Learning by Writing

This week I am celebrating our learning through the process of writing.

Writing to Learn Vocabulary

Vocabulary is directly taught in my classroom, and is rooted in the thinking set forth in Beck/McKeowan/Kucan’s Creating a Robust Vocabulary.  Tier two words are chosen based on our read aloud. The intent is to teach grade level vocabulary — enhancing comprehension and as well as oral and written language. In the past, my students and I have labored over multiple choice and fill in the blank assessments. The results: the students who were good readers and had good vocabulary did well — others struggled with meaning and usage.

Today, I still directly teach 3-4 words a week based on the same criteria.  The difference is writing.  Rather than fill in the blank assessment, at the end of the week students write for 15 minutes about our read aloud using as many vocabulary words as they can to summarize and explain their ideas about the story. Their objective is not only to use the words, but to use them in a way that enhances their writing.

What I loved about this week’s work was how students used words, generated from our previous read aloud, to describe their ideas about our current read aloud. Words such as adamant, mortify, confrontational, subtle, analyze, spiteful, delude, euphoric, passive, anxiety, ordeal, empathy  were coming up in a different context than where they were originally introduced. This accurate transference of words was not only for meaning but for usage.  WOW!  And this is a class of English language learners. Reading their papers last night made me smile and celebrate.

One disclaimer (or is it really my point?): Students were allowed to use their vocabulary cards. Is this cheating? Are they learning? I think this is the learning, learning by using the language.  Students are learning the proper usage and meaning of the words through the process of writing.

Writing to Inform Instruction 

Weekly writing using vocabulary words shows how students’ minds wrap around meaning and how they incorporate it into their language. Patterns emerge and my next teaching steps are defined. Students who need small group instruction  pop up as do misunderstanding in the meaning of  words.

A group of students that need help with correct usage wrote things like:

The doctor was being analyze when he was talking to Melody.

Mom was feeling anxiety when the doctor told her about Melody.

Melody’s mom felt mortify when she was yelling and screaming in the store.

Bonus Points

This weekly vocabulary writing has been seeping into other parts of the day. When blogging about their reading, a student asked:

Can I use my vocabulary cards to help me write? It really helps me.  

Of course, what a great idea, I respond and inside I celebrate.

Celebrating Growth, Goals, Beautiful Endings and Getting Real about Reading

Three things to celebrate in my classroom:

1) completion of parent conferences

2) a satisfying end of a read aloud

3) freedom in reading

Parent conferences are stressful for all parties. My goal was to send a message of growth and goals. I didn’t discuss grades at any point. A form designed to help all parties focus on this helped things go smoothly. conferences 2013  For writing the beautifully designed TCRWP checklist/rubric for narrative writing provided a perfect focal point. Growth was acknowledged, the place on the continuum each child had attained defined. Goals were clearly stated for the next round. For reading running records and lexile levels were discussed around our expectations at this time of the year. But more importantly each student’s writing about their reading (really their thinking about reading) was discussed. In each case, where the student was on the map of expectations was clear. In many cases students weren’t meeting expectations fully, but parents were able to see that that it wasn’t a verdict on their child it was a progression of learning. It wasn’t about grades it was about growth. CELEBRATE!

Our class read aloud, Wonder, came to a close. On Friday, students knew they were coming to the end. They were excited, yet at the end of every chapter they held their breath thinking, is this it? A sign of relief would escape as they saw there was another chapter. It wasn’t the end yet. We all know that wonderful yet painful feeling of getting to a satisfying end but the knowledge that this connection, this world we are living in is coming to a close. Beautiful yet tragic. My students felt this. At this moment, Wonder is the scale by which all books my students read independently will be measured. Does it feel like it did when we read Wonder? Is this character reminding you of a character in Wonder? Does this story connect to ideas in Wonder? You know how you walked away with something you held on to when we finished Wonder? What did you walk away holding on to after reading this book? The effect of Wonder will live on in them not only for the beautiful messages it put forth, but with the experience it gave each and every student of what it means to be a reader. What reading should be.  CELEBRATE!

2013-10-18 17.20.10

This year my students are allowed freedom to go outside their reading level when choosing a book. Students still know their running records level and they take a monthly SRI assessment. But this year, their book selections are not constrained by a levels. This year, I have baskets labeled by interest that are mixed levels as well as leveled baskets. Levels are there to help guide student selection, but not determine it. There will be books that students attempt that are way beyond them even though the book is technically, their level. And by the same token, there are books above their level that they will be able to access if it happens to be in an area they are interested in or have knowledge of. It is more important that students are able to recognize when a book is doable, a good fit. Because of this “liberal” approach to book selection, students are not allowed to finish books that they are struggling with. They must return them because for whatever reason, at this point in their life, the book isn’t right for them.


This “liberal” approach to reading can happen as long as there is 1) direct reading instruction, 2) clear authentic accountability measures that promote reading volume and 3) the student’s knowledge of when reading is a struggle and conversely, when it isn’t pushing them. Reading must be closely monitored with varied assessments beyond running records (conferring, writing about their reading, quick checkups with a title I know well) that lead to small group strategy coaching and direct instruction. Accountability measures such as regular status of the class a la Donalyn Miller, partnership reading, and weekly measurement of reading volume puts an emphasis on reading and reading a lot. These things along with firmly redirecting students to books that will fit their current needs, moves students reading level while making reading not about a level but about finding books that work for them so they can and want to read. This evolution in my view of reading has take a while. Choice has become bigger and levels do not define a reader in my classroom, the choice of books does. CELEBRATE!

Celebrate: What a Good Idea!

Here are my vocabulary words for next week:

  • Euphoria — a feeling of extreme happiness
  • Mayhem — a situation that is extremely frightening or exciting
  • Remote — physically or emotionally distant
  • Bittersweet — emotions or feelings that are both sad and happy

I love these words. They connect in some beautiful ways — in my life, in my teaching and in our read aloud, Wonder by R.J. Palicios.

I am at the place in my life where my children are growing up and going.  It has been an honor to be a part of their lives, They have formed me as much as I have formed them. Moments of euphoria, coupled with extended periods of mayhem (the frightening and the exciting kind) have filled the past 20 plus years.  I suppose that’s part of why we take on the most debilitating, frustrating, irritating and sometimes thankless job of parenting. You can never do it “right” you always feel you could have done it better.  And then when they reach that place where they are so remote (both physically and emotionally) your heart is filled with bittersweet emotions and memories.

Hmmm… Sounds a lot like teaching.

I am at the place in my teaching year where we know each other.  The euphoria of our beginning is lessening. The reality of who we are — our weaknesses and strengths — is evident. I’m getting that I’m not doing enough, could have done it better feeling.

Yesterday, I was down. Part of it was the down you get after coming off a euphoric high. Thursday I had spent the day with Lucy Calkins (oh, yeah hundreds of other educators were there too). I was completely swept away by her commitment to and investment in teachers, students, and teaching. Leaving the hotel, I felt like I could climb every mountain, ford every stream. Walking into my classroom, the vision wasn’t quite as clear.

Leaving your classroom in the hands of an unknown substitute is unsettling at best. I only do it for emergencies and really good professional development.  I asked my students, “How’d it go?” Their response: She talked too much — She wouldn’t let us do anything –We didn’t get to read or write — We didn’t have Read Aloud. We continued our day, but I was still in a funk. Irritation came easily. As I left for home, I was disappointed in myself, I wasn’t the teacher I wanted to be. I didn’t come to class with my game on.

Come Saturday, after a cup of coffee and a few blog posts (thank you Katherine Socklowski and Ruth Ayers), I replay the day, and it hits me. I have something big to celebrate. My students 1) wanted to read and write, 2) felt cheated when they didn’t get the time to do it, and 3) expected it. Oh my gosh! They are doing it. They believe reading and writing is something they are entitled to. YESSSS! There is that moment of euphoria, and here a first link-up to CELEBRATE!

Honoring and Learning from the Quiet Students in Our Classroom

Yesterday I had the opportunity to learn with other teachers.   This is what I noticed: I’m the kind of learner who needs quiet and time to process well.

I’ve always fought against defining myself as an introvert, I’ve tried to be social and connected and I do like interacting with people. But in my heart of hearts I need quiet. When it is quiet I can focus and recharge, figure things out and make my next move. After many years of pushing myself to be social and berating myself when I’m anti-social,  I’m ok with preferring quiet. In fact I have given myself the gift of quiet on Saturday morning. That is why I was a bit irritated to be thrust into a conference with hundreds of voices. I got over it once I sat in on Jennifer Serravallo’s session on conferring with readers. Loved her thinking and strategies. The trouble I had was when I had to turn and talk.  I was note taking, thinking about what her lessons and ideas meant for me and then I had to give my thoughts to another person. My student self wasn’t ready to go there, I needed some time to process. So I apologize to my neighbor, I wasn’t the best partner, I was still processing.

This makes me think of my students, who they are and how I teach. What about those students who like me need to take time to process or need quiet, not the noise of talk to sort things out?  I believe that talk can be powerful and is often the precursor or jumpstart for students to think and write, but what about those quiet folks who aren’t ready to talk? How do I balance for this?

The book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain really has given me personal validation, but more importantly made me look at my students through this lens. You may not think you have them in your classroom, but per Cain, “Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts–in other words, one out of every two or three people you know.” Now think about your classroom, one third to one half are introverts. Shocked?

A few more gems from Cain’s book:

“.. introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation they need to function well.”

“Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at at time and can have mighty powers of concentration.”

“they listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing that in conversation.”

Do you see these traits in any of your students?

Looking over my class lists, 7 pop out as fits in one class and 8 in the other. And I may be missing some other people.

Based on Cain’s twenty questions to measure introversion, here are ten modified “kid” friendly questions:

1. I like to play with one person at a time.

2. In class, I would rather write my answer than talk about it.

3. I like being alone.

4. I’m a good listener.

5. I don’t like talking or showing my work until it’s finished.

6. I avoid conflict.

7. I do my best work alone.

8. I usually think before I speak.

9. I like weekends just relaxing, with nothing planned.

10. I can focus easily.

The more true answers the more introverted. You know the answers for some of your students, but I bet there are some hidden introverts or “ambiverts” a mixture of both, that are lurking in your midst.

Educators and industry honor the extrovert. They win student body president elections, they are leaders in group projects, they thrive in the talking environment we have created in our classrooms.

So how do we honor those quiet folk? There is  huge value in the quiet thoughtful work of the introvert. Their personalities are comfortable in the world of focused deliberate work. Sounds like traits our more extroverted souls could benefit from.

Some other interesting ideas that should inform our teaching:

Extroverts are more goal oriented, introverts spend a lot of their thinking on how the process is going.  Extroverts tend to charge ahead in tasks while the introvert is thinking about on their results.  Extroverts react,  introverts reflect. Think of your teaching style, your opportunities for independent work,  and ask which type of learner does it allow for?

Here are my next steps to support both introvert and extrovert types of learners:

1. Study my students  through the lens of quiet: survey, observation.

2. Discuss the qualities and powers of introversion and extroversion.

3. Teach students who tend toward extroversion the power of quiet with specific strategies to develop reflection and monitoring of how their thinking is going.

4. Teach talking strategies that build to deeper thinking.

5. Give thinking questions up front and allow for processing time in lessons.

6. Analyze lessons and the course of our day through the lens of quiet, thinking time vs. collaborative working time.

7. Build in time and space for quiet work.

Enjoy this video from the Bedley Brothers interview with author Cain and her take on education and the power of our quiet learners.