Learning Spaces and Design

Reading Workout with Literary Nonfiction and Memoir Book Clubs

Inspired by the always innovative Sarah Brown Wessling, I adapted an activity she shared this past December that she calls Reading Workouts for independent reading time.  I made a few modifcations to account for a shorter literacy block of time and the needs of my 8th grade learners, but here is my version that was a great success this past Friday.

My 4th period (the class I take to lunch) was the only class that completed this activity as a warm-up because we had extra class time, and I didn’t want to jump into the activity with only 15 minutes before our scheduled lunch time.  If time had permitted, I would have done the “warm-up/stretch” with all classes; this was a great way to get them thinking before reading time.

For all other classes, we began with a quick review of concepts we had worked on the previous day:

We then began the first formal part of our workout!  Our focus was on reading; I told students to NOT take notes at this point or to annotate, but they could use the “baby” size sticky notes to quickly flag passages of interest.  I provided baskets of the sticky notes needed for the day at every table to save time and provide ease of access to the materials.

We then moved to the second part of our workout.  Students could choose any partner they wanted; it did not have to be someone from their book club.  We lined up 2×2 outside the room and began our walking reps.  One partner led the conversation for the first rep/lap; the second partner led on the second rep/lap.  This “walk and talk” part of the workout is another idea I’ve adapted previously from Wessling.  For our reading workout, we did a modified/shorter version to fit the reading workout structure.

We then moved to the next part of our reading workout:

We then ended/cooled down with this graffiti wall/parking lot activity for our books:

This work was a great formative assessment to see how well (or not so well) students were understanding themes and issues in their books as well as the concepts/terms  of theme and issues themselves.  I created the gallery of book graffiti walls/parking lots with chart paper and signage I crafted in Word.  You can see the gallery and student work samples in the slideshow below.  We’ll get into the parking lots/graffiti walls for a gallery walk activity later this week and then continue adding our thinking about themes and issues as we get deeper into our books this month.

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You can see, hear, and learn more about the design of this activity in the video I made after school this past Friday.  I love this learning structure and plan to use it again later this year!  A big thank you to Sarah Brown Wessling for always generously sharing her ideas for the rest of us to use as they are or to adapt for our learners!  In my next post, I’ll share how we are moving forward with our book club thinking work this week, including choices for gentle note-taking strategies as we read.

Revising at Points of Need: Narrative Revision Stations

One of my goals this year as a teacher is to make room for revision stations and alternative ways of tackling revision.  I am proactive in providing ongoing feedback in real time through Google Documents, but toward the end of the year, I honestly felt I needed additional ways to help my students take more ownership of their revision AND editing work.  I wanted to do revision stations last year, but time always seemed to be the enemy, so I was determined to MAKE time for them in the 2019-2020 academic year.

I originally purchased a narrative writing revision station set of TPT, but after purchasing it and looking at the activities more closely, I realized it really was not a good fit for my kids, so I wound up designing my own.  Here are the stations I crafted:

  • Station 1: Dialogue Den, Part 1--finding and counting our number of beginning, ending, and middle dialogue tags.  We also formulated revisions to make sure we have a balance of each kind of required tag.
  • Station 2: Dialogue Den, Part 2–making sure we have opening and closing quotation marks around each piece of quoted speech and looking for errors with our dialogue with capitalization and punctuation.
  • Station 3: DIY Revision–Explode the Moment—taking a scene that is underdeveloped or rushed and revising for more detail and to really develop the moment in depth.
  • Station 4: STEAL Analysis–reading our draft and seeing where/how we are developing a character and showing a character trait through each part of the STEAL method.
  • Station 5: PQP (Praise, Question, Polish):  Exchanging drafts and providing feedback with PQP tickets (see photos below).
  • Station 6: Teacher Conference/Help–get 1:1 help with your draft from Ms. Hamilton

If students somehow finished early, they could work on their NoRedInk module on Formatting Dialogue and Flow Quotes + Capitalizing Quotes Mastery Practice.  

Getting Ready

The first step was to have students print hard copies of their drafts in our 8th grade computer lab since we do not have printing capabilities from our Chromebooks.  Last year, we could print from the desktops in the lab, but it wasn’t until last Tuesday I discovered student rights to printing had been removed as a money saving measure for ink and paper.  Students had to share their documents, and I had to print every single draft myself.  Obviously, this solution is not realistic for the long term, but I did it because students needed a hard copy for their revision stations.  I will say more about the importance of having a hard copy of drafts at the end of this post.

The other prep piece was setting up stations in my favorite new classroom purchase this fall, my plastic Target paper trays.   I also had to craft station instructions, make copies, and set up supplies in bins/baskets as needed for each station.  I came in early and stayed late to organize everything by table/seating area.

Day 1

I allotted two days for the activities and planned carefully.  However, I realized quickly after my first class that TIMED station rotations were not going to be a good fit.  Here is how I punted and tweaked the activity period by period on Day 1.

Period 8-1

We completed two TIMED station rotations in which students were engaged in various revision tasks.   Unfortunately, excessive talking and not following instructions were problematic today for several students, and War Eagle points were deducted for those who could not stay on task after being redirected.

Period 8-4:

Students were given starting stations and groups; they then worked at their pace and moved on to another station.  Most students completed two stations.  We will finish remaining stations tomorrow.

Period 8-5:

Students who were behind on the story writing assignment worked in a small group with Ms. Moore, my co-teacher, to get caught up today.  Those who worked with me completed Station 4 and Station 1.

Period 8-6:

Students worked on Station 1 today.  Most finished, but a few will need to finish tonight because they were having difficulty identifying their dialogue tags and/or following the instructions.  If your child did not finish Station 1 work today, that needs to be completed tonight.  Several students moved on to Station 4; a few are behind on drafting and were asked to work on the draft.

Day 2 and Cumulative Teacher Reflections/Observations/Takeaways

While these adjustments worked better than the way I tried implementing them in Period 8-1, something still felt a bit off.  I decided to put all the station materials at the center table, Table 6, and let students choose the remaining stations they felt would best help them revise their draft.  This adjustment sounds simple, but it proved to be extremely effective.  Students in every class were deeply engaged in their work and asking thoughtful questions as they worked through their station revisions.

Even my struggling students were giving 150% effort, and one even asked to stay inside at recess with me to work on her draft!  While Day 1 was not terrible, the energy and intention I saw students putting into their work on Day 2 was like night and day.  I think building in the choice element was essential, and this change gives me much to think about when I design revision and editing stations again.  I was impressed by the thought I saw students making into their station selections, and they are now acting on those revisions as we are engaged in polishing and revising today (Monday, 9/16) and tomorrow to get a solid final draft.  Most importantly, students were taking ownership of their revision and editing work and choices—the locus of control did not lie with me, the teacher, but instead, it was squarely on the shoulders of the writers.

One other observation I think is important to share, and that is the importance of having HARD paper copies for this kind of station work however you choose to approach it.   I noticed that many of my students do not spot errors or mistakes working online, but when they have a hard copy—especially one that is double spaced and printed in a slightly larger font–their eyes quickly discover careless typos and errors.

In addition, I am noticing that this year’s 8th graders seem to respond to written feedback on their hard copies of their drafts as opposed to the Google Docs comments even though I am writing the same thing.  I think there is something of value for them when I can draw areas and mark up a section of their draft in a 1:1 teacher conference that doesn’t translate to a Google Docs comment.  I purchased this feedback tool last year, but wound up never fully utilizing it; I would like to revisit it this year since my students seem to respond to the written feedback and markups a little better than digital feedback.  I’ll have to think more about this endeavor since printing student drafts is a bit problematic for now.

Last but not least, this method gave me the ability to spot patterns of student mistakes (primarily with placement of quotation marks, punctuating dialogue and dialogue tags, and capitalization errors with dialogue) very quickly so that I could provide some intensive and targeted help when students were ready to conference with me 1:1.  We will definitely continue to work on growing our skill level in this area.  I feel that these revision stations are an impactful and insightful means of formative assessment.

In my next post, I’ll share how we are wrapping up our draft, reflecting on our work, and sharing our stories.

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Playlists with Stations Are Music to My Ears—Best Ever First Days of School FTW!

In my last post, I shared a preview of my playlists with stations first days activity.  We used the first three days of class to engage in a variety of literacy learning tasks to engage students in classroom community building, engage in some reading and writing, and knock out some beginning of the year tech tasks.   I am happy to share that the playlist oriented activity was a huge success—students were engaged right off the bat, and they did a fabulous job working through the stations at their own pace during our first three days of class August 7-9.

Just to recap from the last post (you can also get a video tour of the stations in that post), here are my stations on the playlist:

  • Station 1: “One Word” language and art activity
  • Station 2: Brainstorming positive behaviors to help us learn and brainstorming behaviors to avoid that get in the way of learning. (free signs via TPT)
  • Station 3: All About You as a Reader/Writer Survey (Google Form)
  • Station 4: Critical Reading and Constructed Response in Canvas (see below)
  • Station 5: Silent Conversation Response Activity on What Makes a Great Book or Read
  • Station 6: Sign up for NoRedInk
  • Station 7: Syllabus Station
  • Station 8: Writing Skills Wishlist
  • Station 9: Partner Work Brainstorming Ways to Care for Our Classroom Materials and Workspace
  • Station 10: Putting the U in Language Arts Survey: (purchased on TPT here as part of a bundled purchase plus a free version)

A few reflections that I’d like to share about my first ever go at using the playlist strategy:

  • Using the playlist strategy with stations really upped the accountability piece for students, and it provided me ten different opportunities for quick formative assessments in different areas with my students.  I cannot stress how insightful this was for me, and how much the playlist aspect helped keep students on track with very little direction from me.
  • Active learning experiences and structures as well as station work in a variety of formats are staples of classroom for my 8th graders.  Using the playlist with stations helped establish the tone and expectations I wanted for the beginning of the year.
  • Observing students in action was instrumental in giving me a sense of students as learners—who works well independently, who might need just a bit of coaching, who works well with partners, how well students can follow written instructions, and how well students manage their learning time.
  • The check in with the playlist helped me learn names much more quickly the first few days!

I was very fortunate that my tech-oriented stations worked well since our hardware and software applications were ready to go for Day 1 along with student log-ins.  I must give props to our media specialist Tracey Kell, school technology specialist Terrie Hudson, and our district tech gods/goddesses for all their work over the summer and behind the scenes prior to pre-planning that helped us be tech-ready—with hardware, student log-ins, and software apps via our Launchpoint portal– on Day 1.  I am also pleased that the time I put into designing the stations and getting everything set up paid off because students were able to navigate the stations very easily and with minimal assistance from me.

The first days of the school year are the best I’ve had in many years—maybe ever!  My 8th graders are going to be a terrific group to teach and learn with this year, but I do feel the playlist with stations helped establish the right notes on those first days.  I am grateful for our assistant principal Libbie Armstrong for showing and modeling this strategy with teachers during pre-planning, and I know many of my fellow teachers across multiple grade levels and subject areas utilized the strategy with great success as well.

Eve of First Day with Students Plus a Tour of My Station Rotations with a Playlist Twist for the First Days


  • Station 1: “One Word” language and art activity
  • Station 2: Brainstorming positive behaviors to help us learn and brainstorming behaviors to avoid that get in the way of learning.  (free signs via TPT)
  • Station 3: All About You as a Reader/Writer Survey (Google Form)
  • Station 4: Critical Reading and Constructed Response in Canvas (see below)
  • Station 5: Silent Conversation Response Activity on What Makes a Great Book or Read
  • Station 6: Sign up for NoRedInk
  • Station 7: Syllabus Station
  • Station 8: Writing Skills Wishlist
  • Station 9: Partner Work Brainstorming Ways to Care for Our Classroom Materials and Workspace
  • Station 10: Putting the U in Language Arts Survey:  (purchased on TPT)

Station 4 asks students to accept the Canvas course invitation; then, students read an argumentative essay in NewsELA and write a constructed response analyzing the writer’s argument and techniques for developing the argument.

All station learning activity design is by me and original; station posters/templates are from Building Book Love on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Seesaw: A Space for Sharing, Community Building, Feedback, and Formative Assessment

For the last year, I have been wanting to try Seesaw, but the timing was not right until last week.  Seesaw is a digital portfolio where students can “capture their learning” in any form.  The Seesaw “Learn More” page says that Seesaw “empowers students to independently document what they are learning at school” and that students can  can “show what they know” using

  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Drawings
  • Text
  • PDFs
  • Links/URLs.
  • Students can also import directly from most popular apps, like Google apps.

Seesaw provides a treasure trove of helpful videos on their YouTube channel; they also provide you helpful checklists for getting started once you sign up and set up your classes.  You can invite students to join the class via email and a code; younger students can use the QR code option.  Since I teach 11th and 12th grade, my students sign up with an email and then join my class with a course specific class code.   You also have the option of inviting parents to join as well.  Finally, I am using the free edition for now, but I’m consider purchasing the teacher “plus” upgrade so that I can better document mastery of standards.

In the last few years, I’ve become wary of “shiny” technologies that offer a lot of promises but very little return on the investment of time, energy, and sometimes money for a product.  However, this is the most excited I’ve felt about a technology in a long time because Seesaw offers so many possibilities and is so easy to use.  They also offer terrific support through the YouTube channel, and you can also join a Facebook group (here is mine for high school) for your students’ age group for additional “in the trenches” ideas and support.

This past week I piloted Seesaw with my 2A and 3B Honors 11th grade classes; I’ll introduce the app and platform to my 12th Honors ELA and 11th CP ELA in the upcoming week.  Last week, our Writer’s Notebook Invitation 7 in my 11th Honors courses invited students to choose one of two Puritan poems (“Huswifery” or “To My Dear and Loving Husband”) and create  Sketchnote of their thinking and interpretation of the poem.  I gave students some tools to help them get started:

  • A list of talking points/elements of Sketchnotes and how they might use those in their original creation
  • A shared Google Folder of examples of Sketchnotes to help them see the possibilities and variations in creating an effective Sketchnotes
  • A graphic organizer of “compass points” for thinking to help them explore and inquire into their selected poem
  • Colored pencils and markers for those who didn’t have their own

Over the course of two periods, students worked on inquiring into their poem and crafting a Sketchnote to visually represent their thinking.  Once finished, students signed up for SeeSaw and joined the class with the appropriate code for their section (2A or 3B).  Students then:

  1.  Snapped their Sketchnote using the app
  2.  Used the microphone feature to record an audio note; students described their thinking and the design behind their sketchnotes in these recordings.
  3. Students had the option to add a text note as well.

Since we don’t have a space for a “recording booth” in my room, we simply used the hall.  Students could rehearse what they wanted to say before recording.  Some wrote out their script while others recorded extemporaneously.   Most students recorded and snapped during class time so I could help them if they needed it, but some chose to finish their work at home.

I LOVE hearing their recordings!  There is something unique about hearing a student talk about his or her work and thinking.  I enjoy the text notes, too, but the audio recording feature is powerful and transformative for me.  I can then provide feedback with comments, audio notes, “likes”, or a combination of all three tools.  I LOVE recording audio feedback for the students because it feels more  personal and is faster than typing written feedback.   I think Seesaw has the potential to be a space where I can have back and forth (hence, Seesaw!) conversations with my students about ongoing work; I think this application and use will be especially transformative as we begin our first unit of writing study the week of September 18.

Here is a student example using the video recording feature instead of the audio feature to point and walk me through her Sketchnote in her Writer’s Notebook!

Students can also “like” the work of their peers and provide feedback, too.  In both classes we talked about how a community of learners supports EVERY student, not just those who are our friends, and does so in a constructive positive way.  We also talked about how we can learn from each other by looking at each other’s work.

There is also an option to easily click an icon in Seesaw and print the student entry right from your phone if you have a wireless printer (which I do at home) that will generate a cool poster with a QR code that other Seesaw students can scan to see/hear that piece of work; I think this feature would be great if you were doing some cross grade level work with another teacher or collaborating with a course team teacher and his/her classes who were also Seesaw users.

Here are some ways I see using Seesaw with my kids this year:

  • Virtual writing conferences
  • Ongoing conversations about writing projects in progress (these could be snaps of work with audio recordings by students and me, or they may link to work in progress in Google Docs and we can converse about a specific piece of work)
  • Writing circle/group work among students
  • Reading conferences
  • Book snaps/chats
  • Student self-assessment work (major and smaller/process work)
    Example:  Each month, students will pick their writing notebook entry for that time period.  They will compose an argument to justify the grade they feel they deserve and record that argument with the audio tool as they point to specific evidence in the entry to support their claim for a grade.
  • Inquiry circle work

You will notice that feedback and formative assessment are the two major threads that run through my working list of ways we will use Seesaw.  These two areas, along with improving my skills in facilitating more effective writing conferences, are part of my professional goals for improvement and growth this year.  I have been wondering how on earth I would do that with over 200 students in six sections of classes.  Though it won’t replace the written and face to face work we do, I now believe Seesaw is the missing piece of the puzzle I’ve been looking for to provide relevant and meaningful feedback in a virtual space that not only provides genuine interaction, but Seesaw gives me and my students to build a portfolio of work over the year on a regular and organic basis (not just 2-3 times a year), a feature that will support our efforts to embrace a growth mindset.

I am still learning many of the features available, but overall, I am elated with Seesaw and am excited to learn from fellow high school ELA teachers on Twitter and those across content areas in the Facebook group!  Are you a Language Arts teacher using Seesaw?  If so, I’ve love to hear you are using it for formative assessment, strategic feedback, and community building with your students!