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.

Celebrating: Technology in Writing Workshop, Year Two

This week I am celebrating technology in the Writing Workshop.

celebrate link up

We just finished our first writing unit: Personal Narrative.  It may seem like the most natural thing to write about oneself.  But, to write in a way that shows who we are is not an easy thing for anyone let alone a fifth grader. If  you don’t believe me, try it. It takes courage, self reflection, and a lot revision.

Last year, I started writing weekly with two writing communities. First with Ruth Ayers’ Celebration link up. The weekly practice of celebrating the past week was and is a perfect place for reflection on my teaching. Not too long after that jump, I added a “Slice of Life” weekly post with Two Writing Teachers to my writing life. With these weekly posts, my perception of myself as a writer changed dramatically. These writing communities offered models and support for my writing and pushed me quite naturally towards a new understanding of reflection, “small moment” writing, and myself as a writer and a teacher of writing. I knew I wanted this community experience for my students, but by the time I figured this out I wasn’t sure where or how to fit it into Writer’s Workshop.

This year, with our narrative unit of study sitting behind us, in fact beside us as a tool, “slicing” bits of our life seems to be a natural next step. All of what we learned or started to learn can now be practiced and supported by our community of bloggers. We have a toolbox of strategies, models and checklists. And as our “slices” accumulate, we will have home-grown models to reflect on, a community to learn from. This week I celebrate our new writing unit:  Slice of Life writing on our blog. Other teachers have done this work with their students, most notably Tara Smith who is guiding a lot of my work through her posts here and here.

Last year, one of the biggest benefits of blogging was the feedback kids got from each other. Kids wrote for other kids. This made blogging like no kind of writing they had ever experienced. Many didn’t consider it writing. It was more like a conversation. It was fun! My concern was while blogging and iPads are engaging, and students were writing more, does the blogging environment and iPad technology make better writers.

This week, I’m happy to report a few ahas about technology.

1) Viewing the blog as a publishing tool limited its power. This year, students put their writing on the blog during their revision stages. That move alone has opened doors. Things I didn’t anticipate.

2)  The power of “pinch and pull” typed text. Typed text, even in an approximated form, is easier for students to see what has and has not been done. We can look at mentor text and then at our own writing. It is there in a typed format. Not a crossed out, whited out, taped over, hand written form but typed text that can be enlarged by a pinch and pull on the screen making it easier for students to see what they have written and compare it to mentor text.

“S” had written three simple sentences: “We went to the park. It was warm. I wanted to swim.”  He writes simply throughout his piece.  His thoughts are there. I wanted to teach him to vary his sentence length to develop a more complex writing style. A quick “I-do, we-do, you-do” move in a conference got him to revise his work easily and teach into this skill for all of his writing, not just this piece. With the iPad “S” can play with different sentence structure possibilities without being frustrated.

Another group of students were approximating dialogue and we celebrated. Their next steps were to tag, punctuate and paragraph so readers can understand who is saying what. This is difficult to teach with hand written documents. But with typed text the differences and similarities between student and mentor text become more apparent. The leap is less and the approximation closer still.

3) Emojis can provide a bridge to elaboration and craft moves. Some students found the emoji keyboard and “secretively” started to play with it. My first reaction was ok, just don’t over do it. But then I saw the power in it. One English Language Learner put an image of a rocket into his text. “I ran fast (rocket image) to the park.” He had done the thinking work towards figurative language with an image naturally. He understood the move but not how words could give him the same image. It was an obvious leap for me, but it took some coaching for him to “see” this. The leap wasn’t vocabulary, he knew the word rocket; it was how to use the word like an image. Other students who understood similes had already written the words, and then found the image to enhance their words.

Showing not telling emotions is still a struggle and emojis created a perfect bridge for some students. Students looked for the emotion they felt with the emojis and inserted it into their text. Then we worked together to describe the way the eyes and mouth looked in the text. Mind you, I had taught this lesson explicitly earlier, and some got the idea. The emojis helped others see how to show not just tell their emotions.

4) Editing with typed text makes the tricky stuff teachable. The issues surrounding editing when keyboarding is involved are interesting. Some of the work requires typing lessons:  how to shift so capitals are created and where spaces need to be placed. This is something you don’t know until you start to type. Tricky but very teachable when text can be enlarged with a simple pinch and pull and then compared to a mentor.

5) There are limitations to technology access, and that’s good because it pushes use of all of our writing tools. I have one iPad for every two students. That means all can’t be blogging at the same time. This limitation allows for continued use  of “old school” tools. When one partner is blogging, reading blogs or commenting on blogs, the other partner is in their notebook, ruminating in that space, drawing on old entries, lists, heart maps, stored strategies — using the pen and notebook to craft. This isn’t bad, in fact it is good.  Sort of cross training for writing muscles.

Year two of blogging with iPad technology in Writing Workshop has just begun.  Today I celebrate the writing  we have done and the learning how, why and when to use our our tools, new and old.  We are grateful for all of it: notebooks, looseleaf paper, Flair pens, Kidblog and iPads. These tools grow us as writers.

Slice of Life: Inspiration in the Comment

Every Tuesday writers share a Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Please join in if you are so inclined.   You can read more slicehere. Thank you to  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth11454297503_e27946e4ff_hWhen it comes to reading and writing the steps toward understanding are complex and frustrating. As teachers we try to guide our students to discover words that make meaning on the page.   We want to find joy and excitement in words. What they mean and how to use them; to understand why the writer choose that word. To use just the right words when talking, writing, thinking. We are always looking for the  just the right formula to inspire our students to be passionate readers and writers.

Complicated. How to access these words so they make meaning not just as we read but as we write? And not just reading the word in a sentence, not just using the word in writing, but understanding the specificity of that word. Knowing that that word and no other word is  just the right word. Poetry seems to be one way to work toward all of these goals.

We have been reading poetry, one a week. Now we are going to  write. Knowing this was my plan, knowing my students would be scared, knowing I felt the same, knowing I had to start somewhere, I started with forms that have constraints and rules.  Those places I felt like I could be sure it was poetry because it “fit” a definition. Erasure felt safe as did found poetry, book spine poetry, haiku, tanka, cinquain all good. It was playing with words.

Chris Lehman’s #teacherpoets workshop was a next step. It was a  less safe place, but how could I not go: great lessons, great poems, amazing teacher poets all around. I pushed myself a bit further to that internal place where emotions lie. (silent scream) I listened, did the lesson, wrote a poem.

Days later, I looked back at that poem I had written. Oh it was painful. It didn’t do what I wanted it to do. It was repetitive and trite. I revised and revised. I revised to the point of having no poem at all. As the screen held fewer and fewer words, I thought soon it will be as if I didn’t write anything at all. Which hurt because it meant the meaning of my poem, the emotion I felt didn’t exist.  I closed the screen. Thinking bad thoughts. The next day  I read this comment from Catherine Flynn:

Your poem is the opposite of Laux’s “On the Back Porch” and it perfectly captures the bittersweet feelings we have as we realize our children are growing up and are ready to begin their own lives. I love this image of shifted furniture “leaving empty spaces uncovering indentations of what was there.” The perfect sliver to capture this big, important topic!

Then I reread this one from Cathy Mere:

To me, your poem speaks of our children growing up and we have to let go. Perhaps it is because that is exactly where I am right now. “Choices, that are no longer mine to make.” “Photo flash” of the times we’ve shared together.

Oh the power of a comment.  A comment that is a whole paragraph and specifically says what spoke to them.  Revision is a painful process. You just want to throw it all away and say it’s just too hard and I’m really not that good anyway.  But IF there is one little voice that says, no, don’t do that. This is good BECAUSE….The writer can rise again and pull out the writing.

Taking this lesson to my teaching self and back to where I began this post: the secret formula, the gift we can give our students, might just lie in the  compliment that is specific.  The compliment that says just what is good and why. That plus a little nudge and maybe they won’t crumple up the paper and say they are not good. Maybe they’ll say, really?  Open up the notebook and give it a go.

Thank you Catherine and Cathy for your specific comments.on that poem. I’m working on it.

And  to all who comment on Slice of Life posts, I can’t thank you enough. You are my writing teachers that keep me opening up my notebook.

Celebration of Beginnings, Fits-and-Starts, and The Now

celebrate link up

Every Saturday Ruth Ayers hosts bloggers who look back on their week with an eye for moments to celebrate. It is a wonderful way to honor, to notice and celebrate all the good things that happen. Click here and find out how you can start this practice.

Several of my colleagues joined me to learn about blogs. I was so excited to introduce them to some of my favorite blogs. They walked away with a little more knowledge and a list of blog sites. Hopefully they will lurk a bit and maybe even comment. Who knows there might be a future blogger among them. I celebrate my colleagues who are looking for more to bring into their lives and to the lives of their students. Next, twitter chats!

Student-led conferences are beginning. This is a new type of conference for my teaching partner and me.  We’ve done only two, but both have revealed a lot about these students and what they need. Bottom line, communication with students is so much deeper when the student takes the lead. Our hunches are clarified and parents seem pleased with the dialogue.  One wants me to help him learn to talk in groups. Another expressed her love of story telling but fear of memoir. Little did she know they are really the same thing. I celebrate the first two and look forward to next week’s full schedule.

My reluctant writers seem less reluctant.  Some of my students are paralyzed writers. They feel they don’t know how or where to start. They are worried: are they doing the “right” thing? Conference after conference, I slowly chip away at their resistance and uncertainty.  I sit next to each writer and talk with them about their process, their worries as writers, and slowly they start to move the pen. We find little bits of possibility. We talk about those little bits and slowly, the little bits become classroom mid-workshop interruptions that highlight this writer’s process of fighting writer’s block. For this day, they are a star. I won’t be surprised if tomorrow’s a struggle, but the struggle might be lessened by the memory this week’s success.

My daughter’s re-found love of writing. As a preschooler she had writerly ways. She had voice. She was always writing. I just knew she would flourish in the writer’s workshop environment at her elementary school. Sadly it didn’t happen the way I envisioned. Her passion for writing disappeared.

Now a sophomore in high school, she has found her writerly self in argument writing.  That confident writer I saw as a four-year old is back. What started as an assignment in class is slowly creeping into her life outside of school. Our evening at the Beacon House Bistro (a recovery program for alcoholics) has inspired her to write a speech about the program for her youth group. I am so excited for her. She knows she’s good at writing and wants more. 

My dad is home from the hospital. It’s a scary thing to go into the hospital at 93. He has been there before, but this time seemed different. A call from my mom at 1:00 am Wednesday morning was the first big difference. That drive to the hospital was horrific, all the time thinking of what could be. When the nurse said he was fine, I broke down completely. You know the possibility, but not now. Now can be too much to bear.  Now he is home. I celebrate the now.

SOL Reflection: Making the Writing Box Bigger


Slice of Life hosted by Two Writing Teachers makes Tuesdays wonderful. If you’d like to join in the slicing, check out this link.

The very nature of goal setting is to challenge ourselves, to reach for more, to measure our progress, to prove or affirm our place, to keep up, to be acknowledged or some combination of all of the above.  Certain people are goal-oriented; they are driven by the need to succeed. Certain types of activities are based on achieving goals: think sales or sports.

This is all fine and dandy, but it makes me wonder about those times when we don’t succeed and label it failure. It seems so final.

Nerdlution, part 1 had many people saying they had failed.  This tweet from Franki Sibberson made me think:  “I wonder what our #nerdlutions failures mean in terms of our expectations of students and their goals?”  Hmmm… I wonder too.

There are some students in my class that succeed in traditional school ways. But there are some that don’t. For various reasons they don’t fit into the box we call school. They are bright kids and can succeed, but not in the school way. In organization, writing, reading, math — certain students hit walls. Success based on standard measures doesn’t happen for them, yet. They know it and feel bad about it. They feel bad about themselves because they fail to succeed. It isn’t a life sentence, just school. So how can we make the box that means success a little bigger?

Last week we drafted our memoirs.

Forty minutes had passed. One student hunkers over his paper. I walk over. He has written four lines. His piece is all about how he hates writing.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“This is so hard.” His writing tells me more. Writing was easy in first grade, but now it is so hard because there is so much more to pay attention to. Really something worth pursuing with him, but not now. Poor kid’s in a panic.

While he has only written a few lines, what he has done is beautiful. Ironic, I think. This child who hates to write has a gift for it. He knows how to put words together. But at the same time, he feels he has failed. In mis mind he hasn’t written enough.

He says, “I can’t do this, I don’t know what else to say.”

I tell him I know the feeling. I tell him his style reminds me of so many memoir texts that start out, “When I was…” and then continue with a string of “when I was…” moving toward the present.

I ask him if he remembers writing in second grade, or third or fourth? How was it then?

His eyes perk up, “I remember second grade. It was ok then. Things got much more difficult in fourth grade.”

“Ok,” I say, “Start in second grade, then work your way forward, grade by grade. See if that can get you a little more and perhaps you could figure out something along the way.”

He sits back down, leans over his work, and writes. Ten minutes pass. Four more lines written. He seems better with this product, and better with himself.

As we walk to recess, I tell him that he has grit.

“What’s that?”

“That’s when you keep working, even when it’s hard. Extremely hard.  When you do this you have grit. You don’t give up.”

“Oh, sort of like perseverance?”

“But doesn’t it sound cooler – grit?”

“Yeah, kind of like getting messy in the dirt,” he says.

“Exactly,” I say. “You have a way with words.”

And then he runs off to recess.

While I want him to love to write, this year might just be about making writing a little less painful. The real question in in my mind is how he feels about himself and his abilities.

He is being asked to do a school thing defined by a unit of study.  There are other opportunities to write. But this is how he defines writing. Let’s face it, this is how we have defined it. After all, it’s called Writer’s Workshop. The process of writing overwhelms him. There is just too much to remember, to organize and then a deadline on top of it makes it even more disturbing. Bottom line, this type of work makes him feel like a failure.

He doesn’t fit into this particular writing box, and because of this he hates writing. Regardless of what the Common Core says, for the sake of our students, writing needs to be seen as something we do everywhere. Our definition of writing and what we present as writing opportunities needs to expand dramatically.  The box needs to get bigger, making room for students to find a writing space that fits and equals success.

Conjoined Twins: Read’n and Writ’n

I have a language arts classroom  where  siblings Read’n and Writ’n are in a constant battle for attention. Historically Read’n has been the favored child, in terms of time and focus.  As much as I tell Writ’n he’s just as loved as his sister Read’n, he knows who I always put first, who always gets the shot gun seat. He knows. Actions speak louder than words. I have promised to give him more time with the kids but in the end, at best he gets half as much time, at worst he’s ignored or assigned as homework.

Lack of time, we all have it. So we prioritize. Which should come first? What’s more important? In the end these siblings are actually conjoined twins, inseparable. They are each other’s lifeblood. I’ve always known this but haven’t acted as if I believe it.

This year they are getting equal time, really, I’m not just saying it. I’m doing it by putting one upfront, letting one area have priority two days a week. Whatever has priority that day, starts the day, that one gets our energy and our focus. That’s the day for the other sibling to take the back seat and go along for the ride, being supportive along the way. While I’d like to give them equal time every day, I feel it would just short change them both with not enough time to do either one well. (If you are wondering about the fifth day, it is often shared with a cousin, Assess’n, sort of a play date.)

You might say, why not just spilt your time down the middle. I’ve considered that, but this is what I’ve come to believe: reading and writing require dedicated time spent.  Each segment of workshop — directed lesson, student time to do, and social interaction with others about what was done — is crucial. To eliminate or minimize a part, severely limits its effectiveness. I believe that the time we spend is better spent in a concentrated orchestrated fashion. Where all the pieces build into and support each other. A lIttle bit is better than nothing, but a daily “fair spilt”  would result in doing neither well. Reading and writing workshop need all of its parts in tact to be a working whole.




This is how it’s morphed. While I still have guilt, it has allowed writing to have a real role in our classroom, get’n a little love for once. Just look at the mess it’s making!



I would love to know your thoughts on this. Am I being fair?  Am I doing the right thing by my students?