My Classroom, My Museum

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_396724789The last days of summer are ripe for a frantic, spontaneous trip to Washington, D.C. We’ve visited before, because my sister lives there; but what was different this time, was that we have a vivacious three-year-old. We had never seen monuments as deserted as we had at 7:30 in the morning.

After our third day at the National Museum of Natural History, I realized that I was noticing things that I hadn’t in the days past, and I was surprised to find I was still learning new things. And this got me to thinking – how could I make my classroom more like a Smithsonian museum?

Independent Learning

Museums foster independent learning. My daughter really enjoyed roaming around and looking at things at her own pace. How might I have more interesting information at the ready, in my classroom? What could I have up or around in my room to help self-directed learning happen more? (Even the plants outside the museums are labeled with the scientific names.) How might I leverage technology to help me provide some interesting sites that students could look at on their own?


  • Museum-like placards in books or around the classroom library, inviting readers into different genres or books or author tid-bits.
  • QR-Codes around the room with links to different websites that promote collaborative writingreadingauthor sitesself-publishingNaNoWriMo, or other cool new wonderings.
  • Have interesting quotes or information around the room that I change and update — or put students in charge of the alteration.shutterstock_233608252

Sparking Curiosity

What happens when I press this button? What is around the corner in that dark, spooky hallway? Who are those people in white lab coats behind the glass looking through microscopes?

The questions and wonderings of my preschooler were endless! What kinds of things will grab the attention of my middle school students? Could I have up different questions, artwork, or inventions that tie into my units of study somehow? What visuals or puzzles could I have up that contribute to students’ knowledge of what we are studying in each unit, or are just plain word-fun?


  • Hang Harris Burdick photos — or other strange images or objects (estate sale finds) — with a poetry or sentence starter.
  • Hang a Pro/Con stance that students could consider or debate, in writing or verbally, at the end of each class or week.
  • Always have a different copy of a word puzzle or brain teaser up for students to look at or work on.

Different Levels of Knowledge

My husband, daughter, and I all enjoyed our time at the museum. We each left with a different knowledge base than we had before. Visuals and audio were more important to my daughter’s learning. Words and graphs spoke more to my husband and me.

In class, what metaphors would fit well when trying to explain different parts of a unit?


  • shutterstock_258415694Rethink mini-lesson charts to include drawings and visual component.
  • Flip mini-lessons so that they are available online for homework viewing. Maybe have an interactive piece to them – or offer them as a supplement for students who need more time to process or think through the material.
  • Use music, video, popular culture more in quick writes with students.

Increase Engagement

From picture boards with red buttons to press, to digital display screens, to real-live bugs you can touch, my three-year-old was really enjoying all of the interactive features of a museum. That had me wondering: In my classroom, what could I have hanging from the ceiling? What spaces in my room, where students congregated, could house some unique, hands-on aspects of literacy? How might I make my bulletin boards more engaging?


  • Create a graffiti wall of favorite lines from books that students have read.
  • Rethink bulletin boards to always include some level of interactivity. Maybe include an extension into technology – like six-word memoir bulletin board with special hashtags.
  • Offer different writing implements from past ages that kids could touch or use.

I know that museums have bigger budgets — and larger sources of information and more people working for them. But I can still try to harness the power of a good museum. I just need to think about what questions or visuals will challenge and engage my students, present lots of different viewpoints and interesting ideas that they might want to talk or write about, and be innovative in how I represent these things in my classroom.

IMG_8096Caroline 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, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.


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.

The Value of Connecting with Students

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_128750762At the start of school, I had a plan for connecting to the students in my classes. I would start by connecting on a personal level, so that they would be open to growing as readers and writers on a professional level.

On the first day of school, I greeted each student at the door of my classroom. They thought nothing of it, since it is a pretty typical structure for many teachers’ first day of class. Then, I continued to greet every student, every day, every hour, as they entered my classroom. Then they started to take notice. Students began greeting me in the hallway and when they entered class. They stopped, smiled, and responded.

I didn’t stop there, though. In the first few days, my next step was to connect to each student personally. 

While students were setting up notebooks and working on classroom tasks, I spoke to each student, inquiring about things they liked to do, or something about them that they wanted to tell me. A student cleverly called these “interviews.” I smiled at this observation, but I knew that I was affecting students, because they felt like their turn was valuable and something to look forward to.

Over several days, I learned that one of my students is an avid sailor. Another is a horseback rider. I have students with siblings, and students who are pet lovers, sports enthusiasts, or guitarists. As I conducted these conversations, I jotted quick notes about these individual prides. The notes allow me to refer to these topics in the future, as I continue to build the connections or suggest writing topics and book themes.

My personal connections with students also support our writing conferences. Students see that these conferences are about growing as writers. They also see that they can choose to take a suggestion, and they can guide the way a conference unfolds with suggestions of their own. As the conferences shift to holistic moves for writers, students are now open to these conversations and open to reworking their writing. I found that conferences proceeded more efficiently and effectively because I had already interacted with each student before sitting at their desk with them. Theyshutterstock_186008123 realized that I was as willing to help with their work as I was to greet each of them at the door.

After each conference, students compare their previous work to their current work. Students name their shifting moves as writers, and then they evaluate the quality of their new work. What is important, too, is that following up with students after a writing conference shows that I value the work that they are doing, and it further forges the connection that I’m making with them.

Proof from an Email

Other than my observations, how did I know that this strategy was working?

Students were working on a narrative writing structure that we’ll grow and use all year. An email from a student said:

I finished my “Slice of Life” last week, but I have a question just to make sure about something. My topic that I am writing about is when my aunt and I went to an ice cream place. So, should I write about us at the ice cream place or when she picked me up from school, dropped my sister off somewhere, going to the market, and then going to the ice cream place? My overall question is, should I zoom in on that one moment (at the ice cream place) or include all the other details (getting picked up from school, dropping my sister off, going to the market, then going to ice cream place).

This email, which was sent outside school time, shows that this writer is using workshop language. She is also inquiring about how she can make a written piece better, even though it is already finished. I smiled as I responded and praised her, saying, “A good writerly question.”

This was just one benefit from my decision to make purposeful and deliberate connections to students at the beginning of the year. And I’m sure I’ll continue to see the fruits of this decision all year long.

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.