Thursday, August 30, 2012


Going back to school brings back routine and structure, but it also brings back the world of take-out.  Goodbye fresh fruit and vegetables, helloooo chicken fried rice.   Tonight, it was meant to be.  I opened my fortune cookie dessert and read the perfect motivation to keep me going right now. The fortune read,

"The change you started already has far reaching effects.  Be ready."

I'm ready... and excited!  :)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bringing Back Joy in Reading Aloud

Avi, the acclaimed young adult author of fantastic books like Poppy and Crispin, gave two pieces of advice to teachers to improve the love of reading in students at the TCRWP in August as a keynote speaker.

Here they are:

1.  Take voice lessons and read aloud.   In Avi's words, "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, and make 'em wait."  Reading aloud is such an important, integral part of the reading process.  It's different than shared reading; it's different from explicit instruction.  A read aloud is simply that:  an experienced, mature reader sharing the wonderful string of words that authors bring to life in books.  In the best case scenario, it is matched with experienced, avid readers who think aloud and provide models of good thinking.

2.  Stop teaching literature and start teaching the joy of reading.  While this is not a popular opinion in the 7-12 world, I love it.  Especially after listening to the many inspirational speakers over the last year including Alan November, Dr. Yong Zhao, and Tom Welsh who spoke eloquently about the changing landscape of our students and our system, I keep thinking about the importance of teaching students how to think, communicate, collect, and publish information.  So now, I am more aware than ever the importance of teaching students the strategies, habits of mind, and skills necessary to access information and enjoy reading.  Teaching specific core novels, or classics, is not the only way to lead our students in that direction.  And, it certainly doesn't teach students how to love reading.  Bravo, Avi.  I agree.

These two pieces of advice got me thinking, because frankly, we don't spend time doing either at our school.  That's not to say that we don't have extremely talented and wonderful teachers, because we do.  

So, I started researching, researching, researching, researching to find evidence that we must, must, must include read alouds into our daily schedule.   I went back to my graduate school books and hit the Internet for information to support the advice that Avi gave and I believe.  It didn't take me long to find reams of research.  Seconds, actually.  Here are some of my favorite points and click here for a comprehensive overview of some great information and research:

  • "Reading aloud is crucial even in instances where the teacher does nothing more than read spectacular literature aloud in such a way that students listen with rapt attention, clamoring for more."  -Lucy Calkins
  • “Read aloud is the single best advertisement for reading” and “every read-aloud is an advertisement for pleasure, every work sheet is an ad for pain. If the pain outweighs the pleasure, the customers [children] go elsewhere.” - Jim Trelease 
  • "Read with expression, fluency, intonation, and good pacing so that students feel as if they are a part of the story and understand that this is what good reading sounds and feels like." -Lucy Calkins
There are many ways to build read alouds into our daily schedule.  I'm thinking through many options and swirling ideas including literacy periods, days of the week with content areas, and after school book clubs.  We need to follow Avi's advice and bring the joy of reading back into our school.  We'll give it our best shot... we've all had a tough "day".  I think we can do it, together.   :) 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Always Searching for Ways to Motivate Through Environment

I spent hours after school today hanging bulletin boards in my classroom.  I haven't been so excited to set up my room in years.  Here are a few things that I am hoping to institute in my classroom environment this year:
  • Twitter Board:  I found dry-erase sentence strips at a teacher store and taped them to my door.  As students enter, or leave, my classroom each day, I will ask them to "tweet" about a variety of things:  their learning from the morning, their lunchroom conversations, their learning in the class period, questions, etc.  I think it'll be really fun.  
  • Classroom Library:  I reorganized my classroom library and book area to create a place for students to go talk about reading and writing.  Here, students can find a book of interest and sit to read independently.
  • Partner Area: I created a "partner spot" for learning where students are free to go and talk about writing or reading.  They must sign-in and explain where evidence of their learning is taking place.
  • Student Area:  I used to do this as a classroom teacher each year, but I never kept it going with small groups.  This year, I created clear routines and a specific area to access materials and complete simple management tasks:  pencil sharpening, extra papers, unsharpened/sharpened pencils and writing utensils, storing materials and notebooks, etc.  
  • Facebook Profile Bulletin Board:  I am going to take pictures of my students and ask them to create a profile for the bulletin board. I'm excited to hear how they define themselves.  As I created my own profile for this blog, I thought long and hard about how I explain my life in few words.  I hope they do, too.  

I hope to post some pictures soon of students using these areas with excitement and enthusiasm!  I hope.  :)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Aligning School Values with Literacy Learning

I asked a staff developer a few weeks ago, “How do I help my district move our instructional design to one that mirrors the excitement and authenticity of writing and reading workshop?” and his answer was simple:  value, vision, and resources.  A district must identify its values.  What are the things that are most important?  It must establish a vision to set up success for those values, and it must provide the resources to support the vision.  Today, on our first day back at school, it was very clear to me that our district, first and foremost, values technology. Of course, learning activities that engage and excite students are folded into technology to create an educational experience that is authentic, relevant, and lifelong.

So how do Reading and Writing Workshops fit into the innovation that must happen in classrooms to keep the district’s values in line with the changing initiatives ahead with the Common Core State Standards, assessment changes, and other curriculum revisions?  Well, perfectly. 

Click here to (re)view the TED Talk that our Vertical Team (a committee of interdisciplinary staff from K-12)  watched this afternoon.  Dr. Michael Wesch discusses the mindset of our twenty-first century students and the way that we must address instruction to move students from knowledgeable to knowledge-able.  Students must connect, organize, share, collect, collaborate, and publish their ideas and thinking in an appropriate way to create meaning.  Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like the writing process?  A whole lot like a mini-lesson?  Yup.    

When I talk about twenty-first century learners, I am not referring to students who use technology solely.  I am referring to the College and Career Ready standards in the CCSS, which require students to read, write, speak, and listen collaboratively and effectively.  It just happens to be that the students in front of us are also well equipped to use, apply, and explore technology in ways that we can only dream.  Yes, there are technological obstacles ahead.  But, I felt confident today that we are on the right track. 

Wesch asserts that schools must embrace this transfer from knowledgeable to knowledge-able and:
  •           create inquiry driven experiences that are relevant and real world focused,
  •           complete this learning and teaching with the students; and
  •           harness relevant tools for learning (technology, other tools appropriate to task). 

In reading and writing workshop, students are reading and writing under the mentorship of teachers, authors, writers, and peers.  Students are reading and writing texts that are relevant to their ability and their interests.  Students write in authentic ways.  Teachers act as coaches and mentors as they confer with readers and writers individually and in small groups.  We're on board!

But, we have work to do.  A lot.  Aligning our work to the Common Core State Standards while keeping the performance tasks in mind and juggling technology and new behavior initiatives leaves a lot elbow grease ahead.  We have to get our hands dirty.  One at a time, we have to keep doing what we can.  

Now we know what is valued; I am thinking that the vision to come in tomorrow's convocation will be one revoled around thinking.  A thinking, authentic, relevant and engaging curriculum is one that I hope to help create in the years to come-  one that is cohesive to rigorous literacy standards and creates lifelong readers and writers in this twenty-first century world.  And... Resources?  Well, not this year, perhaps, but 2 out of 3 is a good start.  

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pop Culture, Media and Technology in Writing Workshop with Kate Roberts

Technology is hard.  It barely works, and when it does for a minute, it freezes.  So why use it?  Because we have to!  It is what our students know; they live it.  At the TCRWP workshop last week, I listened in awe as Kate Roberts showed us new ways to fold technology into our daily instruction.We need to incorporate pop culture into our connections to engage students.  Even something simple like a metaphor hooks writers and helps students engage and connect to writing.  "You know how you go back to video games and try, try and try again if you can't beat a level... that's like revision because..."

Here are some great ways to use technology in your daily lessons to engage students:

  1. Create a questionnaire to find out what your students are doing with technology.  What are they watching?  What kinds of social medias are they using?  Pay attention to what they like to do.  Are they big Justin Beiber fans?  Do they love American Idol?  Know what students are loving and use that to your advantage to hook them with stories, activities, and connections.   
  2. Transfer literacies from one text to another text.  Go to YouTube and download (short) clips of those shows to use as mentor texts. Use the movie clips, songs, television shows to talk about writing.  "How does this show incorporate 'back story' of characters? How might that 'look' in writing?"  (Kate suggested going to ZamZar or TubeSock to download the videos so that you don't have to worry about YouTube streaming from slow wireless or being blocked).  
  3. Ask students to use the technology for publication.  Take students out of the passive role to make active projects.  They can do this with a list of options, independently, and in a few days.  Ask students to transfer writing to another medium-- podcasting, iMovie, garage band-- the sky's the limit.  This teaches students the main idea, the theme, the important characteristics of the writing. Carl Anderson called it meaning, structure, details, voice, conventions.  Here's a great way for kids to showcase their talents to their peers.  
  4. Create writing communities.  Edmoto, Blogster,  Websties and GoogleDocs are just a few powerful tools that can help create a writing community in your classroom.  
Have fun!  Good luck, and share, share, share what you are trying!  :)  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Practical, (Yes, PRACTICAL) Help Supporting Striving Writers with Chris Lehman

I'm a Chris Lehman groupie.  I was fortunate enough to work under Chris in October at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) Coaching Institute.  Not only is Chris a talented staff developer and writer, he is amazing in front of middle school students, and that's when I was sold. It takes a special personality to walk into a class of students you've never met before, and teach them a strategy or skill with 20 teachers watching.  Back in October, I darted to the bookstores and read his Workshop help desk series book, A Quick Guide to Reviving Disengaged Writers and I walked away with so many helpful hints to teaching striving writers.  So, when I saw that Chris was leading a session at the TCRWP Writing Institute this year, I crossed my fingers that I would be able to learn from him again, and I was excited to be part of his session.  He did not disappoint last week, so I'll have to write multiple posts about the take-aways from the session titled, "Very Practical Help Supporting Striving and Resistant Writers in Information and Essay Writing"; one will not suffice.  Notice the striving in the title above.  This was originally written to be struggling.  I love the shift to striving. As Chris pointed out, we're the ones that struggle-  struggle to help, struggle to teach... young writers are striving to improve, to please, to learn.  Here are some very practical strategies to engage students who may disengage during the writing process.

Strategies to help students who have nothing to write about:  

  • Model, model, model... for everyone. "The risks we don't take are the risks they won't take."- Chris Lehman.  Think about the hidden stories in the room and the tone that you use to model writing.  As we model stories and information, we have to be careful not to pigeon hole ourselves  and our students into one corner.  I tend to write meaningful, life changing models.  But not all students have life-changing meaningful events happening in their lives.  We need to model situations that are outside our normal realm of writing.  Humor?  Sadness?  Social Issues?  Think about the issues that are happening in your life now (so you remember details) and mold it to fit the experiences and issues that your students may be experiencing.  
  • Compliment the Writer.  As you are building a relationship with the writer, make sure that you high-light what they are doing well.  Don't worry about the teaching point, the errors, the problems.  You can resolve that later.  For now, foster a writer who feels willing to experiment and take risks in their writing.  Reread a line from the student's work that you like... over and over.  
Strategies to help students who seem allergic to the writing process:  
  • Create measurable goals.  As you send students to work independently, ask them to create a goal, plan, or agenda that is measurable.  Students should use numbers and words.  "I will create 5 new topics" or "I will experiment with 3 new strategies".  Students should share this with a writing partner.  Is it attainable? Realistic?  This makes it public and manageable for students.  
  • Always stress "experimentation".  Allow students to take risks.  Model how writers may try multiple strategies for the same idea.  For example, ask students to write the topic sentence (detail or meaning they are trying to convey) at the top of a piece of paper.  Divide the paper into two half-sheets.  Ask student to write out the same idea in two different half sheets of paper (narrative, cause-effect, compare-contrast, facts-statistics, etc.)    
  • Invite parents into a writing celebration at the start of the unit.  If you send out a date to parents/families, you are more apt to keep the deadline.  Students, too, know there will be an audience for their work, which will keep them centered and focused. 
Strategies for students who are always talky-talky-talky:  
  • Embrace conversation.  I love this!  Lester Laminack says, "Words don't grow in a garden of shhhh.  Quiet classrooms are barren places."  The CCSS calls for speaking and listening standards to flourish in language arts classrooms, and Chris Lehman says, "Think about conversation as its own curriculum."  Embrace conversation.  Teach into the discussions and teach students roles and responsibilities of writing discussions.  Our ILA staff worked on writing circles one year, and I see a lot of connections to this standard and this topic in their work.  
  • Create a Partner Spot for Conversation.  On a sign-up basis, students can confer with their writing partners in a specific classroom location.  The students should have a set amount of time in the partner area that is equipped to handle two to three students at a time.  Students should log their time (names, purpose, where you (teacher) will find evidence and documentation of work completed).  This should be a privilege for writers. 
Strategies for students who are constantly worried about being "right:"
  • Model uncertainty to teach Habits of Mind.  Create mini-lessons and strategy lessons around the "Habits of Mind"of thinking through writing, not just writing strategies.  Pretend to do a teaching point, and then model for students how you are stuck. Teach a new lesson about how to unstuck yourself.   This could relate to collecting, rehearsing, drafting, revising, editing, or even publishing.  
  • Ask partners to reteach concepts.  This can also help us, as teachers, to examine our own teaching.  Ask a partner to teach the concept to another student.  I can see a lot of different ways this can be used in the classroom.  

And that's just Day 1.  Stay tuned for information about note-taking, Webb's Depth of Knowledge, Citing Sources, and Universal Design for Teaching.  Chris has a new book out, too, that was just released this week.  It's titled Energize Research and Writing:  Fresh Strategies to Spark Interest, Develop Independence, and Meet Key Common Core Standards:  Grades 4-8.   If any of the above strategies intrigue you, you'll love his books, too.  Mine is on it's way and I can't wait to read it.  Thanks, Chris! 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Conferring with Carl Anderson

Last week, I was fortunate enough to learn firsthand from Carl Anderson, the guru of conferring and playfully labeled "the conferring guy." We, as students, were forced to step out of our comfort zone to write, practice, and discuss teaching points in front of our entire group of teachers! Whoa. It was hard work, but it definitely taught me how to better structure my conferences with students to include specific feedback, a specific teaching point, and a specific strategy. Here are some of the key highlights from the week... some review/some new information, but all worth noting to keep us refreshed and focused.

First, Carl challenged us to think about the assessment lenses that we view writing. What are our values in student writing? Those values will drive the way we look at student work. He challenged us to focus our conferring around what we value, not about what we notice first. We looked through the following lenses for this workshop:

Carl asked and answered, “What do we want students to do as writers? “
• We want students to initiate writing.
• We want students to write well.
• We want students to develop a writing process that works for them.

To write well, students:
• Communicate meaning.
Structure (organize) their writing.
• Write with detail .
• Give their writing voice.
• Use conventions.

Looking through the above lenses, Carl structures each conference with the following structure:
1. Compliment the writer. Be specific, focused, and brief. Come to the conference with a focus from your previous notes (ie, conferences or on-demand writing) to bring a focused teaching point to the conference.
2. State the teaching point. “Writer, today I would like to teach you…” based on what you notice from the student writing. Focus your conference on one of the above: meaning, structure, detail, voice, conventions depending on the writing process stage.
3. Provide a Metaphor. This was hard for me… Think about how this strategy or teaching point may relate to something in the students’ life. This creates a focus and lens for the writer.
4. Study a Mentor Text. State the strategy and show the mentor text for the writer to see an example about how the strategy is done.
5. Teach the Strategy. Show the student how the strategy should be completed in the student writing.
6. Practice. Make sure that the student knows the strategy that you have taught.
7. Keep notes. Write, in a record, the teaching point and goal of conference to come back and visit again.

And do it all in under 6 minutes. But wow, when you see it in action, it’s powerful. Let’s try it together!

Stuck? Carl Anderson has a series of teaching points in his series, Strategies to Teach Writers. Or, try Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson. Both will leave you feeling more confident and excited to work with young writers.