Engaging students with meaningful and relevant conversations about reading and writing.

by Jeff Baxter

Grades 9-12


After a personal victory of losing 260 pounds I had an epiphany: The thing that was most important to me in the classroom was to engage students in meaningful and relevant conversations about reading and writing.

I wanted my classroom to be a conversation and that changed the whole dynamic. I redesigned the room so that kids are in groups of four and are in conversation groups as soon as they sit down.

I model everything that I ask them to do. I write when they write so that they can see me screwing up or having successes.

I ensure my classroom is built around conversations by:

-Establishing a trust relationship in the classroom,

-Requiring my students to write everyday, and

-Acknowledging that so much can be learned by failing.

Finding ways to connect kids to anything they read or write is at the center of what I do.


What I did well…

Writing is  at the core of teaching language arts, whether students are doing the writing or studying literature.  As teachers, we often do not do a good job of helping students understand this creative process, how it works, why it succeeds or why it fails.  This activity helps students see that their voice is unique, valuable and important and should be heard.  I like Language Inventor as a way to introduce the value of student writing and student point of view.

What I would do more of or differently…

I would have liked to have given student examples which would have demonstrated the process students went through of writing first with their heart and revising with their brain.  I would have presented narrative examples and even academic essay examples.  I think this would add to teachers seeing the practicality and power of approaching writing with this mindset.  I would have included examples that show how narrative writing contributes to excellent argument or analysis, and show how some of these papers began weakly but were revised into exceptional ones.

I still want to grow this practice by…

I am constantly learning from students as I do the assignments with them, discuss what their struggles and triumphs are, and together improve the writing process.  I would like to include actual examples of professional writers applying their revision practices to make their text more imaginative, more powerful and more explicit.  What I am asking of students in their writing is no more than Steinbeck, McCarthy, or O’Connor asked of themselves.  Why we expect less of students is a mystery to me.

About Jeff Baxter

Jeff Baxter is a language arts teacher at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, KS. A graduate of the University of Kansas with Bachelor’s...

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