Celebrating the Cotsen Foundation and the Gift of Teaching Teachers

Yesterday, 500 educators had the opportunity to learn. I was fortunate enough to be one of them as a guest of the Costen Foundation for the Art of Teaching.

Since 2001, the Costen Foundation has provided professional development for teachers. My students and I are indebted to organizations such as Cotsen, who develop teacher-learners.

This post is a reflection on yesterday. I hope some of it inspires you as it did me.

Lovely is an idea that is Katherine Bomer. She embodies a passion for learning and pushes our understanding of teaching. Years ago, she taught me to value my students’ writing by looking for the gems, not the errors. That changed me as a teacher.

Yesterday she did it again with the idea of an essay. Not the five paragraph kind so many teachers ask their students to do.

A “true” essay, as Bomer calls it, is a journey. One that makes connections, and in the end comes to a place that isn’t just a thesis stateimgresment with three supports, but a view of our thinking around and about an idea. It’s filtering thinking through the writing process.

Rather than the hamburger formula of essay think of it as a collage, a road, a mosaimages-11ic of thinking.

It’s writing to think.

It’s an exploration. More like jazz. A mashup, unified around a central idea. It’s narration of thinking.

It entertains and engages. Stand images-10up comics are some of our best essayists.

It can take you down a road to discovery.

It poses the question, “What do I know?”

Consider fueling student thinking with open-ended prompts that push our thinking such as maybe… perhaps…I wonder…it seems…

Can you imagine your students going there? I certainly want mine to.

Christopher Lehman was next on my schedule.

Think of the notes your students take. If your students use notes as a means to copy the text word for word, these strategies can move them towards thinking and learning.

As I write this post, I looIMG_2679 (1)k back at my notes. I re-read and consider my thinking.  I start to own it. I notice patterns and collect ideas. I notice how it connects. By doing this, I add my voice to the notes. That’s what we want our students to do. We want them not just to take notes but to use them.

The strategy of read, think, cover, and note can capture student thinking about the text rather than copying of the text. Going back and re-reading allows readers to search for vocabulary that an expert might use or to look for concepts or information missed in the first read.

IMG_2680 (1)

If your students have some knowledge of note taking, review those tools.

  • Ask, how and why you might use one
  • Ask, which one of these tools might fit a text
  • Let the text guide you notetaking

Encourage the use of notes by having students do something with them. Add color. Sort their notes. Re-read and add in what the notes make them think. Note taking should become a student tool for thinking. Not a recording of what was read.

The last session of the day was building vocabulary with Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.  I have a love/hate relationship with vocab. Love the power of it but hate the fact that I can’t do enough for my students.

Kylene and Bob took the stage and engaged us. Exactly what we need to do to raise the “rigor” of our instruction.

First we took the time to play with words. With a bit of nonsensical text in front of us, we were asked, which three words could help us make meaning. It wasn’t the level of the text we viewed; it was our engagement around it. Here’s an excerpt:

The blonke was mailly, like all the others. Unlike the other blonkes, however, it has spiss crinet completely covering its fairney cloots and concealing, just below on of them, a small wam…. It was probably his bellytimber that had made the bloke so drumly.

The three types of words we chose mattered. We didn’t need to know every word but, we needed a few key ones to make meaning.

  • Context:  — blonke (horse)
  • Cause-effect — bellytimber (ill)
  • Tension creating — drumly (food)

Consider building vocabulary around words that give context, are related to cause/effect, or create tension in the text.

Consider building vocabulary around multiple meaning words rather than the bolded words many textbooks highlight. “The tsunami was triggered…” Students know about the trigger on a gun. But how does that relate to a tsunami?

Consider building vocabulary around words that students might have some understanding of, but don’t make sense in context. “He was appointed to lead the committee.” Students know they make an appointment with their dentist. But how does this connect to this text?

We can’t teach students every vocabulary word they need to know, but we can teach the kind of words they need to know to understand a text. Think notice and note for vocabulary. That’s vocabulary work that sticks and grows with the reader.

This session ended after 3 pm. Several of us sat after most had left, sharing our thinking. We were engaged and energized. We were lucky to be there.

Thank you, Cotsen for believing in teachers. For developing teachers as professionals. That’s the best thing you can do for our students.

Slice of Life: Thank You Mr. Flagler

It’s Tuesday and time for Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Thanks to Dana, Tara, Stacey, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for the wonderful place to meet up. Read more slices and link up with your own here.


A few weekends ago Chris Lehman’s EdCollab Gathering presented an online workshop. How lucky we are to have such access to so many powerful ideas and educators. I watched Sara Ahmed’s session on capturing Middle School hearts and minds. She spent 45 minutes highlighting some wonderful ideas she uses in her San Diego classroom that makes me want to preorder her new book, co-authored with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

In her session, Sara showed how she and her students create a sort of identity chart or “Me” map. I’ve done things like this before, but I wanted to see if it would help me, and maybe my kiddos, find some inspiration for slicing. Sometimes you just need a new tool!

2014-09-29 18.49.02

I let my map sit for a while.

Then up popped that midnight wakeup call.

It was Wednesday, actually Thursday morning, and my daughter woke me up in a panic.

“Mom, I have to write a five-paragraph essay on Emerson and transcendentalism.”

I kid you not.

Ok, how hard can this be. I weave into her room heart pounding from the adrenaline surge still coursing through me. I pull out the text book. Oh my. An excerpt from Emerson’s Nature is three pages amidst this massive 600 page, 10 pound text that covers all of American Literature in tiny pieces.

My reaction: Can we Google it? Seriously isn’t that what any resourceful person does?

Googling was forbidden.

Ok. I try to read the text and make sense of the rubric. It was way above my reading level, at least at 1 am.

I don’t think I could pass 11th grade AP English.

Certain that all her hopes and dreams were destroyed, she dissolved into tears, cursed my ineptitude and wished her brother was home to help.

I went to bed.

The next evening, she presented me with a well-written piece. But how?

“I just talked to my friends. Each told me their interpretation of the text. I thought the text through with that in mind  and wrote it.”

Brilliant. She has her own PLN.  This girl will survive.

The happy ending was filed away.

Meanwhile, my reader self and my teacher self all coalesced with Sunday’s #titletalk chat on reading levels; triggering some older memories.

When I was 10 years old, I wasn’t much of a reader and not much of a test taker. By today’s standards, I would not have met Common Core expectations.  If I was a young person today, my very literate, educated parents would have worried about low scores (because I probably would have had them), blamed it on the media or maybe the teacher.  I wouldn’t have measured up.  Had I been given my daughter’s English assignment at 16, I mostly likely would have failed and had another reason not to like reading.

Fortunately I didn’t have that text as an 11th grader. I had a teacher who read short story with us: complete, unabridged stories by Hemingway. We read and discussed as a class. We wrote. We were taught as long as we had support for our theories in the text, our point of view would be considered. It was a community of readers, talkers, and thinkers. It was fun. This class made me want to pursue literature classes in college.  Mr. Flagler changed my reading path.

As parent conferences and the grading period approaches, I will tell my students and their parents the story of my 10-year old self. That we measure student’s reading level only as a tool to understand how to help them become better reader; not to measure their worth or their future success. That we spend our year focused on growing their love of reading while working on their reading skills, so they want to do and can do more of it as they go through their school years and beyond.

I am grateful for my 11th grade literature teacher and will keep him and my experience close as I confer with my students. Thank you so much Mr. Flagler. For allowing me to fall in love reading and the possibility it holds out for all of us. I hope I can measure up.

Poetry Friday: Just Watch Teacher Poets

poetry friday logoLast week I was honored with comments on my first Poetry Friday post. So of course I had to come back. Thank you, thank you!  A whole new world has opened up for me. And thank you  Katya Czaja. at Write. Sketch. Repeat. for hosting this week’s posts.

I have been participating on the periphery of Chris Lehman’s Teacher Poets workshop. His lessons, the poets, the poems, and the workshopping has been wonderful. This week’s “assignment” can be found here. Hop over and check it out.teacher-poets-1

The  lesson is “Concrete the Concept” which works for what I’ve been mucking around with. It’s something that (Chris’ prompt) “I have been thinking a lot about…”.

I”m sitting on the other side of my children’s childhood. A place that I have been struggling to figure out, and probably will continue to as it keeps changing.


Just Watch

When will I get it right?
Every child, starts out so frightening, exciting, overwhelming
and then momentarily I think, yes…
Sounds fill the kitchen, the house, and I orchestrate the action, all is in my control
until it’s not.
And the Gods laugh at my audacity, “You think you got this?” Just watch.

I’m left wondering, what’s next?
I sit up close, a front row seat involved in the goings on, then
my presence is unwanted,
so I stand back and just watch.

Shifts from may I, to notification
I hold in judgement, hoping for a subtle impact
feeling divorced from the proceedings
choices are no longer mine to make. Just watch.

They’re out the door, a photo flash resides in their place.
Vulnerable, smiling in those hallway pictures,
no history of a toy strewn living room
of willful moments of two-year old selves.

All of a sudden
the phone call with success
the “what do you think?”
the “I just wanted to tell you”
Still vulnerable  packed in their near-grown up selves.
And I’m left wondering, what’s next?
Just watch.





Teacher Poets: Finding a Sliver

teacher-poets-1Last Saturday I watched the Teacher Poet Google hangout with Chris Lehman and some brave teacher poets. I sat and watched hours after the initial broadcast, and did the lesson. I watched. Stopped the video. Listened again.What a great way to learn.  Check out last week’s work  and this week’s assignment here and join Chris this Saturday for a great workshop experience.

Writing and the workshop is helping me define what poetry is for m now. It is something that pulls at my heart; it crystalizes the essence; it highlights  what’s necessary and worth holding on to.

I tried out Week #1’s  strategy of finding a sliver in a big important topic. A really terrific strategy for any kind of writing. This is a draft and I’m not sure of the title.



The door opens and cool air, the cat, and noise rush in.

Sounds move past and fill the kitchen.

Bursting, until it leaves quiet.

I heard a whisper of warning just before the shift

towards choices,that are no longer mine to make.

It moved past me with just a whisper warning:

it’s no longer my decision where and how to place the pieces.

The furniture shifted leaving empty spaces uncovering indentations of what was there.

Children no longer, they’re out the door, a photo flash resides in their place.


Thank you fellow poet bloggers who are reaching  for more in their lives and in their teaching. It’s nice to journey together. Check Leigh AnneMichelleMargaret, Kevin,  Mary Lee, and Cathy’s blogs for more poetry inspiration.


Fact that Feels Like Fiction: Personal Narrative Journey

Writing, the process, purpose and place in my classroom, has dominated my thinking the past few weeks. My fifth grade students did not want to write. I knew  (hoped) they knew what to do from previous years of teaching, but they didn’t want to, and that broke my heart. So many balked at the idea of the telling a true story.  I needed to change up my approach.  They needed to see this kind of writing as something they could do and dare I say, have fun doing.

FINDING THE FUN FACTOR: Last Tuesday, I pledged to my students/challenged myself to tell a true story a day for the month of September.  I’ve done this in part to show that story exists all around us, but most of all to see it as a fun thing to do. While it is early in the month, I already feel this challenge is pushing me to think and pay close attention to my surroundings. Feels like Common Core work, a la Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts new book, Falling in Love With Close Reading, Lessons for Analyzing Texts and Life.

The first three stories I told were about my cat, raccoons getting into my house and a fear-factor diving board experience from my deep dark past. Now my storytelling starts out our Writing Workshop much as  read aloud starts our Reading Workshop. And just like read aloud, they love it. It’s fun. It’s story. In fact a student asked if she could be the storyteller on Monday. Yes, yes, and yes!

FINDING SUCCESS: Now it was their turn to story tell in the air and on the page. I wanted them to be successful, but not with morphed  cat/raccoon/diving board stories.  So I launched them into a lesson where I gave them five plot points with an “every kid” story line that could be developed in many ways. The plot points stayed the same but it was their job to story tell “their” details,  in between the plot points. They told and listened to stories with two different partners and then they wrote. We did this with two story lines over two days. By the end of the second round, their pens were flying across the page. Paragraph after paragraph. It was one of those amazing teacher moments.  Students actually groaned nooo when I asked them to stop after 35 minutes of writing. This was a class that two weeks earlier were groaning, “do we have to write?”

I spoke to one student after, and asked her what made the difference for her with this strategy. She said, “It was easy because I was making it up. When I tell about what happens to me it just happens that’s all.”  Interestingly all of the things she wrote to develop the plot points were really about her, her personal experience, it just felt like fiction, or maybe storytelling felt like fiction.


MAKING IT OUR OWN: In the next lesson I wanted students to create their own plot points as well as story. I was worried. Would I hear the moan, I don’t know what to write or does it have to be true, or would they lapse back into their bed-to-bed theme park stories.

POWER OF POST ITS AND PARTNERS: This time I set them up with little post its for their notebook’s story arc (bright small post its always increase the fun factor). First they were invited to choose a partner to work out the post it points with.  This partnership was followed up with a second partnership of their choice.  After about 10 minutes of talk, students moved to their desks, notebooks open, post its displayed, pens poised. I pretty much held my breath. Could they do it?  A handful needed support, but the majority had worked through much of their thinking with another student.

IMG_1022 IMG_1024

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING AND OURSELVES AS WRITERS: The most powerful part of the day was the share at the end.  Students named what they learned:

1) Talking about my story helps

2) Having a structure helps

3) Planning helps

4) Knowing a lot about the story helps

5) Using elaboration tools really helps me write more

Out of the the mouths of babes!