology grant from the Walled Lake Foundation for Excellence. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Sing (err…Speak) Their Praises!

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_352223126A funny thing happened as my students were wrapping up their narrative journalism papers a couple weeks ago on the shiny new Chromebooks I’d reserved for the assignment. As I was reviewing a few formatting details with them, it suddenly dawned on me that my deadline for a hard copy of the paper–the end of the hour–was physically impossible. There is no printer attached to our Chromebook carts.

After panicking momentarily and shrugging off the realization in front of the kids, I remembered a lovely feature of I told my students to submit their papers to Turnitin as usual, and that no hard copy would be necessary. In place of the normal written feedback on their papers and on an attached district rubric, my juniors would be getting three minutes of my silky-smooth voice walking them through their writing, using Turnitin’s audio feedback feature.

“Pass me the mic”

You should know that there are lots of educational tools out there for providing audio feedback to students. If all else fails, the phone app Voxer will let you share voice memos with anyone who “friends” you in the application (which can be done without revealing your actual cell number).

If getting ahold of a recording method isn’t a problem but the huge shift in how you provide feedback is, then I’d ask you to consider why conferencing remains the most impactful method of improving student writing. Kids listen when you talk to them one-on-one. Even the reluctant writers.

In fact, The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that the best feedback for student writing “mirrors conversation with student-writers.” Though speaking your thoughts aloud falls one voice short of a “dialogue,” it certainly allows you to imitate the key elements of a good writing conference: your supportive tone of voice, the context for your criticisms, and clear guidance for how to move forward.

Talk Them Up

shutterstock_406788406Let’s consider briefly what written feedback tends to look like when you have 100 essays to grade.

You can use a coded system that reduces full ideas to symbols (that your lowest readers will ignore), you can write slightly longer phrases in the tiny margins (which your kids may not be able to read), or you can attempt to provide a full-bodied paragraph of feedback at the end of each essay (which will eventually give you carpal-tunnel syndrome and break your spirit completely…oh, and many of your lowest writers won’t bother to read it.).

I want to suggest to you that audio feedback solves ALL of these problems. In place of countless marks and comments about a student’s grammar, for example, you can now make one supportive, constructive observation. Here’s one hypothetical piece of feedback about possessives:

“One area you should be focused on in future essays is knowing when to use the possessive versus when something is plural. You confuse the two twice in your first paragraph. You use some really interesting syntax throughout the piece, so this small punctuation issue is holding back the power of how great the rest of your writing is.”

See how I softened the blow of the feedback by connecting it to a reminder of something done well? That’s a lot harder to do in the one-inch margins of the essay itself.

What’s more, you can tell them a sort of “story” about their writing. In place of fragmented ideas like “weak intro” or “explain this better” you can walk them through a coherent examination of their paper’s successes and struggles:

“Notice how your thesis is ambiguous about character X? Now look at how much your second body paragraph struggles to make a clear point about how X behaves in the final scene. Your vagueness in the introduction is keeping you from maintaining a clear focus in your body paragraphs.”

And really, that’s the big advantage to audio feedback: isolated, pragmatic written comments peppering the margins are transformed into a comprehensive walkthrough of their writing. If your department uses a standardized rubric, the structure of your feedback is even provided for you.

Students Want to Listen

I’ve found that even my reluctant writers and apathetic learners are intrigued by the idea of a few minutes of audio just for them. If you keep the tone friendly, they’re especially interested. It feels personal–like you’ve set aside time to speak just to them.

If you aren’t so sure your kids will be as eager about it, save the score of their paper for somewhere at the end of the audio file–make them listen to what you have to say in order to arrive at their score. I promise you won’t have to provide such enticement the second time around if your audio is done right–they’ll be happy to listen.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Finding Joy in a “Free Day”

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_358897601It’s that time of year here in Michigan: the dreaded standardized testing window we now call M-STEP. My 5th graders just endured five days of this testing over a two-week period. The first two days were ELA tests–hours of online reading and writing. Needless to say, after the second afternoon my kiddos were in need of a break.

We did a little bit of our read aloud, which is something that even at 10, 11, or 12 years old my students still truly love. We had a conversation and then it was time for independent reading and writing.

They’d already had hours of it that day, so I decided to let them be in charge of their literacy that day. I told them they could read and/or write in whatever way they chose–they just had to be involved in literacy in some way. The result was not what I expected.

Questions came firing at me:

“Can I write poetry?”

“Can we write a story together?”

“Can I write fiction?”


“Can I do more concrete poems?”

“May I quietly read in the hall?”

Yes, yes, and yes. Then I watched something I haven’t seen in a while: true joy.

Enjoying Literacy

My students were happily engaging in worthwhile activities throughout the room. Even those who are usually off task found this freedom liberating and inspiring. Books were being created (and are now several chapters long). Concrete poems have been published in large numbers and are hanging in the hallway.

shutterstock_344859035This day really got me thinking about workshop and curriculum. We power through what we need to teach: mini lessons, teaching points, big ideas. We give kids lots of independent practice within the unit we are teaching.

Yet there are always those kids who don’t like the genre, who don’t really engage during independent time, who are just going through the motions waiting for the time to be over. This “free day” was just that for my friends: freedom. They weren’t constrained by what they “had” to read or write or do. This freedom allowed them to enjoy literacy.

Clearly, this is something I need to build into my year, not just at M-STEP time, but all year long. Though I’m not sure how to make it happen, I will. The evidence is clear. This is the outcome we want for our students: to find joy in reading and writing.

Now, when my students ask if we are going to have a “free day” soon, I think back to those smiles and enthusiasm and answer, “Yes.”

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University.