DigiLit Sunday: Gratitude

I just got a text from a friend that Kathleen Tolan, one of the brilliant stars at TCRWP, had died. Kathleen was one of those educators who left and indelible mark. You knew she was with you every step of the way. She was a gift to children and teachers of literacy; she was someone to admire and emulate.

I have had the privilege to learn from the best. Along with the learning, these passionate people have cultivated my deep and abiding belief in the power of literacy. For this, I am grateful.

Teaching reading and writing is difficult. Many days are fraught with trials and trouble. Because of dear colleagues who share their practice and support, I am sustained. My writing friends, teacher friends, thank you, I am grateful.

Because of inspirational educators like Kathleen, I know there is a way. It’s just a matter of persistence. To those, like Kathleen, who light my teaching path, and to those colleagues who walk alongside me every day, thank you.

Read other gratitude posts on Margaret Simon’s Sunday link up at
Reflections on the Teche.




Slice of Life: Poetry Teaching Points

It’s April, and I’m writing a poem a day.  Poems are hiding in my writing notebook. Tucked away. For me. It’s about volume. Not perfection.

Like me, the classroom writing turns towards poetry. The openness of poetry allows for lots of possible. And with that kids can feel uncertain. It’s scary. Not always pretty. Shaky ground.

I know what I want. I want to them to find meaning and soak up poems.  To wordplay. To make color happen on the page and find white space. To not be afraid.

To do that, I start with a plan that grew out of TCRWP’s poetry unit of study and a bit of Ralph Fletcher. It will be an adventure!

Poetry Teaching Points
Poets notice
Poets walk, look, and realize.

Poets collect
that hide in notebooks
turn jots into drafts
Poets circle, a line, a paragraph, and mold it.

Poets reflect
I’m writing about this because . . .  
This is important because . . .
I used to think . . .
But I learned . . .
So now I think . . .
I want my reader to feel or think . . .
One thing that may be missing here is . . . .

Poets find
an image
the setting
an object.
Poets choose words, a surprising detail
add emotion, create mood and evoke a reaction.

Poets say
Poets close their eyes and picture.


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Love to all that slice and those who venture into poetry. Read more slice here.




Celebrate: Engagement in Literacy

This week, I had the honor of spending four days in a room full of teachers learning with Cornelius Minor. Cornelius for 45 minutes is astounding, life-changing learning. Four days you can’t imagine. I suspect I’ll be mulling over my notes the whole school year. Today I want to celebrate and reflect on five pieces of learning.

First Lesson:

A lot of what makes a writer is what’s in the heart. Start where the heart is.  Consider the highs and lows in the writing life. Sketch the emotional EKG. The highs come from personal choice, feedback from someone you respect, and public acknowledgement. The lows come when personhood is denied, from personal tragedy, collective tragedy; when attention is only for grading.

As I look back on my school life, one class stands out.  In that class I wrote.  I spoke, I acted out dramatic scenes. I discovered I liked reading.  In that class, my ideas were heard and considered valuable. The writing we did was our choice and shared among our peers. That high school short story class gave me confidence, and the knowledge that reading and writing could be good. It was possible. Sadly, that was the first and last class. But the good news is that it took. Because of that class, I began a journey towards writing and reading. How does this inform my teaching decisions? If an environment exists that allows for confidence and engagement, the work will become a part of that student. The belief will live in them and fuel them as their abilities increase and through times when they hit bumps in their reading and writing lives.

Mastery is not the outcome engagement is.

Second Lesson:

Commit to the writing process in that it is a process. A lot of what we create is left on the cutting room floor. Create more cognition by repurposing what kids have to say. Create room for critical thinking – A place where kids are doing work around ideas before they write. Lead kids to be entrepreneurial in the work.

Classroom writing instruction should actively create spaces that produce thinking. How might that look? Gathering ideas for writing should include experiences of “text” that exists throughout our lives. The intent of this work is to relive or live experiences that conjure emotions. The sharing of story, read aloud,  pictures,  videos, music can create opportunities to talk, think and write a little about feelings and ideas.  Next, stretch students’ muscles by considering text with a shifted lens or filter it through another text. Allow students to practice the possibility that more than one idea can live in a text or can grow with exposure to another text. The idea is to get an idea. Not a “what happened” but a reaction to what happened. Stories and ideas live in emotions. Thinking can start by finding what we feel and then asking what does that make us think. Experiencing this process is empowering.

The writing workshop should trigger emotion.

Third Lesson:

Set high expectations. What you write today is the best thing that you have written in this class. If the draft is the best thing you’ve written to date, you are lifting the level in the end.

Too often students spend their time in their past learning. It’s a comfortable place to be. Working up to what students can do is a waste of their time and stops them from moving to what they need to do. How does this inform my instruction? The realization that every time you produce a draft it had better be the best thing you have ever produced is a cultural shift. Students’ energy builds in a unit and by the end, they produce a piece that shows growth. But strangely as we start the next unit, the draft is a notch lower than where they left off. That has been an expectation. And students have met it. And it needs to change.

“Students look at what you have just written, is it as good or better than your last piece? It needs to be. That’s the expectation.”

Fourth Lesson:

Conferences can be the most powerful tool in your teacher arsenal. A conference is your shot at being your kid’s favorite teacher. Sometimes even when I don’t have anything to teach I still use it.

Connecting to students is the most important part of the work. The challenge is to create the systems and maintain the energy around this with fidelity.  Data should direct effort. How might this look? Utilize technology to record conferences. Involve students in the record keeping, “would you take a picture of your work we’re talking about.” This will help me and get students to take a collaborative stance in our conferences. Create simple, written systems to make sure all students are covered. Reflect on data (checklists, conferences) with students throughout units. Create “go to” conferences that can be customized.

  • Writers develop stories around an object. You could do this by choosing an object, telling your story and right before the end, reflect. . . if it weren’t for this object . . .
  • Writers consider structure, one way to change up a story is to start with the outcome
  • Writers revisit a story by asking what other issues could be in this story. Could this story also be about . . .

Fifth Lesson:

This is not THE way it is A way to meet student needs.

Students are at the center. Their needs drive the work, and we adjust accordingly.  The goal is to build student confidence around cognition and literacy. Mastery is not the outcome. Lifelong engagement in literacy is. celebrate link up

Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for a place to share our weekly celebrations at Discover Play Build.

Virtual Book Club: A Handful of Stars

This post is an invitation to join a virtual book club reading of A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord.

virtual book club Consider this: Is writing about reading worth doing? Think about what your students do when they write about reading. If it is low level, how is it worthwhile?

Teachers ask students to write about reading their reading with good intentions. Reading is an invisible activity, so if students write their thoughts, we will see their work and be able to help them.  A secondary reason to write about reading is because it gets readers to deeper understanding. We know writing about reading can help us engage with a text. And, the process of writing about something increases understanding of a text as if it was read it six times.

From a student’s perspective, writing about reading is what teachers do to make sure you are really reading. Most students who love to read hate to write about it. Those that do, do it out of obligation or fear. Not for the love of it. They don’t see the point. They don’t value it.

Considering these two perspectives, how might we teachers move our students toward our beliefs and away from what they see as a painful must-do task?  How might we demonstrate that if they write, they might get more out their reading through the process of writing?

Some other questions to ponder:

What does it mean to write well about reading?

What type of writing will bring out higher levels of thinking?

When/how much? Should we stop and write long post its or should we jot quickly as we read across a book and then take one to two post-its and think about them in a more in-depth way.

What’s worth writing about?

How does the author show us that something matters?

If you’re interested in exploring these questions, click here and join in as we read and write about reading A Handful of Stars.

Celebrating: My Digital Life

It’s time to Celebrate this Week with Ruth Ayers! As always, thank you, Ruth. Your link up has led me to so much learning and joy. And thank you to all you add to this weekly celebration. Click here to read others and add your own voice.

celebrate link up


This week’s post is all about my digital life, so it serves as a #digilit post as well! Thank you, Margaret Simon for sending out this weekly call. Find others here.


This week I’ve been organizing. It’s what we teachers do when the summer starts. We sort through all “the stuff” that’s been shoved aside for later.

In the past, that organization was papers, files, books. It’s still papers, files, and books, but now there is more,  and it’s quiet. It doesn’t take up that much space. No one would notice it if they walked into your home. It’s shoved away in a silent, sleek, silver exterior. It’s my laptop. A digital nightmare. That mailbox, those files scattered all over the desktop, those pictures! ACK!!

First my email. I deleted, filed and unsubscribed to emails.

Then, I noticed my photos were everywhere: on my desktop, in the cloud, scattered in various files on my computer. I went down that rabbit hole of click file, delete.  All the while, I obsessively check my email to delete and unsubscribe. By the end of Tuesday, I could claim a managed email inbox and a tidy desktop. Fireworks!! Yeah! Celebrate!

In the process, I found an email from CLMOOC. I had seen Margaret Simon’s work on this here. (To be honest, this was one of the motivating factors behind my digital cleanup. I couldn’t find the email I knew I should have received!)

The call was to “remediate” a story, artifact, picture, blog post, whatever. The word remediate in this project did not mean to “remedy” or fix a problem, as it does in the world of education. This “Make Cycle” task was to take something, an artifact, picture, story, quote, anything and see it through another medium or lens. In this process, the “message” of the media would change. Our mission what to translate, and notice

the… ways in which moving from one medium to another changes what we are able to communicate and how we are able to do so.

I thought of all the pictures I’d sorted. Perhaps I could find a tool that could “remediate” a series of pictures. I’ve used Canva, PicMonkey, and Waterlogue. Each of these digital tools had strengths. I had a little extra time, perhaps I could find another tool.

After a few Google searches and experimentations,  I found befunky. This site allows for photo collages and text like PicMonkey and Canva as well as photo manipulation like Waterlogue.  And it’s free.

BeFunky Collage2


Celebration number two: befunky!

But wait, I have two more things to celebrate with you. Both digital.

Fran McVeigh. Last week TCRWP had their Summer Reading Institute. I was home but enjoyed tweets and Fran McVeigh’s blog posts, every day. This week I celebrate the contribution Fran makes to our learning community. Click here to enjoy.

A Handful of Stars Virtual Book Club. I mentioned this last week. We “officially” start Monday, so tomorrow I’ll share some thoughts on this blog as to how and where to share. Check the link above if you want to join in.

Happy Celebration Saturday!



Celebrate: Learning with TCRWP

It’s time to celebrate this week with others on Ruth Ayers’ weekly link up. Find other celebration posts here.

celebrate link up

Today I celebrate this week at TCRWP’s Summer Writing Institute.

Prepare to be jealous.

In addition to keynotes from Carl Anderson, Lucy Calkins, Mary Erhenworth, Naomi Shihab Nye and Sarah Weeks, I attended daily break out sessions on Writing about Reading with Ali Marron and Using Children’s Literature as Mentor Text with Shana Frazin.imgres

The learning was monumental. Ideas intermingled and cross-pollinated. This was not simply a Writing Institute; it was a Literacy Institute.

First: It is a beautiful thing to help students find their voice when writing about reading.  Too often this work translates into an accountability tool, destroying the good intentions of teachers and potential book love. By offering students some latitude and ownership in their writing about reading process, we send the message of agency and trust.

Second: As with any learning, models matter.  Offering freedom to develop a personal style, we all benefit from seeing many models teacher’s and students’. Imagine your first week of school creating a gallery of possible ways to write about reading.

Third: Audience matters. When we have an audience, our engagement goes sky hight. Everyone wants to come to the party with something valuable to share. The work is purposeful just because someone else is depending on you.

Fourth: Tools, strategies and scaffolds are necessary but, scaffolds should be training wheels. When we introduce a scaffold, the plan to take it away should be an integral part of the plan.

Fifth: Examining children’s literature as a mentor text build reading and writing muscles!  We looked at several texts from a structural point of view. This work is thought-provoking as a reader and a writer. Look at the many possible ways teachers mapped out the structure of Eve Bunting’s Yard Sale.



IMG_2355After that work, we added a layer of thought: How the theme was revealed through the lens of structure. The first example might be an upper elementary analysis followed by a middle school interpretation.



This brilliant work speaks to working collaboratively and thinking deeply about a text.

Imagine how this could be used as a way to inspire narrative writing structures or as a way to analyze Bunting’s use of theme in a literary essay.

To paraphrase Shana, I was so happy these beautiful teachers came to school this week.

Slice of Life: Adventures in Writing About Reading with Ali Marron

Lucky me I get to write, yet what I’m writing about isn’t easy. I chose to put myself in a place I struggle to make sense of, a place I am less than successful, a place I avoid.

I signed up for Writing About Reading at TCRWP’s Summer Writing Institute. Lucky me, I get to read and learn with Ali Marron and a room full of passionate teachers of reading and writing.

I signed up for this because I know that writing leads to greater understanding. I signed up for this because writing about reading is difficult for me be disciplined about doing, and it’s difficult for students to see the purpose or pay out. If they enjoy reading, they don’t want to stop reading to write. And, if they have to jot to hold on to meaning, it’s arduous.

I’ve worked hard on selling the merits of writing about reading, yet it hasn’t caught on.  Most of my students do it, but not with great excitement or with great outcomes. And, it’s not surprising. Maybe because I’m not a very skilled practitioner.

Ali shared some key points about the work.

First:  Writing about reading should engage us in the text.

Second: Part of becoming a stronger reader is putting yourself in a place of discomfort. Reading is invisible. So to help students, teachers need to see the kind of thinking being done. .

Third: It should facilitate synthesis. Ideas need to be tracked. Notebook structures need to promote thinking; we need to go back and revisit old ideas.

With this in mind, Ali shared some student work. Ah, mentor texts. Cool little drawings, pictures, post-its, and writing. Looks like fun.

But first, some confessions.

Confession #1: I only willingly write about reading when it’s something I’m studying, e.g., professional text. I know better. By not writing about my reading, I am accepting less comprehension.

Confession #2:  I write about reading when I must be ready to discuss. I want to become that writer who writes about reading by choice.

Confession #3: I love novels in verse partly because the words pop on the page. The white space affords lots of room for thinking. Bottom line, reading novels in verse is easier. Perhaps writing about reading is more accessible in a less challenging text.

With this in mind, I chose to read and write about Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. I decided to try two approaches to the work.

First I jotted as I read. Whenever anything hit me as important, I quickly wrote.


At the end of a section, I looked back on my notes. Patterns, questions, and theories came through in a writing reflection. The experience was a controlled one. I wasn’t swept up in the story; I was swept up in the words and images.

Hope is present for Kek; this may be a source of anger for Ganwar – “A man knows when he is defeated.”

Then I set my notebook aside and pulled out post-its. I decided just to read and place post-its in spots with tiny thoughts, placeholders, to collect and sort later.


After reading, I sorted my post-its to come up with categories that leaned toward relationships, characters, ideas and then wrote reflections around each.


The second round of writing about reading allowed for a more holistic reading experience. The post-it placeholders let me get swept up in the story without guilt. I could go back after to sort, prioritize and decide what might be something I could write long about.

Lesson #1: Both approaches resulted in writing about reading. I would choose the latter as a better way to access the text as a reader first. Are there more ways? Absolutely!

Lesson #2: To grow our understandings students and teachers need to be pushed to less comfortable places to grow.

Lesson #3: To teach anything well we must do it. There are no shortcuts.

And this was just day one! Looking forward to four more days.

The Power of Non-Traditional Text

Celebrating this week is all about literacy outside the box and building literacy skills in digital and non-traditional ways.  This was a lot of great professional learning that I cherish and it edges into digital learning so I’m linking up with two communities: Ruth Ayres Celebrate This Week and Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday.

celebrate link upslide11

Consider this –

Can literacy teachers dig into subject areas and non-traditional texts to build literacy and content inquiry skills?

With this in mind, I sat with Katie Clements our superb staff developer from TCRWP,  and my 4th- and 5th-grade colleagues to explore the possibilities of teaching literacy with non-traditional text.

We started out by trying to define non-traditional text.

What is it?

  • pictures/paintings
  • videos
  • advertisements
  • songs
  • objects
  • maps
  • technical texts
  • infographics

The list is never ending. It’s everything. Exciting, but at the same time overwhelming, a potential rabbit hole. We need to be mindful and purposeful in our use of it.

Why should we need use this type of text to reach literacy goals?

  • Engagement is a big part of why we need non-traditional media to teach literacy. Abstract concepts of literature are difficult to grasp, and participation will wane as we reach for difficult skills such as symbolism, tone, and metaphor.
  • It needs to be relevant to kids’ lives. It should matter. We are more likely to keep students engaged if we consider our kids’ interests.
  • Information is everywhere. Students need to know how to use knowledge. Processing and consuming the immense amount of information available is necessary for literacy. Blending the traditional with the non-traditional is relevant and appropriate.

How could we use this type of text effectively in reading?

Read Aloud is a natural place. We considered how we could develop understanding of traditional texts that may be beyond readers grasp even when read aloud.

  • landscapes – geography – setting
  • historical – now vs. then
  • objects
  • ideas – concepts
  • lifestyles
  • emotions
  • dialects
  • political situations
  • weather

For example, reading A Long Walk to Water the characters are building boats out of “papyrus grass.” For my Los Angeles city kids, this seems stra7563472-Papyrus-grass-Stock-Photonge. How is it possible to make a boat out of
grass? With this in mind, we looked up an image that allowed us to develop not only knowledge of what it looks like, but build on how to envision a text and why it is necessary for understanding.

We inquire and discover. That is an essential literacy and content area skill.

Other things to consider in reading instruction:

When planning out a unit of study consider augmenting the trickiest, the most complex parts of the unit; the least engaging parts, and the parts that are difficult in terms of reading ability with non-traditional text. High-level concepts such as metaphor and symbolism could be seen more readily in a film clip. Pictures and video are equal access, they allow all students regardless of reading level to do hard thinking work.

When choosing text remember what students like.  We connect more readily to what we know well. A quick survey of students’ favorite musicians, athletes, movies, tv shows, video games taps into engagement possibilities.

To increase transference, treat digital texts like traditional text:  interrupt and reflect. Use the same text over for multiple views and purposes. Use lenses to discover and closely read.  Use digital as practice and move to print text.

Consider using non-traditional texts in all parts of the instructional day, from mini-lesson to one on one conferring with the purpose of engagement, access and always with an eye towards transfer to traditional print text.


Writing About Reading: Bringing Engagement and Color to Student Thinking

I love my notebook. I use it to jot reading reactions, quotes, writing thoughts, words that interest me. I carry it with me.

Like me, my students’ reading notebooks house thinking and work. But there are some differences. First, their work is a little lifeless, a little predicable, sort of cookie cutter like. The second bigger difference is that they don’t love their notebooks. They don’t feel lost without them. Some, those who like to hold pens and write on paper, like the process. Some do it dutifully; they have been trained well.  Some make messes, drill holes, doodle, skip pages. For most, the notebook is a workbook, school work.

I love my notebook and it’s taken time to find that love.  I’ve experimented with different ways to jot, different notebooks and pens. Another big reason I love my notebook is because it’s private. So what does this mean for my students? How do I get my students to love or a least like using notebooks. Do I stop looking at student notebooks? Loosen my “criteria.” And if so, what does that look like? How do I assess? What about accountability?

Fortunately, I’m not alone. The upper grade teachers at my school have these same thoughts, and we have the opportunity to build our thinking together with our staff developer Katie Clements from TCRWP.

Katie guided us through student reader’s notebooks using specific lenses: 1) quantity, 2) growth in thinking, 3) content – retell or ideas, 4) student initiated or teacher agenda

What we found: Strategies we taught  were there!  We saw growth across grade levels. What we didn’t see: Diversity in thinking, deep thinking, or personal approaches to writing about reading, bold thinking.

The good news: students are doing what we have taught them.  Nothing wrong with that. In fact it is cause for a little celebration.  What we need: more diverse, student driven thinking; for students to find value in their writing about reading, a reason for it. Something other than “because the teacher asked me to.”

With this in mind, Katie shared some ideas to move our students toward bigger, bolder, more engaged thinking about reading. And hopefully more individuality and more passion connected to writing about reading.

  • Bring color and drawing to writing about reading. Model it in read aloud and then let students have markers to bring their thinking to life. (I love using color in my notebook. Color says something and gives me energy. Why not give students this opportunity.)
  • Study notebooks and develop a menu of writing about reading options together. (Consider doing this as a staff with our own notebooks?? Or if that’s too scary, our students’ notebooks.)
  • Create an audience for writing with gallery walks, allowing students to study each other’s best and “steal” ideas (Audience always matters!! Note to self: need to really teach “how to study and steal.”)
  • Allow students to find one page they want to “publish” with some revision (Big aha here!! I do this when I prepare a mentor text for writing about reading, why should students be allowed to?!)
  • Create a wall of writing about reading. Celebrate it! (Blog it ? – Offer the option to students.)
  • Teach students to give feedback in ways that build thinking and reflection on their writing about reading (Student assessment drives students teaching students)

We started some of this work before the long Winter Break. Students loved the challenge and the opportunity to bring life to their work.  After read aloud and a debate on the one of the characters, students went to their own reading. Toward the end of workshop, I invited them to write about reading. The results were diverse, deeper and assessable.

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Response from read aloud – similar to my model but independent thinking
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Debate done on read aloud – interesting choice of color and positioning of thoughts


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Independent reading: Rules. Seems to have transferred the demonstration in read aloud to independent work


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Independent reading: Lost in the Sun

We are just starting this work and I’ve already see renewed energy, a celebratory feel, and bigger thinking that is assessable. Next week students will return and our writing about reading adventures will continue. Can’t wait to see where we will go!

Celebrate: Natural Endings

This week, celebrating is a natural thing to do.

One: I celebrate the hard work and team work it takes to perform in front of others.

  • All 120 students performed four times for friends and family, reciting the preamble to the Constitution and the fifty states and capitols.
  • All 120 students ran a mile, a traditional fifth grade race, with the entire school cheering them on.

For some students these tasks were easy. Some are natural performers and athletes. But for most, this took a bit of courage and perseverance.  They were nervous, jumping and pacing before each event. For these moments they were all stars.

Two: I celebrate storytelling as a pathway to learning and writing. Students had researched and written reports about Westward Expansion, but their work was rather lifeless. Their voice was lost in the facts and dates they had taken in. Most did not connect the various parts.

Inspired by a post from Steve Peterson, on the power of narrative in content learning, and a visit from our TCRWP staff developer Katie Clements, who worked with us to help students find their own voice in writing about reading,  I decided to celebrate their writing  through storytelling.

I gave students paper, markers and invited them to tell the story of Westward Expansion.

2014-12-18 09.02.07Most students split the project up into the pieces they knew well. Then they presented their stories to the class. All were unique.  Some told the story as a chronology. Some told pieces of the story as cause and effect, while others saw their part as a problem with needed solutions.

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The hardest part for students to articulate was how the story connected.  As students presented, we kept track of ideas. After each group we looked for patterns that led students to see more about how the story might fit together.

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I was fascinated by this process. Structure was a natural outgrowth. Voice was present in the drawings and the presentations. These elements that I struggled to capture instructionally came out as students revised their work by telling the story together. After their presentations, all saw the need to revise their writing.


Three: I celebrate the joy in giving gifts. Students came early to class on Friday, arms filled with presents. They begged me to open them. I loved the mugs, the candy, and the ornaments made just for me.

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I gave students a set of personalized pens.  Finding their name, first and last, embossed on a pen amazed them. “How did you do this?!!”

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Four: I celebrate the end of our read aloud: Wonder. We had a lot to finish in the Julian chapter, but students sat rapt, begging to go on. I was glad to oblige and sipped tea to keep my voice alive. Between the two classes, I spent nearly two hours reading aloud. Not a bad way to end 2014.

Five: I celebrate winter break and the time with family. I’m ready to let 2014 wind down; reflect, relax and look forward.

Thank you Ruth Ayers for the opportunity to Celebrate This Week. Find other celebrations here.

Happy holidays.

celebrate link up