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.

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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.

#SOL15: Day 31, Community is a Non-Negotiable

I sit at gate 38 waiting for my flight back to Los Angeles.

Coming here, I felt guilty.

In my mind, I tried to justify it by adding up the learning I’d attain and see if it balanced out with the money I’d spend.

I knew my desire to go was as much about being with the educators sitting beside me as learning from the educators who stood in front of me.

And I did gain knowledge, tangible strategies I can use tomorrow with students. But, I got something else which has changed my construct as to what professional development is.

The presenters were the focal point and clearly inspirational. They were the reason we came. 

But — 

This weekend I realized the importance of community. A community that is passionate and committed, that rallies around core beliefs, that shares struggles and a strong faith in humanity may matter more than any presenter’s research, idea, strategy, or book.

While  professional development with specific learning goals in mind is clearly necessary, our learning opportunities must include the development of and participation in a community of shared purpose and belief.

No matter what the standards, no matter the mandates, no matter the strategies and practices your school has in place, no matter the technology, no matter the environment, no matter the financial support. What matters most are the core beliefs built and sustained within a community of learners. Without this, nothing else matters.

There was something very powerful about meeting in Riverside Church. We came to listen and commune in our shared beliefs in literacy and humanity. We came because we believe that literacy is a necessity for our continued existence. That literacy is non-negotiable. And that no matter what, what we do is essential.

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This is why I came to Riverside Church to be with my community that sustains me in a job that is difficult and often defeating but essential.

Without the TCRWP community, the community of bloggers and tweeters, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, ready to go back to a classroom of learners with a renewed sense of purpose. Profession development needs to be seen as more than just learning how to do something. It also has to be about becoming a part of something.

Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey, and Tara for building and sustaining the powerful blogging community of Two Writing Teachers. Read more slices here.

Writing Lessons: Kelly Gallagher

Writing is hard. My students struggle with it. I struggle with it. This year I’ve been looking to help students find moments of writing that edge into places that matter to them.  Taking a page from what I know about fostering reading love, I gave them dedicated time and choice for writing. For some it has worked. But many need more to create a better writing life.

Saturday, Kelly Gallagher helped me (along with a multipurpose room full of like-minded educators) reach toward that goal. I took pages of notes. We wrote and wrote. Getting professional development like this is tangible and inspirational. What a gift! Kudos to my district’s leaders for providing this opportunity.

If you are looking for a new PD read or two, consider giving yourself these books. Much of the work we did yesterday is highlighted in Write Like This.  In the Best Interest of Students is out in a few days.


Here are a few morsels Kelly shared that I plan to use in my classroom and in my writing life.

Articulate the why.

  • Writing is hard, but writing is necessary.
  • Writing helps you sort things out.
  • Writing helps fight oppression. It’s a gatekeeping skill.
  • Words are weapons and tools.
  • Writing helps you persuade others.
  • Writing is generative.
  • Writing makes you smarter.

With this in mind remember writing, like any skill, is an act that must be practiced. As teachers we are their coaches and we need to coach throughout their game: from the sidelines, during time outs and half time.  Students need a sense of what they should be doing, adjusting their moves along the way. This drives growth.

Think about how your writing time goes and apply Dick Allington’s philosophy about reading to it — it’s less about ability and more about opportunity.

  • Allow for low stakes writing.
  • Allow for lots of writing.
  • Allow time for writing.

Model, model, model. And do it in front of your students. Real time.

Kelly Gallagher is the master of modeling. Yesterday, he took us through three models with mentor texts . All of this work is generative and focused on the craft of writing.

The first level we looked at was the most structured. The idea was to write as close as possible to a mentor text. Changing the topic yet using the model to guide each step in the process.  Rick Reilly’s  “Congrats Newly Minted Rookie” piece provided a model for us to try our own “Congrats Newly Minted…” piece. Think congrats new minted mom, kinder parent, middle school teacher. Now, imagine using an age appropriate text for your students. Or, doing this with your favorite piece of writing. For some writers this is highly supportive model and for other writers it might be highly restrictive. Either way it develops writers..

The next level was modeling  off the structure of a text. The simple approach we looked at was from Gretchen Bernabai’s book Reviving the Essay. The example we worked with was writing sentences with the stems:  what I used to think,  then this happened, and so now I think. The seeds from this type of beginnings could create a much wider range of writing possibilities.

The final and most unstructured way to use a mentor text as a model was to find “hot spots” or words/phrases that spoke to you in a piece of writing. At this level, a seed for your writing notebook could be launched from a key quote, phrase or word. We listened to and read Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock to try out this strategy.

Imagine trying each of these methods with your students over the course of a week. Invite them to choose one to revise and revise in front of them, showing the struggle and the thinking needed to revise.

A word on revision: RADAR. Replace, Add, Delete, and Reorder. Model that. Track your process. How often do you replace, add, delete and reorder your work? Highlight each move. Imagine growing your writers along that continuum.

And speaking of continuums — What about grading? Assessments? Don’t confuse them.

Kelly considers himself a teacher of literacy, not literature. With the goal of everyone improving, everyone moves.

He’s a mentor to emulate.







Celebrate This Week: Beginnings, Volumes and a Milestone

It is Saturday and time to celebrate with Ruth Ayers.  Join us, no invitation needed, every Saturday. Find the link up and other Celebration posts here. This week I celebrate the beginnings of writing, tons of reading and a birthday.

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1. I met up with my two new writing partners, Cathy Skubik and Christine Leishman on Google Hangouts! First off, yay us for making technology work. Secondly yay us for for jumping into this place of uncertainty that is writing. And finally yay Two Writing Teachers for making this possible. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

2. I retired my old Mac laptop. It has served me well, never a problem, just an upgrade here or there. But after a week of lugging it around NYC, I decided it was time. Sorry old friend. Now I sit in front of my shiny new MacBook Air — oh so pretty, light and fast. While I celebrate this lovely new thing, I appreciate the many years of service of the old.

3a. I am loving kid lit. First off,  Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff captured me immediately with the main character Albie. He is a heart breaker and all of you lovely teachers out there will immediately think of your own Albies. It has earned a place alongside Wonder and Each Kindness in my Read Aloud line up for next year. A great book to teach kids about what really matters. Thank you Tara for your great review of this book. It made me pick it up!


3b. I am in the midst of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana. OH.MY.GOSH. Talk about being swept away. You will just love Armani. This girl stands up for what is right, but has the good sense to keep her mouth shut when she knows it’s not gonna help. That’s what helps her survive as you hold your breath for disaster that you know is coming: Hurricane Katrina. It’s a page turner and a tear jerker. I’m thinking this is historical fiction for ten year olds. What do you think? Thank you Erin, I picked this book up because of you.


4. I read Teaching Interpretation Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning in two days. This book by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen addresses a difficult thing to teach in an easy to read fashion. The simplicity in presentation is just one part of the brilliance you will find in this text. They have taken a complex thing, interpretation, and broken it down. Sonja and Dana have thoughtfully analyzed the process of how to come up with ideas about text and then test student thinking with evidence. Symbolism and theme, two sticky areas for those literal types in our classrooms, are beautifully addressed. With their teaching in my head, symbols pop up all over the place as I inhale books. Thank you Sonja and Dana. Your book has made me a better reader and will make me a better teacher next year!


5.  And finally  I’m celebrating a milestone of sorts: my middle child’s birthday, 20 years old today. Only one teenager left!