Free webinar with Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

janandkimcropHow to Make Learning Stick: 3 Ways to Boost Your Reading Instruction
Wednesday, March 28, 2 p.m. ET

Have you ever felt frustrated when students don’t apply the skills and strategies you know you have taught them? You might ask yourself, “Why is this happening? Why isn’t my instruction transferring?”

Through their work in classrooms across the country, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris have identified three elements that determine how well instruction transfers, and they will share them with you in this hourlong webinar. You’ll learn:
• The most important part of any reading lesson;
• Why instruction can fail even when a lesson is instructionally sound;
• How to avoid unintentionally creating learned helplessness in readers.
Jan and Kim will suggest specific strategies that you can put to use immediately, and they will help teachers, principals, and administrators work together to create independent, empowered readers.

Jan and Kim are the authors of the bestselling book, Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More and the upcoming Who’s Doing the Work? Lesson Sets.

When: Wednesday, March 28, 2 p.m. EST
Can’t make the date? Register anyway for access to the archived version!

Who should attend: K-5 teachers, literacy specialists, principals, and district administrators.

Add comment March 23rd, 2018

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast – Episode I

We are excited to launch a new podcast series about mentoring new teachers. Stenhouse author Shawna Coppola has been talking with Laura, a new kindergarten teacher. Join us and follow along as they discuss Laura’s first year of teaching.

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast-Episode 1
By Shawna Coppola

When Stenhouse asked me if I wanted to mentor a new teacher through her first year and record the experience for posterity, I barely took a breath before saying yes. As someone who has taught for nearly two decades, I still feel the desire to be mentored, to surround myself with supportive individuals who understand the joyful, yet challenging, life of an educator and can occasionally offer a sage piece of advice, a thought-provoking question, a listening ear, or–most importantly, for me anyway–a much-needed laugh.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway, and loudly, for those sitting in the back) that teachers are engaged in some of the most complex work imaginable. If you don’t believe me, spend a day in a public school classroom; it’s all the time you’ll need to witness the hundreds of important decisions made (often on the fly), the masterful integration of a seemingly endless variety of skills, and the near-superhuman capacity for empathy and grace.

Laura is an educator who, even in her first year, demonstrates all of these things. A kindergarten teacher in a K-6 public school serving approximately 300 students, Laura confessed to me during our very first conversation together that she knew from early on that she wanted to work with children. This year, she teaches–largely independently, with only occasional access to a classroom aide–22 of them, although the number varies depending on the fluctuation of families moving in and out of the community. According to Laura, the students she has this year are kind, motivated to learn, and, for the most part, “want to be” in school.

Like many teachers, though, Laura finds it difficult to balance building positive, healthy relationships with her students alongside “managing” them as a whole group. One of her biggest challenges is related to planning and making all of the (aforementioned) decisions she must make as a teacher–both ahead of time and “in the moment.” She worries about how to fit in valuable instruction around skills that many perceive as “non-academic” or “soft” along with more traditionally-recognized “academic” skills.

In this first audio post, which was recorded in October of 2017,  Laura and I discuss the enormous, all-too-familiar challenge of “fitting it all in”–particularly with regard to literacy–and how to maintain a daily schedule for her students that is meaningful, engaging, and developmentally appropriate.


Boushey, G., & Moser, J. (2006). The Daily 5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

#kinderchat (Twitter chat, Mondays 9:00 PM EST)

Mraz. K. & Hertz, C. (2015). A mindset for learning: Teaching the traits of joyful, independent growth. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mraz, Kristine. Kinderconfidential [Blog].

Keep reading for the full transcript!

Add comment February 27th, 2018

Fostering Professional Relationships to Facilitate Peer Observations

In the third installment of our series by elementary principal Matt Renwick, he talks about how–and why–he encourages his teachers to observe each other in the classroom.

We know that one of the best ways to improve collective instruction in a school is by watching excellent teaching in action and then applying these strategies to our practice. We know this, yet we often fail to act even though excellence might be a few doors down from our classroom.

What dissuades teachers from watching each other teach? Time, for sure. We also might feel guilty about leaving our own students in order to invest in ourselves through peer observation and peer coaching. “What will our kids do without us?” we might ask.

In my own previous prodding and nudging of teachers to get into other classrooms, often resulting either in failure or compliance, I have discovered there needs to be a safe and innovative school environment for genuine peer-to-peer learning. Teachers need to feel like they can take risks in letting someone come into their classroom, as well as in acknowledging that they may still have something to learn.

A high-quality learning environment has two elements in place: strong levels of trust and clear communication within the building [link “trust” and “communication” to previous two posts]. You can see evidence of this in schools, such as in the informal collegial conversations among faculty and in the high-quality student work posted in the school hallways. The walls do talk.

When trust and communication are high, professional relationships have the potential to be formed. Relationships can be defined as “the way two people are connected”. This connection, even a loose tie, is a prerequisite for effective peer observations to take place.

The rest of this article describes the steps our school took to facilitate peer observations with our kindergarten teachers. The purpose was to discover new ideas for literacy instruction.

Identifying a Need

Our school’s newest hire is one of our kindergarten teachers. Knowing high-quality professional learning includes peer observations and peer coaching (Routman, 2018, pg. 76), I connected with the kindergarten team to consider this possibility. All were open to it.

A Connection to Relationships: It helped that this team has taken the initiative to create a collaborative learning environment not only for their students, but also for themselves. For example, they turned their storage space into a team meeting room. They use this room to meet for PLCs as well as to have lunch together during their noon break.

Scheduling the Visits

One of those challenges with peer observations is finding coverage for the visiting teacher. I offered my time, although I am sometimes called away as the principal to deal with a behavior issue or a pressing matter. Fortunately, our district leadership had the foresight to create an instructional coaching position. This person stepped up and offered to teach kindergarten while one teacher was observing their colleague’s instruction.

A Connection to Relationships: Our instructional coach, new this year, has gone out of her way to foster connections with every faculty member in the building. One way is by stopping into classrooms on a regular basis. “I am simply coming in to get to know you and your students a little better” was her brief explanation at a staff meeting early in the school year. These regular touches, non-threatening and from a point of curiosity, has fostered professional relationships in several classrooms. The results has been multiple teachers volunteering for coaching cycles with this specialist, including this learning experience.

Initiating the Peer Observations

The day had come. Our new teacher was up first, coming into visit a more veteran colleague. The other two observations would commence in the subsequent days. The host teacher shared her intentions for the day’s lesson ahead of time. My role was to provide minimal guidance for our new teacher. I gave them a form I use when conducting my instructional walks [link back to post about instructional walks] as a way to frame the observation.

Student Goals Written by Teacher

Student Goals Written by Teacher


A Connection to Relationships: Prior to this learning experience, I had been a frequent visitor to every classroom. Acknowledging the positive aspects of teachers’ literacy instruction has helped create the conditions for this innovative work to occur. They have become comfortable with my presence as a principal because I focused first on strengths. From the teachers’ perspective, I imagine having another teacher in their room might be even less threatening.

Celebrating and Reflecting on the Experience

“I was impressed with how she is already having her students learning sight words.” This comment, shared with me from a veteran teacher, came after she had observed our newest colleague. Soon after, I relayed this information to the first year teacher. “Oh, wow, that’s nice to hear,” she responded.

We could have gone with a structured reflection and debrief led by me. But it didn’t feel right. I wanted to give them ownership in the process and treat them like the professionals that they are. Plus, they had taken time out of their busy days to make this happen. So I provided lunch the next day, along with a thank you for participating in this experience. “If you want to just chat and enjoy yourselves, that would be great. Not necessary to have any formal reflection.”

A Connection to Relationships: Did any debriefing happen? I’d like to think so. Even if not, I felt good about how the peer coaching experience went based on their comments and my observations. Regie shares her own wisdom in building trusting relationships among administrators during a school visit. “I know they were surprised when I said, ‘Let’s not work through lunch. Let’s take a well-deserved break and just enjoy our time together.’ We wound up talking about our families, hobbies, cooking, and favorite things to do and eat. At the end of lunch, I felt closer to each one of them” (pg. 10). The relationships formed today can lead to powerful learning in the future.

Giving teachers time to form relationships, with their students and with each other, is built on the foundation of trust and communication. The experiences we facilitate in our schools, such as peer coaching, can only be successful with these elements in place. While the ultimate goal is literacy engagement, excellence, and equity for all learners, as literacy leaders we have to remember and attend to the means to achieve this end.

Add comment February 26th, 2018

The Secret to Teaching Writing Well

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge kicks off March 1 and we are excited to have this guest post from author Stacey Shubitz on the secret to teaching writing well. (Shhh, it has to do with being a writer!)

The Secret to Teaching Writing Well
By Stacey Shubitz

secret-2725302_1280Last month, I was eating lunch alongside a dedicated fourth-grade teacher whom I’ve been working with this year. She’s the kind of teacher who reads professional literature regularly. She co-creates charts alongside her students and refers to them in mini-lessons. She spends hours providing feedback to her students on their drafts. Despite doing all of these things, she felt as though the teaching of writing challenges her in ways she didn’t anticipate when she began using the workshop model a year-and-a-half ago.

“Am I doing anything wrong?” she asked.

“Not from where I stand. You’re well-prepared daily and consume so many professional texts.”

“What’s the secret?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“What’s the secret to being a great writing teacher?” she asked.

“No one’s every asked me that before,” I said. I pondered her question, then asked her one of my own. “Are you writing every day?”

She looked away and said, “no.”

“That’s the secret. You have to be a teacher who writes.”

“But I don’t have time to write every day,” she confessed.

“What if writing every day will make everything you do with your students easier? Would you be able to find ten minutes in your day – daily – to do it?”

“If it would make teaching writing easier, then I would,” she said.

“Well, let’s work together to help you find the time.”


My first literacy coach, Pat Werner, told me I needed to write alongside my students if I wanted to teach writing well. I was a first-year teacher who wanted to succeed so I did everything Pat told me to do. I published a piece of writing every single time my students completed a unit of study (which was eight times during my first year of teaching!). In addition, I started a writer’s notebook, which I wrote in regularly. I listened to Pat and therefore have never taught writing without writing regularly.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that being a teacher who writes is the secret to teaching writing well since you are a bona fide part of the classroom writing community. When teachers write in-service of creating teacher-written mentor texts for their minilessons, they’re able to tailor their teaching so they are not only teaching what a strategy is and why it matters, but how to carry out a strategy in their writing. Teachers who write and share their writing show their students the attempts they’ve made. When their attempts become mistakes, they’re able to talk about them and show students how they’ve grown as a writer by taking writing-related risks. In addition, teachers who write can anticipate the hard parts of the writing process during a unit of study, which helps them respond empathetically to students.

Living a writerly life can happen by devoting ten minutes of every day to writing in a notebook. However, many people find writing in a notebook isn’t enough for them since they need accountability partners and an audience to read and respond to their writing. If you fall into the second category, then I invite you to join the 11th Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers.

(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

The Slice of Life Story Challenge began on Two Writing Teachers in 2008. The online challenge’s mission is to support teachers who want to develop and sustain a daily writing habit. Over the years, the challenge has given rise to a community of teacher-writers who are better able to support the students they serve in writing workshops by helping them to live a writerly life. Every day, for the month of March, teachers are invited to write a slice of life story – an anecdotal piece of writing about a segment of one’s day – on their own blogs and then share the link to their story on Two Writing Teachers. Each person who leaves a link to his/her own blog visits at least three other people’s blogs to comment on their slice-of-life writing.

Many teachers have found daily participation in the Slice of Life Story Challenge has helped them find a tribe of like-minded educators who they can share pieces of their life with. Many of us meet up at local, state, and national conferences so we can connect in-person, not just online, about teaching and writing. In addition, participation in the Slice of Life Story Challenge provides many teachers with a special kind of camaraderie with their students. Being a teacher-writer means teachers can transform their students’ lives because they believe in the power of writing.

The people who participate in the Slice of Life Story Challenge are a welcoming community of teacher-writers – at varying points in their educational careers – who come together to share blog posts about the ordinary moments every Tuesday and every day during the month of March. I hope you will join us for the 11th Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which begins on Thursday, March 1st. Click here to find out how to join our community of writers.


Stacey Shubitz is an independent literacy consultant, an adjunct professor, and a former elementary school teacher. She’s the author Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective PracticeShe is presently working on a book with Lynne Dorfman, which has the working title of WELCOME TO WRITING WORKSHOP (anticipated publication date: Winter 2018/19). She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz.


2 comments February 16th, 2018

Communication Strategies for Partnering with Parents

In this second in a series of blog posts, elementary principal Matt Renwick shares how his schools uses the strategies found in Regie Routman’s new book Literacy Essentials to form lasting, productive partnerships with parents.

Communication Strategies for Partnering with Parents
Matt Renwick

“When parents are truly viewed as partners and not obstacles, students are more likely to be successful regardless of where they go to school.” – Regie Routman

The people both inside and outside our schools form an opinion of our work with students. This is why we are intentional in our efforts to communicate and partner with parents in our important work. In her new book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, Regie highlights important strategies in this area (pgs. 19-23). Our school district in Mineral Point, Wisconsin has been leading the way in leveraging technologies to communicate with families, with a special focus on reading and writing in the classroom. Next is a list of strategies Regie recommends for partnering with parents, along with the digital tools used to help facilitate this essential part of literacy leadership.

  • Invite parents to join us as partners. Families with students enrolled in our schools should be our champions, our biggest advocates in our quest for excellent literacy opportunities for all students. (It may not be a coincidence that “parents” and “partners” are almost anagrams!) Their perceptions about the learning experience in our school are critical for a school’s success. Our district has an active Facebook page that regularly posts pictures, videos, and announcements. Some of these posts encourage families and community members to work with the school in various ways, such as donating books to a classroom library or running for an open school board position.
  • Make contact early in the school year. Several of our teachers gather contact information from parents during Meet and Greet night in the early fall. They set up school messenger accounts through Remind and other applications. Parents receive notifications on their smartphones and computers about what is happening in the classroom, sometimes on a daily basis. Families can comment on these posts and even message their child’s teacher if questions come up. Because this form of communication is online, only information that is positive and informative is shared.
  • Share visual snapshots of life in the classroom. A professional goal of mine is to capture and celebrate learning happening in our classrooms on a regular basis. A preferred mode of mine for public celebration is Twitter. I use this social media because it is open to anyone in the world to view and respond. My posts are pretty simple; a recent tweet highlighted a 4K teacher introducing an author/writer center to her students. Yet from a parent’s point of view, the text and images or video of this experience creates a window into the classroom. With each tweet, I include our self-selected hashtag #pointernation to ensure visibility with parents and the school community.


  • Create personal, classroom, or school blogs. Using blogs, also known as “web logs”, to communicate the classroom experience with parents can go many ways. Teachers can maintain a personal blog using tools such as Edublogs to document the teaching and learning happening in their classrooms. Also, each student can maintain a personal classroom blog through Kidblog, a safe and secure technology where kids can share their learning artifacts and comment on the work of other students. WordPress is another popular tool that schools can leverage for their websites and parent communications. I have a school-based blog on our WordPress-powered website, where I publish 2-4 posts a month that highlight current school news and learning experiences.
  • Provide easy access to information. Parents and teachers are busy. Educators are wise to communicate about each child’s school experience in smarter ways. Digital portolio tools such as FreshGrade and Seesaw give students the ability to document their learning as it happens. For example, students can video record each other reading aloud a favorite book and then post this artifact of fluency and comprehension into their portfolios. If completed monthly, parents and teacher get a regular update about each student’s reading progress over time. This information can be just as powerful for assessing literacy growth as a benchmark assessment or a screener.




  • Incorporate weekly newsletters. Our school office assistant utilizes Smore, a web-based newsletter tool that Regie recommends in her book as well. Images, video, and web links can be naturally embedded within important text such as announcements and reminders. We also utilize Smore to celebrate all of the good things happening in our school. For instance, we post scheduled family literacy night dates along with a link to RSVP. After an event, images from the experience are shared in a future newsletter. Examples of literacy events we host include Popcorn, Movie, and a Book (movie based on a book) and Take a Book to the Beach. These weekly communications help build a culture that embraces literacy, community, and celebration.

Certainly, these technologies are nice, sometimes necessary. Yet for all of our efforts in connecting online with families, nothing can replace the in-person communications that we facilitate within our schools. For example, we installed a book shelf and a nice bench in the front lobby of our building. Parents use this space to read aloud to a younger sibling while they wait for an older brother or sister to be dismissed at the end of the day.


Technology is a means for our communication efforts. The ends are the goals of our school: to build essential literacy skills for a lifetime and ensure engagement, excellence, and equity for all learners.

Add comment January 29th, 2018

Building a Literacy Culture with Instructional Walks

“A thriving, trusting culture helps any organization succeed and is a major factor in why people choose to stay. Without trust, we are all less likely to invest our energies in taking on new tasks and challenges. Everything meaningful that happens in a classroom, a school, and a district depends on a bedrock foundation of mutual respect, trust, collaboration, fairness, and physical and emotional safety.”

– Regie Routman, Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners (Stenhouse, 2018)

In the first of three articles, elementary principal Matt Renwick shares how he builds a literacy culture by developing a sense of trust through instructional walks. The second and third articles will highlight relationships and communication, respectively.

Building a Literacy Culture with Instructional Walks
By Matt Renwick

Instructional walks are the daily visits a school leader makes in classrooms. They are non-evaluative in nature. Rather, the purpose is to build a sense of trust with teachers by communicating both verbally and nonverbally that the school leader is here to support their important work. With the way our current educational system has been set up, with teachers’ practice broken down into isolated criteria and scored, administrators are sometimes pitted against teachers. This is unfortunate. Just as “trusting relationships are a necessity for students and teachers to engage in serious learning and for all learners in a school to flourish” (Routman, 2018, pg. 9), so to should school leaders partner with their teachers.

In the beginning of my tenure as a school leader, I have used instructional walks to observe what is happening in the classroom and affirm the good work that is already taking place. It might be a simple comment, such as “Your bulletin board with the students’ book reviews really caught my eye when I came in to your classroom.” A typical response to this affirmation is a smile along with an explanation of the students’ work.



I might also write a small note with a similar comment and leave it on their desk. I get custom stationary made for these affirmations and celebrations. Using professionally made materials conveys the importance of our interactions. Over the years, I have found that teachers treasure these notes much more than any evaluation I might conduct, sometimes pinning them on tagboard by their desk.

Once I feel that teachers are comfortable with me coming into their classrooms (the students are fine; they are the most adaptable people in a school), I will start writing longer narratives about what I notice in the classroom. I’ll generally give teachers a heads up on this transition at a staff meeting, reinforcing that these instructional walks are not evaluative, although they are welcome to take whatever I write and use those comments for their professional portfolios and as artifacts for their teacher evaluations. In the past, I’ve waited too long to start conducting longer visits with instructional walks. That’s a mistake. The sooner I get into classrooms and stick around for longer periods of time, anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, the sooner teachers feel this practice is the new normal. Also, because the instructional walks focus first on recognizing teachers’ strengths, trust develops as a by-product.

Building trust is a complex task that requires a recipe for success. So what are the necessary ingredients for a successful instructional walk?

  • Pen and paper (or a tablet and stylus if you prefer)
  • Time scheduled in the day to visit classrooms
  • Guiding questions to help focus the instructional walk
  • A positive, growth-oriented mindset

Of these four, the most important ingredient is the positive, growth-oriented mindset. To build trust, we have to show that we trust our teachers. With regard to the guiding questions, Regie Routman offers several examples to keep in mind when observing instruction in classrooms (2014, pg. 202). Below are a few of my favorites when getting start with instructional walks.

  • Who’s doing most of the talking? Are all students’ voices being heard?
  • Are the language and conversations moving student learning forward?
  • How are choices being provided for students?
  • Is assessment for learning, by teachers and students, taking place daily?
  • Is time being provided for sustained and deliberate practice?

I like these general instruction questions to start with, as all teachers can be expected to provide at minimum an effective learning experience for students.

Next are artifacts from an instructional walk I conducted in my school. We had previously learned about how to organize a classroom library with students. All teachers were expected to try and apply this teaching strategy. My observations take place in a 1st grade classroom.

The teacher shares new books to place in their classroom library. “How should we organize them?”

The teacher shares new books to place in their classroom library. “How should we organize them?”


Students and the teacher decide to put them in groups based on the genre of nonfiction they represent.

Students and the teacher decide to put them in groups based on the genre of nonfiction they represent.


Students write and attach appropriate labels to the books before shelving them.

Students write and attach appropriate labels to the books before shelving them.


Students place the books in their proper location.

Students place the books in their proper location.


Teacher debriefs with a shared writing summary of the classroom library experience.

Teacher debriefs with a shared writing summary of the classroom library experience.


My notes, which are emailed to the teacher.

My notes, which are emailed to the teacher.

Before leaving the classroom, I made a point of affirming the teacher’s efforts. “Every student was engaged in this activity in a purposeful way!” We discussed how much more the students are using the classroom library during independent reading and taking books home to read. The teacher also noted that instruction around genres is happening within the context of this authentic activity. We agreed that organizing a classroom library can be an ongoing instructional experience throughout the school year.

One of the most important actions I make as a school leader when building a literacy culture is conducting instructional walks. They allow me to celebrate what teachers are already doing well, reinforce new strategies that are tried and applied in the classroom, and ensure that all students are experiencing high-quality instruction. Trust is a natural outcome of visiting classrooms on a regular, positive, and intentional basis.


Routman, R. (2018). Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

(Thanks go to our first grade teachers at Mineral Point Elementary School for letting me share their work here, and to Kimberly O’Donnell, principal, for her helpful feedback on this article.)

Add comment January 16th, 2018

‘Test prep isn’t comprehension at all’

“If kids read a lot and use comprehension strategies flexibly and knowledgeably, they will do pretty well on the tests.”

In our latest video conversation with Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, authors of Strategies That Work, Third Edition, talk about how teaching comprehension strategies and allowing kids plenty of time to read ultimately result not only better test results, but more importantly in kids who are life-long readers.

Join Steph and Anne on Twitter this Thursday, 12/14, at 8:30 p.m. EST for a #G2Great chat where they will answer all of your questions!


Add comment December 11th, 2017

Meet us in St. Louis

It’s that time of the year when we pack our bags, our books, and head off to the annual NCTE conference–this time, in St. Louis! We hope to see you there! We will be at booth #615 with our full lineup of new books. Come and pick up one of our fabulous tote bags and meet & chat with our authors. Download a full list of signings and sessions with our authors here.

Stenhouse bag

Meet & Chat schedule at the booth:
11:30 a.m.: Ruth Culham, author of Dream Wakers
12:30 p.m.: Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough, authors of Conferring with Young Writers
1 p.m.: Ruth Ayres, author of Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers
1:30 p.m.: Kelly Gallagher, author of In the Best Interest of Students
2 p.m.: Brian Kissel, author of When Writers Drive the Workshop
2 p.m.: Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg, author of The Author’s Apprentice
2:30 p.m.: Kathy Short, Deanna Day, and Jean Schroeder, editors of Teaching Globally
4 p.m.: Shawna Coppola, author of Renew!
5 p.m.: Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, authors of Strategies That Work

11 a.m.: Stacey Shubitz, author of Craft Moves
11:30 a.m.: Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of Mentor Texts, Second Edition
1:30 .m.: Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca, authors of Patterns of Power
2 p.m.: Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, authors of Who’s Doing the Work?
3 p.m.: Jennifer Fletcher, author of Teaching Arguments
4:30 p.m.: Melissa Stewart, author of Perfect Pairs

9:30 a.m.: Katie Cunningham, author of Story


Add comment November 7th, 2017

Why I Write with My Students

To celebrate the National Day on Writing and the upcoming month of NaNoWriMo, we invited Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg, author of The Author’s Apprentice, to share why she writes WITH her students, instead of just assigning writing TO them. Her response is powerful.

Why I Write with My Students
By Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

Let’s start here: #WhyIWrite.

I am a writer at heart. I grew up writing stories and poems. As a teenager, I wrote to escape things that were going on in my life—or to celebrate them (or that cute upperclassman in my German class who finally noticed me!). I often wrote it out to make sense of the world and my place in it. I wrote of social justice in my community, and educational equity for the kids who were in lower-level classes than I. Sometimes, though, I simply wrote what was on my heart.

No wonder I became an English teacher.

When I ask my students at the beginning of the year why they write, I generally get one of two responses:
• The high-achieving, teacher-pleasers will comment that it is a necessary form of civilized communication, yada…yada…
• The honest ones answer: “Because the teacher makes me.”

For most of my students, writing is not their first love (or their second, or anywhere near the top ten). Although all are fantastically savvy and creative with their memes and eighty-character-or-less “Insta-Snaps,” (my pet name for all of those social media outlets), very few would consider themselves writers. Even if they do send several hundred Snaps a day.

Any published author will tell you that writing–the actual act of pen-to-paper, fingers-to-keyboard writing—is terribly lonely. And that is coming from professional folks who presumably love to write. I can’t fathom how incredibly lonely each independent writing assignment must feel for a student who has never had success in this content area… the one who struggles to get his ideas straight in his head before he can write a single word… the one whose inner editor has already told her that whatever she writes will never be good enough.

I’ve witnessed firsthand, students sitting there, sweating, watching their classmates plow ahead while they continue to get left behind. I am sure that all of you can identify these struggling writers in your own classrooms.

Writing is scary and overwhelming for students who have never had a positive writing experience. They view the teacher as judge and jury, and their classmates as competition.

An African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this age of assessment, have we forgotten that it also takes a community to develop a writer?

That’s #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents.

As of the day I wrote this post, I found that the above is not an actual trending hashtag. (Although, I think it should be.) Of course, #WhyIWrite is the hashtag that accompanies the National Day on Writing on October 20 (NDOW). What if we used this day to commit to developing our young writers by writing with them, as opposed to assigning writing to them?

The beautiful thing about the timing of NDOW is that with a bit of preparation, it can serve as the perfect springboard from a day on writing to a month of writing, together.

I am talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you have not done NaNoWriMo with a class yet, you are missing out on an incredible opportunity to build your own fierce, “I’ve-got-your-back” community of writers for November and beyond. I have yet to discover anything as powerful for helping all students rise with the tide, and build English class camaraderie. Sharing this common writing experience by participating in NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program ( is a life-changing, writing-affirming experience for students and teachers alike. Taking the time on October 20th to introduce your class to this epic challenge is a perfect way to honor our students and National Day on Writing.

Throughout the month of November, we join together in word-sprints to build fluency of thought and writing. We share our favorite written lines or passages each week, to show how our inner muses are naturally incorporating the grammar, writer’s crafts and figures of speech that we learned in class. We show our vulnerability and encourage each other in the classroom and online at the end of week two, when we all struggle with writer’s block because none of our characters wants to cooperate with the story arcs we had in mind. We celebrate word-count milestones and offer support and suggestions for those who have petered out.

Doing this together makes us all stronger—as writers, and as a genuine community of learners.

While a specific word count is a personal goal, we strive as a class to meet milestones. Whether a student’s ten percent milestone is 500 or 5,000 words, students of all ability levels celebrate these accomplishments together. For this month, all writers are encouraged to “turn off their inner editors” and write unapologetically without fear of red correction marks. By simply sharing a common space and writing together, all students develop confidence and fluency in writing and thought that transfers seamlessly into future assignments and other content areas.

It is already mid-October, but it is not too late. Here are two options for helping you develop that prized writing community this fall:
Option 1 (the Writing Rebel’s approach): Abandon your curriculum for the month, and dive head first into this community of writers thing! The Young Writer’s Program of National Novel Writing Month has done a fantastic job putting together comprehensive workbooks that students can print or complete online. They have listed all of the Common Core connections, so you can easily justify this madness to your supervisors.

Option 2 (the Sensible Writing-Teacher-Who-Has-A-Ton-of-Material-to-Cover approach): Look at your curriculum. Then, take a look at the NaNoWriMo Workbook for your grade level. Think about places where the two naturally align. Are you planning to, or have you already studied characterization, conflict or plot structure? NaNoWriMo made it easy to bridge your curriculum with their well-designed lesson plans. When you are studying mood and tone, denotation and connotation, and even irony and symbolism, or imagery and figures of speech, it is more impactful when your reading and analysis lessons are incorporated into their writing. (For more explicit lessons for intertwining your existing curricula with National Novel Writing Month, check out The Author’s Apprentice.)

All students deserve to have a positive experience before they move on to the next grade. Every child needs to know what it feels like to write through something with their classmates, so that they can appreciate what it feels like to be on the other side of it, together. When we intentionally design our curriculum based on common experiences, rather than common assessments, everyone succeeds.

The top ten reasons #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents:
10. to show vulnerability
9. to share a bit of myself
8. to share my passion
7. to show that it is healthy, normal, & part of the process to make mistakes
6. to learn about my students, their process and their world
5. to show how much I value my students and the assignments I ask them to complete
4. because 30 brains are better than one
3. because writing can be lonely if you are alone
2. to build a true community of writers
1. to build a community of learners who help each other succeed in all things

Who’s ready to accept the challenge? Let’s get this hashtag trending: #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents

4 comments October 17th, 2017

Reading like a writer

Ruth Culham, author of Dream Wakers and The Writing Thief, dropped by our office recently and she took the time to teach a lesson on reading like a writer (featuring Maybe Something Beautiful by Isabel Campoy), followed by strategies to practice student writing in varied modes, such as narrative, informational, and opinion.


Add comment October 2nd, 2017

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