Saturday, September 3, 2016

Writer's Workshop: The Power of the Pencil

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." — Roald Dahl

As an elementary teacher and instructional coach, one of the things I have heard over and over is how overwhelming it is for teachers to set up a Writer’s Workshop.  This structure, researched by many, including Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Lucy Calkins, provides students with a predictable routine for writing instruction that includes a mini-lesson and extended time for students to write. During the workshop time, the teacher will confer with individuals and small groups and the students will spend time prewriting, drafting, editing, revising, and publishing.

One of the most important things for teachers to understand is that Writer’s Workshop is not WHAT you teach, it is the framework that is in place for the writing block. Once students understand the predictable structure of this sacred time, the teacher will utilize district curriculum and pacing guides, state standards, and the needs of students to dictate what is taught in mini-lessons. Teachers may utilize mentor texts, model writing in front of children, pair students for peer-editing and revision, and provide varied opportunities for publishing.

Structure of a Writer’s Workshop
Mini-lesson (about 15 minutes)
*Focused lesson on a single topic usually taken from your state standards or district curriculum
*Adjust for the needs of your students
*May include examining a mentor text or teacher modeling
Writing time (20-45 minutes*)
*Students write
*Kids may work individually and/or partnerships
*Teacher will confer with individuals or may pull small groups that need targeted writing instruction
*Students may also be working on different stages of the writing process during this time: drafting, editing, revising, publishing, etc.
Sharing/Wrap-up (5-10 minutes)
*Students may share writing in partners, groups, or with the entire class
*Teacher may share writing
*Reiterate teaching point from mini-lesson
*Depending on your students

There are many resources for setting up this time, but teachers should utilize the following components to ensure the most effective environment for a daily writing routine.

Purpose: Above all, children need authentic reasons to write. When kids know their writing will be viewed by their classmates, others in their school, and even online, they have an innate desire to do their best because they know it is not just busy work. When teachers present writing lessons, they can build on kids’ unique experiences, their hopes and dreams, and their questions to spark purposeful reasons to write. Patricia Cunningham and Richard Allington say, “Children who are successful at becoming literate view reading and writing as authentic activities from which they get information and pleasure, and by which they communicate with others.”

Environment: Intentional teachers will set up a classroom environment that supports independence and literacy connections to daily life, grade-level content, and authentic writing opportunities. Children should be surrounded by meaningful labels, charts, and literature from a broad range of genres. This access should include print books and technology resources and should reflect a developmentally appropriate range of literacy opportunities. A first grade print-rich environment will differ tremendously from that of a sophomore English class, but both teachers will think through ways to establish an environment that is engaging and mirrors their students’ real lives as readers and authors. As students are introduced to new types of writing, multiple examples of mentor texts that support the structure should be available for kids to read and emulate. For further examples of literacy-rich environments, click here.

Nurture: In college, I read a book by Mem Fox that changed the trajectory of my thoughts as a teacher and a writer. In her book Radical Reflections, Fox writes, “I think we tend to forget about this element of relationships when we teach writing. Are we aware of how much our students dread having their writing knocked back? Do we trample on their vulnerability when they limp in, unarmed, from the battlefield? It’s hard to keep in mind the painful wounds of battle and the importance of friendship unless you’ve been wounded yourself. Teachers of writing who have been soldiers themselves, engaged in a writing battle, must be able to empathize more closely with the comrades in their classrooms than teachers who are merely war correspondents at the hotel bar, as it were, watching the battle from a safe distance, declining to get in there themselves and write.”

This quote changed me. As a teacher consultant for the Central Texas Writing Project and an elementary classroom teacher, I have been able to see first-hand how powerful it is when a teacher writes alongside his/her students. It communicates camaraderie and understanding. It shows student writers that the teacher is willing to be vulnerable and engage in a writing struggle. It requires teachers to look for supportive and nurturing ways to provide targeted feedback to students that will improve writing instruction and ultimately, student performance. The definition of the word nurture is, “To care for and encourage the growth or development of…” This clearly doesn’t mean we are always sunshiny and never hold students accountable for growth and grammar. It means that we meet each student writer where they are and find targeted ways to help them develop into accomplished, capable authors.

Coach: Writing development doesn’t just happen. Intentional teachers will observe their students in order to look for what kids already do well and what they need today to be a better writer tomorrow. Building on those individual strengths helps children at all stages of writing development grow as authors. If a group of students needs work on a similar writing goal the teacher may decide to pull a small group for a quick review of a particular skill. An advanced writer may need a gentle nudge from a teacher to discover a new writing technique, to find ways to add details to their writing, or be explicitly taught how to use a rubric to self-monitor their own writing. Coaching can be done by the teacher and also by the students, once proper expectations are in place. Click here for a student-made video about peer conferencing.

Integrated: It is my hope that time will be devoted to Writer’s Workshop each day, but it is crucial that the writing process be integrated into all aspects of the school experience. Writing skills may be taught in isolation, but will be transferred more naturally if they are woven into the daily fabric of math, reading, technology, science, and social studies instruction. Students may write to solidify scientific understandings and write to publish articles about important social studies figures. They may write a blog to explain connections with popular literature and to share books with peers. Technology should be leveraged to give students an authentic audience to share their work across the campus, the district, and the country. Today’s educational culture is shifting toward student choice, maker opportunities, and collaboration. Writer’s Workshop is a necessary complement to this kind of teaching, and should be celebrated as a way to reflect and connect student ideas and learning across content areas. For practical ideas about Writer’s Workshop and Makerspaces, click here.

Linked to Life: Want to know a secret? Kids are smart. It takes the average 7 year-old and 7th grader about 7 seconds to realize that a teacher has asked him/her to do busy work. In today’s society, kids are desperate for connection. Educators must find ways to use this need to our advantage and to improve student self-esteem and student performance in the process. Is there an issue that students care about? Write letters and deliver them instead of writing fake letters and hanging them in the hall. Do the kids see something in the library or their school they like or wonder about? Have them write notes to the students and teachers in other grades and ask questions. Do they need to ask for clarification, broaden their understanding of a topic, or disagree about something? Writing is the way that this generation of students communicates with peers and a broad global audience. Our online presence is strengthened when we write well, connect with others, and pay attention to spelling, grammar, and appropriate content. All of these skills are necessary and can be taught in the context of real-life applications of content in a caring classroom environment.

The PENCIL may seem to have lost some of its power in this age of technology. Whether students wield a Ticonderoga, a Chromebook, or an iPhone as their tool, the power they have as authors has never been more real. Brave teachers will find authentic, meaningful ways to hold on to the fundamentals of sound writing instruction as they navigate an evolving culture of technology application and worthwhile writing opportunities for all students.


Friday, July 29, 2016

Beginning of the Year Read-Alouds

Like most educators, I am slightly obsessed with bookstores. I love the way they smell, I enjoy watching people browse for just the right book, I love hearing the conversations between parents and their young children as they discuss authors and characters, and I get excited every time I find perfect books for lessons I want to teach or share with the teachers with whom I work.

The other day, I was in Half Price Books and found two gems that I am excited to take with me to school this year! Elementary teachers spend considerable time at the beginning of the year building community with their classes and setting the stage for future reading success. It is important to share special books together so that students can anchor their learning to mentor texts, establish norms and procedures for working closely in a shared space, and simply adjust to their new learning environment with the presence of quality children's literature. 

Wise teachers are very intentional about the books they choose at the beginning of the school year. They read books that are funny, books with characters that help children make connections, and books that model expectations in easy, relatable ways. Teachers understand what feelings and anxieties students may bring into their new classroom and can leverage read-alouds for a positive start to the year.

There are classic read-alouds that I have always read to my kids at the beginning of the year, but I get giddy when I find new titles that I can add to my coaching room for teachers to share with their new groups of kiddos. Here are two finds that I highly encourage you to check-out!

The Book That I Love to Read by Joe Fitzpatrick. This is the cutest read-aloud ever! The main character is a boy who has found the PERFECT book. It kind of reminds me of The Monster at the End of This Book because each new page has fun surprises that primary kids will LOVE. Selfishly, I want to keep this book for myself when I do read-alouds in classrooms the first few weeks of school year to introduce myself to the kids. But, if a teacher REALLY wants it, then (of course) I will concede!

How to Read a Story by Kate Messner. This is quite possibly the most perfect book to read to kids before a lesson on choosing a Just-Right book. It is versatile enough to read at home with your own kids or to your class as you establish norms for independent and partner reading.  It is kind of a clearinghouse of all beginning of the year reading mini-lessons, as it addresses everything from choosing a place to read, to changing your voice to match the characters, to boldly exclaiming, "The End." Just precious. Amazon recommends this book for K-2nd grade, but I would read it to third graders in a heartbeat. If I had to choose a similar book, it kind of reminds me of Wolf! by Becky Bloom.

As the new school year quickly approaches, I will continue to find books to support the teachers and students I get to work alongside all year. What are your favorite back-to-school read-alouds?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Reflections from the Stands

I got the opportunity to guest blog over at Your Instructional Coach. It is a blogged aimed at Instructional Coaches, but applicable to any in the field of education. I was recently struck by how teaching is a lot like playing baseball...

I would be honored if you would head over to Eric's page and check it out! I am rooting for you, teachers!

Great baseball reads...

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Mindsets for Parents!

I'm so excited! I have blogged before about the power of Growth Mindsets for kiddos, but I am thrilled about this new book by Mary Cay Ricci written just for parents! I hope to start up a Growth Mindset parent study at school soon. What are some things you would address in a group like this? I think parents and teachers working on this together could have a real impact...I would love to know your thoughts.

Mindset books I have enjoyed...

Friday, July 8, 2016

School's First Day of School

Looking for a fun new read aloud for the first day of school? Check out this cutie by Adam Rex. The story is told from the perspective of the actual school building...his floors are getting waxed and buffed, he's not sure about meeting the children, and he has a charming relationship with the school janitor. School overhears a big kid saying he doesn't like school, and his feelings get hurt, but then he witnesses a shy, upset kindergartner change throughout the story and get excited about coming back the next day. 

In First Day Jitters fashion, this book tells the story of back-to-school nerves from a perspective other than a child, with the clear goal of helping students identify with a character without admitting their own nerves. This is a must-add to your first-day read aloud cue! 

If you like School's First Day of School as much as I do, check out my resource pack for some fun ideas to use after reading the book to your new class.

I have a few more back-to-school read aloud ideas coming up soon...What are some of your favorites?


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Podcasts are the New PD

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of working with Gretchen Shultek from Always a Lesson on a project we've talked about for awhile. I connected with Gretchen through Twitter and she quickly became a mentor to me...even though we are not geographically close!

Gretchen and I quickly took our Twitter connection to the next level. Voxer is one of my favorite apps for taking control of my own professional development. It allows for quick, convenient connection with my PLN. I can throw out a quick question, ask for recommendations, participate in book studies, or just say hi. It is a great tool for #personalizedPD, which is my very favorite kind of PD (if you haven't heard me mention it already...).

Gretchen asked if I would be interested in being interviewed for her podcast, and at first I was confused. "Um, what would people want to hear me talk about?" And she said, "Just tell me what you're thinking." It fascinated me how talking to her in that format allowed me to reflect on ideas that have been swimming around in my mind for awhile. It was such a cool experience. If you'd like to hear the episode, you can listen here, or you can download her podcast in the iTunes store. If you like her style, please subscribe to her podcast and leave her some love in the review section.

Listening to a podcast is an easy way to grab some personalized professional development when it fits into your schedule. No matter what you are searching for, you are sure to find one that will give you insight, encouragement, and practical ideas for your teaching life. Here are a few of my favorites:

Always a Lesson

Cult of Pedagogy

Angela Watson

Jennifer Seravallo

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


This summer, I am working with the Central Texas Writing Project, a program at Texas State University that is focused on the premise that teachers are better teachers of writing when they are writers themselves.

We focus on strategies and reflection, on pedagogy and educational theory. We work with teachers to strengthen their craft by connecting them with research, writing, and a network of other teacher writers. We work with teachers that are working desperately to reconcile what they know is true about children with what is true about teaching public school. How writing with passion can coexist with writing to a prompt. How informed writing for authentic audiences can accompany writing for a state accountability system.

Something I find over and over as I work with teachers is the unspoken, ever-present idea of FEAR. The fear of not doing enough for our students. The fear of doing so much for our students that we neglect our own families. The fear that high-stakes testing beats the joy out of school, for us and for the students we love. We fear litigation and not being able to provide for our families. We fear what happens to our students when they are not in our care. We fear what might happen to our jobs if we speak up for our kids, for our profession, for each other. We are scared. 

Well said, Lee S. Shulman. Teaching is so technical that it is way more than a profession. It is as much art as it is dance as it is theory and surely adding countless young humans (and their parents) into that equation is terrifying. But, dear friends, identifying the fear is not enough. We are frightened, but as every brilliant teacher knows, it is not enough to sit paralyzed by that monster under the bed. We have to be BRAVE.

B: Be informed. Brave teachers are learners. They know what the issues are, and they know where to find answers. They have studies and articles and professors and other teachers to pull from, count on, and lean-in to. This community is in person and online, it is found in PLNs and podcasts, in classrooms and Voxer groups. This community gives teachers a collective voice to call upon when they need back-up from an educational posse of committed professionals who all want what is best for kids.

R: Reflect: Brave teachers are highly reflective. They are constantly asking themselves what could be improved. They are quick to identify when something does not work and they are committed to finding a better way. They know when a lesson goes haywire. They do not continually search out people to blame: kids, parents, administrators, a flawed system, but instead think about causes and practical solutions. Brave teachers open themselves up for reflection by talking to others: colleagues, coaches, and administrators. They are humbled by the enormity of their power as a teacher, and are continually looking for ways to empower others.

A: Accept reality: Brave teachers understand that there are certain things that cannot be changed. Initiatives, mandates, state curriculum guidelines, your class list- lots of things are just reality and time is wasted when we fret over them. Jim Knight, a research associate in the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning and director of the Kansas Coaching Project, talks about the, "current classroom reality." When teachers are open and honest about what the realities are, they are better equipped to take targeted action towards strengthening instructional practices and ultimately, improving learning environments for our students.

V: Voraciously read: Brave teachers are readers. They read blog posts, journals, and Twitter feeds. They read e-mails from parents, administrators, and colleagues. They read children's books and YA books and Bluebonnet books and graphic novels to share with reluctant readers. They continually sift through a never-ending feed of words and phrases and information and research and opinions and must be cognizant of what is worth paying attention to, and what needs to be dismissed. Education is a rollercoaster of a profession, with jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords that are gone as quickly as a teacher's lunch break. Brave teachers consider this reading work not only necessary to their effectiveness as educators, and it has always been one of my favorite parts of the job!

E: Engage: Brave teachers are engaged. They engage with their students, their colleagues, and the families they affect. They are engaged in the process of teaching and learning. They are engaged in local policy, in weekend soccer games, and in the communities where they teach. They do not get to disengage at the grocery store on the weekend. They do not get to disengage when they do not feel well. They engage in relationships and hard work, in problem solving and celebrations. They stay engaged because they love what they do.

I'm so humbled to work alongside such brave teachers each day. Teachers who believe Haim Ginott's quote and live out the implications of such beautiful and powerful words:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” 

Be brave, teacher friends. We are all standing behind you.

Brave teacher books...