Eyes on the Prize: Growing Student Writers

Correcting student writing got you down? Try some fresh assessment methods for focusing on growth in the high school English classroom.

By Adrin Fisher

Last spring, deep in the futile throes of correcting essays I had collected on March 13 (the day that must not be named), I promised myself that this year would be THE year: the time when I finally figure out a way to do this essay grading thing better. 2020 has been a lot. 2020 is being a lot.

However, in the interest of keeping promises to myself (despite the deep temptation to keep doing the things I can control in the same way I’ve done them for years), I am forging ahead.

Please forgive my naval-gazing. COVID has caused a convulsion in the school system—and for someone with twenty-three years in the classroom, a spouse in his twelfth year as a reading specialist, and two teenagers in school, a convulsion in the school system affects every aspect of life. So I will start by centering my beliefs about myself as a teacher:

  • A growth mindset is my greatest weapon.
  • Proactivity within my circle of influence is my work.
  • What I focus on grows.
  • My profession was and remains my choice.

Next, I will review my teaching-of-writing process. It goes something like this: think of an interesting essay assignment. I usually create my own because I naively believe it discourages cheating. I talk about how to pre-write and organize. I model. We write in class and I do “walking conferences.” Then we peer edit. Then I collect the final copies with all the work attached.  

And then I mark the essays. This takes time. The stack is thick. I procrastinate a bit first, because I know it will take me hours and hours. In fact, my usual rate is 20 minutes per essay. Multiply that out over 110 students, give or take. 

No wonder I hesitate.  

Two or three weeks later, I return essays. Next comes the possibility of bonus points for revising. To get a good revision grade, students have to address my comments and then make changes. Not hard, really. I give points based on the changes—did they develop? did they fix all the awkwardness?  

But, of course, 90% of my students don’t revise.  

Which means that the 20 minutes I spent pointing out issues in logic or grammar, correcting sentence structure, and asking pointed questions are wasted—waste multiplied by 90%.


And in a plague year, nearly enough to push me under.

I have specific ideas about myself as a teacher. I confess that the truths I listed above have not been always the truths of my teacher-self.  But now, this year, maybe I can change.  

Maybe I can take back my weekends (once this hybrid-distance double teaching job with no extra remuneration situation I’m in finally ends). Maybe I can adjust my thought patterns to accept that I am not the sole arbiter of teaching writing. Maybe I am not exclusively responsible for the students’ success. 

So, here are some strategies I’ve collected:

Intentional Marking:  Grade only for one thing. Pick something to correct: introduction, thesis, transitional phrases, organization, etc. Force your pink pen to only touch those things. Only.

Code It:  A few years ago, a younger teacher told me about a system of marking that involves coding rather than correcting. The student (and you) has the key to see what the errors are. This reminds me that one of my high school teachers put a checkmark at the end of a line but didn’t reveal the mistake.

Bank Comments: Create a comment bank for your online assignments. This is a feature in Google Classroom that lets you save comments and then choose the appropriate one from your own list. Likewise, you can use a Google add-on called Keep—it’s a post-it note tab—to hold comments you keep using. You can copy and paste from your notes

Whole Class Feedback: After reading (but not marking) essays, create a list of the big issues and write the class a “letter” that shows common mistakes and fixes, and then encourages students to dive into their own writing.

Just Don’t Grade It: Let students practice, and let yourself cheer them on. This approach is beloved by teachers such as Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Sarah Zerwin.

These strategies are fine and good, and maybe one or more of them will work for you. I still have a problem, though. It’s my weird obligation, a dire sense of “I’m not doing my job unless I…”

Fortunately, in my diligent search, I have come across something I think I can do. At the start of school, I joined a Facebook group: Teaching Teachers How to Teach Writing created by Kristian Kuhn. Despite my desire to sit on the couch and worry that evening, I joined a live PD session given by a Minnesota teacher named Mara J. Corey. (The hour-long session is still available in the archive of the group.) In the session, she explained how her goal is to make students do the heavy lifting of writing.


Instead of commenting on each paper (because, let’s be real, similar issues come up over and over again in a set of essays), she provides “Big Picture” pre-teaching. Corey anticipates the problem areas and addresses them during the writing period. For example, she might attack passive verbs or weak sentence construction. Or perhaps she’ll review the ICE heuristic (Introduce, Cite, Explain) for building in text evidence.  

Then—and here’s the really new-to-me-thing—she provides students with a Growth Focus. Either she or the student will choose ONE thing to work on, which is graded on a separate rubric. For Corey, this addresses the 90% wasted time issue by demanding that students improve: It’s not good enough to write an essay that scores 4s across the board; you must ALSO demonstrate that you’re getting better. In fact, she makes the Growth Focus rubric worth 50% of the total score. It’s a simple rubric, A through D, based on how the student sought instruction and applied it.


Not Proficient
Approaching Proficiency

Proficiency with Help
Independent Proficiency  
No improvement in the growth focus area 

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Proficient in the growth focus area with one-on-one teacher help (relearning)
Improvement in the growth focus area on my own  

Mastery in the growth focus area on my own
Corey’s Growth Focus Rubric

I’m anticipating your question: If you have to now track each kid’s Growth Focus over time, and coach the students along the way with mini-lessons, small group sessions, or online materials until they master one GF and choose another, how is this going to save time?

Well, the answer, I think, is in the comments. She gears ALL feedback to the Growth Focus. She relies on her essay rubric to take care of the general feedback, without additional comment, so everything she notes or writes on the student paper is only and ever about the Growth Focus. Sounds sensible, right?

So, today, in the autumn of a plague year, I have decided to adopt Corey’s strategy. To that end, I have created tables listing each student along with a GF they’ve chosen and that GF grade.  

Now, have I really cut my correcting time?

No. I’m still figuring out how to be all things to all learners—some on paper, some in Google Docs, some on Kami with my weird little plug-in tablet and stylus. I’m still so tempted to type comments. I think it maybe is taking longer than ever, but I’m afraid to time myself. So, no, not yet.  

But, there is hope. I think this is something I can get behind. I think I can wean myself off marking each RO and asking for clarification each time. I think I can focus on one thing, one individualized thing. I think I can let myself slide into something that’s just as personal, yet less demanding on my time…once it’s set up. I think so. It’s worth a shot.

Eyes on the prize, teacher-friend. The prize is student growth WHILE you live your life. Let’s have our cake and eat it too.

Go forth, be well, and take courage, dear heart.

 Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Pushing Forward through the Year of Fear

As we know, 2020 has been the Year of Fear. Let’s move beyond the fear to knowledge, and beyond the knowledge to wisdom. Join me in setting goals for the summer that will impact yourself, your students and your society.

Adrin Fisher

It occurs to me that in 2020, our society has moved from one fear to another, each seeming to outpace and eclipse the previous one. 

The US was on course for war with Iran in January. By the end of February, we were nervously watching the DOW slide and wondering when this flu running through Asia and Seattle would make it to West Virginia. In March, COVID-19 arrived in full force and the country effectively shut down. People lost jobs and security and all sense of normalcy. April consoled with handwashing and mask-making. In May we learned of a vicious February murder in Georgia, a woman who weaponized a bird-watcher’s skin color in Central Park, an innocent Louisville woman shot in her own bed, and then we watched as a Minnesota man died slowly on the street under the knee of a police officer. Peaceful protests were hijacked by anarchists and troublemakers, and soldiers in riot gear were mobilized.

So, to sum up, fear follows fear follows fear follows fear.

And it’s only June. When people post memes about the thunderstorm actually being Godzilla or the murder hornets carrying machetes, they’re not really joking. Fear is the currency of the day.

As I looked forward into summer three months ago, I planned to work on how grade writing more effectively and more efficiently. 

Two months ago, I found out that I will be teaching AP Literature next year, so I planned to wrap my head around that intimidating yet exciting prep.

And now, finally finished with the official school year, I recognize that I need to take more action in my own self and my own classroom. Although I don’t tolerate racism in the halls or in the room, although I host a Black History Month Read-In every spring, although I work very hard to build and maintain a positive rapport with all my students, although, although, although…it’s not enough. 

It seems to me that all of my goals are worthy, and all of them are necessary. I firmly believe that the way to push through fear is to learn. Once you have knowledge, you can gain wisdom. And for me, wisdom is the ultimate goal.

A partial reading list for the summer of 2020…fight fear with knowledge!

So, in the interest of developing wisdom and pushing through the Year of Fear, I’ll share some quick, powerful ideas and tools.

I would first encourage you to take a look at your implicit biases. Here’s a link to an ongoing project at Harvard for you peek at what’s underneath your assumptions. 

Here’s a short YouTube video that may shine a light on privilege.

Next, I would ask around (the internet or colleagues) for ideas about books to read.  Try any or all of these on Twitter: @ProjectLITComm @NCTE #antiracism #blm

Here’s a reading list about anti-racism.

This article, “Educators Must Realize That There Is No Neutral Position on Issues of Racial Justice,” lists some actionable steps and is part of a larger series. 

Finally, I would encourage you to consider crafting your own mission statement for your classroom.  I use a mission statement as a way for seniors to begin their final year of high school, but it need not be relegated to a student-only activity. As an example, I will point to the powerful words of a former student of mine, who I’m proud to say is now a colleague in my English department.  Marissa Pulice writes, in part:

1. I don’t want to avoid the hard talks about race anymore. I shy from conflict and that is not productive at best and its own sort of mental brutality towards my students at worst. Racism will not end if we do not give our kids a space to talk about it and work through faulty or fallacious thinking.…

2. I will diversify what I teach. My kids deserve to read works by and about people from a variety of backgrounds, and I need to do a better job of seeking those things out. If you read something you wish you’d read in high school because it broadens your perspective, send it to me…

3. This is not a moment or a one-time thing. It’s not a unit plan. It’s something that needs repeatedly revisited with historical context about how power can and has corrupted in so many arenas of American history…

Does this fix everything? Absolutely not. Does it do something? Hopefully. Will I strive to be better for my students and my own eventual children? Always.

This work will be hard. 

But you’re used to that.  You just taught through a global pandemic.

This work will take effort.

But you’re used to that, too.  You’ve worked and studied to get where you are today.

This work will be valuable.

You’re used to that, too.  You have (in my opinion) one of the most important jobs in the world.  Yes, #BlackLivesMatter  And, more so, they are valued and beloved.

So, teacher friend, I implore you to fill your cup this summer. Take some time and rest every week. Do life with family and friends. Shake off your school-end malaise and get to work. Clean out your cabinets. Donate. Live more simply and more intentionally.
And study. Read. Discuss. Make investments in yourself, your students, in your school climate, and in your society. 
Courage, dear heart.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What texts or ideas do you have for combating social injustice? What can you offer about teaching AP Lit?  Or assessing writing?  I want to hear it all! Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher who just finished the weirdest school-year on record and is starting to prep for the new year already. When she’s not planning her next career as a YouTuber, you can find her calling “Hello!” to strangers, tree bathing in the woods with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Videos for Change


“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

― Nelson Mandela ―

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

― Martin Luther King Jr. ―

Mandela and King are two of my heroes. They were intelligent, organized, insightful, articulate and most importantly, would stop at nothing to achieve justice. As English teachers, we are blessed with being paid to help our students achieve these traits as well so that they can in turn go out and change the world.

And I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic or cliche sense—there are students in our classrooms who, because of a topic that we read or talked about or because of the speaking or writing skills that we taught them or because of a new perspective that we instilled in them through discussion, will in some capacity work to fight against that injustice for others.

It is vitally important for the next generation of compassionate justice advocates that we expose students to both what is deeply amiss in the world and also examples of those who are doing something about it.

The videos below are a start down that path. They all show a person or organization that has recognized a problem around them and has creatively worked to solve root causes of that problem. They are inspiring examples of people who were not ok with the status quo, thought long and hard about what would actually help solve the problem, and then made their big plans into actions. If you can get through all of these videos of transformational change without tearing up or wanting to quit your day job to go work for them, you are a more stoic person than I. Check out these videos, and afterwards, I’ll share how I use them and also other ideas of how you could use them.


Veronica Scott has a heart for the homeless. She created a prototype of a coat that could be turned into a sleeping bag and started giving them to people who were without homes. That is, until she realized that what many of these people ultimately wanted was a job and a fresh start. She began hiring homeless women to produce these coats, which has helped these women pay for housing because of the source of steady income. Coats? Easy to create. Opportunities for jobs? Harder because that requires trust, mentoring, and long-term investment in the messy lives of people. But both are necessary.


It takes money to make money. Kiva gives microloans to people in developing nations who have the drive but not the resources to start a small business. This enables investors to contribute to the efforts of a would-be small business owner on the other side of the world, effectively enabling the philanthropically-minded with a way to build into systemic change and economic development in a community. Even a small loan can go a long way, so you don’t need to be a Kardashian to get involved.

hair stylists

So, why hair dressers? One of the root causes of the often prolonged and unknown quality of domestic violence is because abuse victims feel pressure to keep their abuse quiet. Hair dressers work up close to their clients and can often spot well hidden head and neck trauma or scars. Also, they often develop friendships with their clients and can be a safe haven for someone who doesn’t know whom to trust.


For certain segments of society, obtaining a job is a near-impossible endeavor. For no one is that more true than the formerly incarcerated or those convicted of a felony. However, if we believe in forgiveness and giving people second chances, it’s pretty cruel to release them from prison and then prevent them from obtaining the very thing necessary to life on the outside: a job. Greyston Bakery has an open hiring policy, so to get hired, a prospective employee puts their name on the list, and Greyston Bakery hires people in order of the list, no questions asked. There are opportunities for anyone who shows aptitude to work their way up into a manger position, as does the employee featured in this video.

Heifer Top Image

I am a long-time fan of the Heifer Project. Heifer raises money to donate farm animals and crop seedlings to distressed farmers in developing nations. They train recipients about how to care for the animals and crops. These gifts can produce both food and revenue for the recipient’s family, and the family is encouraged to share offspring of their animal with other local families and to train them as well. As Alton Brown says in the video, “It is a gift that grows and may be the best, hardest working gift you will ever give. And that, my friends, is the recipe for lasting change.” Indeed. Also, Heifer allows you to give gifts in a person’s name, so maybe instead of getting your mother-in-law another knick-knack for Christmas that will sit on her mantle until she donates it to Goodwill, buy a goat or a flock of geese or a colony of bees for a family in her name. Less clutter for her to deal with, more good for you to accomplish.

malala fund

My particularly education-averse students are always surprised by this video because they cannot fathom children wanting to go to school even if they are not forced to do so by adults, truancy officer, or courts. It is fun to watch their incredulity as they see passionate and articulate girls talk about their deep desire for education and how they are prevented from achieving just that because of where they were born, the society they live in, or their economic status. Malala understands that oppression of women begins with preventing education because lack of education leads to lack of opportunity, and she is out to break that cycle by funding schools for girls who would not otherwise be able to be educated.


Ok, so these organizations are awesome. But how do I use these in the classroom to inspire my students to create lasting change in their world?

Great question, reader. Below are some ideas.

1. Conduct a Research Project

Mattie project

I use these videos as an anticipatory lesson for my research unit. I have students watch these videos in stations around the room and answer these three questions about each video:

  1. What is the problem that this organization is trying to solve?
  2. What is one of the root causes of this problem?
  3. How does this organization work to combat one of the causes of this problem?

Here is the document for that activity: World Changers Intro Stations notes sheet

Then, the next day, I explain that we are going to be conducting research about problems, the roots of those problems, and workable solutions to the problem. Below is a snapshot of my project. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@LizJorgenTeach) if you want more research and details on this unit because I have all the things that I would be more than happy to send to you if you would like to do this project or adapt it.

Project Snapshot:

  1. Choose a problem that exists in your community, the nation, or the world which interests you.
  2. Research causes and solutions for your chosen problem.
  3. Write a research paper arguing causes of the problem (why the problem is a problem) and a solution (how the problem may be combatted). Points = 200
  4. Write a proposal of something that YOU could do to motivate Spring Mills High School students to take action against this problem. Points = 50

*These proposals will be read by a committee of teachers and staff, and one will be chosen to be actually implemented at SMHS.

2. Write an Editorial


*Insert Shameless Plug here for Journalistic Writing and Publication*

I feel that it is my duty as your friendly neighborhood journalism teacher to remind you of the power of authentic audiences in writing. And also, most school newspaper teachers (and local newspapers as well!) LOVE collaborating with other teachers to publish student work! How about having your students write editorials outlining a problem and creative solutions to that problem? Below, I have a document that I have made to introduce my newspaper students to editorial/op-ed writing. This protocol could be easily adapted for a project like this. Also, here is a link to my school’s online newspaper editorial column to give you some examples of student-written editorials.

Writing Editorials 2019-2020

3. Use as a Spring-board for Non-Fiction Literature Circles

literature circles

There are so many amazing non-fiction titles that have been published on problem-solution and social change topics in the last few years. Why not apply for a grant to get a handful of copies of each and have your students read them together in groups? Here are just a few personal favorites:

Disclaimer: The above books vary in length, difficulty, and graphic nature. Use discretion when deciding whether they are academically and developmentally appropriate for your group of students.


I could wax eloquently on the academic benefits of social change and service learning projects, but I think that I will leave you with a quote from Malala which not only applies to the girls in parts of the world which restrict education for women but also applies to our students as well:

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

That one teacher could be you. Let’s go change the world.


Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • What are other ways that you include social activism and change into your curriculum?
  • What service learning projects have you implemented with your students?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Four Ideas for New Year’s Writing Activities


Hey there, happy Sunday! If you followed the advice of the many teacher blogs telling you to relax and take time for self-care over break and are now scrambling for some back-to-school lesson ideas… We got you, sis/bruh. Or, if you’re an impeccably focused and responsible teacher who did plan over break but wants to spice up your lessons with some timely writing activities, we got you too!

There’s something about the new year that makes people both reflective and forward-thinking. You go to write the date for the first time in January, and you realize that you’re writing a whole new number at the end of the date; the year is new, why can’t you be new as well?

This leads to thinking back over the past year and remembering the best and worst times of the past year. People tend to think about their mistakes and how they can do better the next year, and people of course make New Year’s resolutions.

And it’s not just adults who have those thoughts—our students are thinking about these ideas as well. With a time of year upon us that is so rife with personal reflection, analysis, and goal setting, how can we not capitalize on that in the classroom?

So, here are a few writing-based ideas that center around the ideas of reflection, goal-setting, resolutions, and the new year in general.


I Wish You a Merry New Year


(Almost) yearly, author Neil Gaiman posts an open-letter-style New Year’s wish on his writing blog. Of course, because he is Neil Gaiman, they are beautifully crafted pieces of art. Any of his New Year’s wish letters, or a combination thereof, would make excellent mentor text writing for your students.

First of all, accessing these letters. Here is an article that posted portions of the letters from several years. If you find one that you like, you can Google it and find the full text on Neil’s blog. Also, here is the full letter from this year.

For those who haven’t delved into the realms of mentor text writing, the jist is that students examine an exemplar piece of writing, notice what makes it well-written, and then use the style to write their own piece. I teach freshmen in my English classes, so they need scaffolding with pretty much everything, and mentor text writing is no exception. Here are the directions I give to students when I have them use mentor texts:

For Mentor Texts, you must write the following:

1) I notice that…

-Write down what you see that makes this a good piece of writing

-In other words, what are techniques that the author is using to make it sound good?

-List at least TWO interesting things that you notice about how this piece of writing is written

2) My Turn…

-Use the techniques you noticed to write your own piece

I actually make them write the number 1 on their paper and write the heading, “I notice that…” and list their techniques, then we go over them as a class. Then, I show them my list, note any that we have already talked about, and also highlight any important factors that they missed. Then, I always also write my own “My Turn” portion to show the students how to use the style of the author to write my own piece. Then, I release them into the wild to write their “My Turn” portions.

Something to keep in mind for mentor text writing is appropriateness of length for writing readiness. It would be very difficult for my freshmen to take Neil’s entire blog and mentor-text it. There’s too much going on for them to hone in on the writing techniques being used. If I use this mentor text writing with my students this week, I will probably pick a paragraph or two for them to imitate. If you teach older or more advanced students, though, you may want to have them write an entire New Year’s open letter blog.

Also, notice that Neil focuses on his wishes for the world for the new year. You could have your students write their wishes for the world, their wishes for the school/community, their wishes for their family, for their soccer team, for an estranged friend etc. Having an option of a smaller focus may also be a good scaffold for students who struggle to think super broadly and feel that writing wishes for the world is too big.


I’ve Been to the Year 3000


Another timely writing activity would be having students write a letter to their future selves. Generally, letters to the future both reflect upon the past and project into the future, which are the exact feeling that a new year stirs up.

To aid in this activity, some lovely people have set up an online version of the future letter concept. Simply type in your email address and your letter, set a date when you want your letter sent to you, and voila! You could specify that students set the date for the last week of school or the last week of 2020 to make the letter more appropriate to the new year specifically.

When I have done this activity with my students, I have written my own future-me letter and shared it with them first. Like mentor text writing, this gives them a concept of what their letter could look like and gives them a high standard of the reflective and critical thinking that they should put into their letter. Also, the Future Me website gives a plethora of examples from people who have volunteered their letters to be shared. So many mentor texts for the win!


One Word More, Another Word Another Destiny


An oldie-but-goodie is to have your students choose a One Word for their new year. This has been an annual trend on Twitter for several years now, but choosing a guiding word for the year as a springboard for writing really never gets old. Just search for the hashtag #OneWord2020 on Twitter, and you will see tons of examples.

When I have used this in the past, I have had my students start by brainstorming about how they see themselves in a new year or a new semester. What are their goals for the new year? Whom do they want to become? In what ways do they want to grow? Then, I have them refine their brainstorming and look for one word to sum up the essence of what they are claiming. We look at some examples on Twitter as well.

I have them make a small poster displaying the word, defining it, and using it in a sentence. They must also decorate the poster in a way that shows how they hope the word will apply to their new year. I then display those in the classroom to keep their vocabular resolution in the forefront of their minds.

Here is a PowerPoint that I used last year for this lesson. OneWord2019 project


Information, Information, Information

What better way to start off the new year than with some depressing statistics about how people don’t keep New Year’s resolutions, am I right?

Ok, but for real, analyzing infographics that give statistics about the demographics and success/failure rate of New Year’s resolutions can help people see what is helpful and not helpful and how to have a better shot at meeting their goals, not just at New Year’s, but also in life in general.

Plus, being able to “read” a visual, a.k.a. analyze a visually curated piece for the argument that the creators intended to communicate, is a vital skill in our digitally-driven world.

When I have my students analyze a graph or infographic, we look at it together, discuss it informally, and then I have them write a 5-sentence analysis. Again, keep in mind the freshman factor. Scale up or down as needed for your own kiddos. Here are the directions I give them for analyzing an infographic:

Infographic Analysis Directions:

Write a paragraph of at least FIVE SENTENCES about this infographic.

  • You need to include both observation and analysis in your paragraph.
  • Observation = one thing/fact that you notice.
  • Analysis = something deeper about that fact, such as why it is important or what it means.

Analysis Questions to consider when writing your paragraph:

  1. What could that thing/fact/statistic cause?
  2. What has caused this to be true?
  3. Why is this important?
  4. What else could this tell me about this topic?
  5. What does this remind me of?
  6. How does the layout of the graphic help you understand the information?
  7. What information is NOT shown?


So, for the infographic samples. Here’s a bunch about varying statistics surrounding New Year’s resolutions.





And here’s a fun one about the history and traditional practices of New Year’s. For example, did you know that England didn’t replace the Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar and adopt January 1st as the beginning of the new year until 1752?? I didn’t. Actually, I fact checked that before I posted this one so as to not spread any fake news on the blog.


So there you have it! Hopefully some of these ideas will give you a leg up in getting back into the school year grind. Happy 2020!

Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • What are some other lessons that you use to help students both reflect and look forward during the time of the new year?
  • Share some strategies you have used to help students tackle mentor text and infographic analysis.

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Valued and Validated: Making Time for Journaling

Valuing and validating your students’ voices is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Here are four reasons responding to student journals should become part of your teaching practice.

By Adrin Fisher

When I was a girl, I always had a diary. I remember one in particular. It was red and white, with a cover photograph of Annie, beaming in her “Daddy Warbucks” dress. Many years later, when I was going through a rough patch in college, someone suggested that I keep a “Blessings Journal.” Rather than record activities, you list three good things from the day. That’s all. Simple. Quick. Transformational.

Daily journaling is a discipline that few undertake, but quickwrites in the classroom seem more common. In the PLC I facilitate in my school, we’ve been reading some of the most prominent current voices in teaching English, Kittle and Gallagher. In their books, particularly in 180 Days, they have “notebook time.” They ask students to collect, study, and then imitate techniques writers use as well as to generate their own thinking (2018, p. 35-36). They differentiate their writer’s notebooks from a standard classroom journal by creating different sections for collection and writing. Done in this way, the journal becomes a tool for reading engagement and skill development.

Journaling was not a big part of my education. As a student, I only had two teachers who required journals. First, my greatest and most favorite teacher, Linda Orr Morgan, had us purchase steno notebooks for AP English. She gave us prompts and pages to fill, and then responded in her distinctive handwriting. Because I looked up to her, I felt honored that she spent time reading my thoughts. Later at WVU, I had Dr. Cheryl Torsney for an American Lit survey. She collected responses to Whitman and Rowlandson and wrote back. Again, I was baffled that a professor cared about what I had to say. The fact that both of these teachers required, and most importantly RESPONDED TO, the journals of their students amazed me. I felt valued and validated.

Even so, requiring and reading journals didn’t enter my own teaching practice for many years. After I’d been teaching 7th grade Reading and Language Arts for a while, a fresh first-year teacher took over the co-teach section. I remember watching Stacey Angelo pull one spiral notebook after another from a crate. She said, “It’s no big deal. I just read the entries and write ‘LOL’ or add a comment or question.” She collected journals every Friday and read them all. Because of her enthusiasm, I began doing journals too. And like my teacher-mentors, I read them all. And since that day, about fourteen years ago now, I’ve done them with every student, every year.

A caveat: I do not have students journal every day. That’s too much for me. Many days, we are doing Daily Grammar Practice as bell ringers, or we’re handing in essays, or getting out laptops.

Another caveat: Grading journals is time-consuming. I drag a crate home and spend a few hours over the weekend going through and responding. Unlike Stacey Angelo, I don’t pick them up every week—but sometimes I wish I did. I have found that somehow, anything over ten entries seems to double the grading time. It’s a trick of the mind, but a significant one.

One last caveat: In my classes, journal grades are based on completion. I ask for a half-page of thinking and I never correct grammar or usage. And the half-page mark is subjective too, as it depends on handwriting size and spacing. It’s kind of fun to take a break from the laser focus of correction in favor of just listening in. Because I’m essentially grading participation, this is a low-point value assignment—normally, 5 points per entry.

A class of journals, ready to be graded.

I’ve had many, many teacher-friends—including my husband—tell me I’m crazy for grading journals. So, why do I bother?

Well, first of all, I do it to provide a way for students to engage the material. To begin Hamlet, I ask students to write about ghosts. Partway through Act 2 of Macbeth, I ask the kids to talk about “the domino effect.” In A Separate Peace, I wonder how they feel about competition between friends. In The Canterbury Tales, I ask them to imagine which pilgrims they’d invite over for dinner. Best practice demonstrates that students respond out loud more precisely and more confidently if they respond in writing first. And this method fits squarely in Hunter’s anticipatory set model.

Who knew that Iron Maiden’s “Fear of the Dark” fit with Beowulf so perfectly?

More importantly, I use journals as a way to get to know my students. In a recent article on Edutopia, teacher Sarah Yost writes about the importance of knowing her students. The three strategies she presents are ones that I, too, have used for many years. This journaling thing, though, is the icing on the cake. My students reveal their thinking. They name their heroes. They tell family traditions. They share superstitions. They connect heavy metal songs to literature. Sometimes they share secrets—ones that I have to follow up with—or talk about conflicts. Sometimes they’re silly. Often they are writing—just writing—in their own unique voices.

Writing like this is a simple way to help develop an authorial voice. Kids aren’t worried about grammar or spelling or supporting a thesis. Journaling gives them space to just be, for a few quiet minutes in an otherwise frenetic high school day.

Journaling supports content generation. When preparing to take on dual-credit English 12 with a local university this year—a first for my school and a first for me—I met with a couple of professors. One said that she gives class time to write informally, as she’s found that college freshmen have trouble filling pages. To be sure, my dual-credit students have complained that I’m not telling them what to write about or how to write about it:  it’s up to them to choose the models that work for their pieces and then think of ideas, and then support their ideas. So, of course, I’ve required journals during this first semester. And I’ve read every word.

Imitating a mentor text to add sentence variety.

I love it. I don’t look forward to the stacks of journals. I complain to my husband. Some entries are really boring, and sometimes the handwriting is indecipherable—even to English-teacher eyes. And I always have a zillion other things to do, lessons to prep, dinner to cook. But then there are the entries that make me laugh or push me to think or make me angry or open a window into these teenage lives. Because high school can be hard. Life can be relentless. I learn so much about these kids through reading and responding to their journals. I hear their voices. I value them. I’m a better teacher—and a better person—because of it. 

So, when you’re thinking about impactful instructional strategies and you’re weighing cost versus benefit, I would encourage you, teacher-friend, to do it. While you may choose to land on the side of “ungraded practice” like Kittle and Gallagher, you may also choose to try my way: read it all, goofy ideas and improper syntax and creative spelling and all. Resist the urge to mark corrections and take the opportunity to ask them questions, to laugh, or cry or commiserate or suggest books or movies or restaurants.

And if you already make journaling a habit with your students, I thank you.

Remember that hearing your students’ voices is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. 

Remember that as a trusted adult, your response matters.

At a holiday party last weekend, my uncle, a retired school bus driver, told me about a girl who used to ride his bus. She used to sit up front because she didn’t have many friends, and he’d give her candy and chat as they drove along. She’s in her 30s now, but she came to visit recently. She told my uncle how much his kindness meant to her. How her grandfather whom she’d loved had passed away when she was a kid and how, simply talking to her and giving her candies from his jacket pocket, my uncle comforted her. Uncle Richard just shook his head as he told the story, amazed that she remembered such a simple thing. “You just don’t know,” he said, “how you’re making a difference every day.”

What a gift you have, teacher-friend, in your capacity to touch students’ lives meaningfully. All it takes is the willingness to respond.

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Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you grace. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of essays, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or teaching Shakespeare “like a boss,” you can find her reading, tree bathing in a wintry park, writing in her current composition book, or re-watching the Star Wars saga with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin