In her book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers, author and poet Shirley McPhillips shows how teachers can include poetry in the daily life of the classroom and in the lives of students. Dozens of poems throughout the book can be used as mentor texts as they serve to instruct and inspire. In her latest guest post, Shirl helps us consider the importance of getting poems out into the classroom airwaves on day one, to lay a foundation for engagement and growth throughout the year.
Poems, right from the start
By Shirley McPhillips
I became a poet because of poetry’s great mystery and partly because of a second-grade teacher I had who believed poetry was at the center of the universe.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Here’s a story:
One steamy first day of school in eighth grade, the students, still barefoot on the beaches of their minds, sat in muted reverie. The teacher, Miss Eloise, smiled, said hello, then bravely picked up her faded blue copy of Emily Dickinson. She looked at the students for a time, to let some seriousness sink in, then “introduced” herself.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Miss Eloise said hearing a poem once was never enough for her. She wondered if anyone else would like to read it to the class. She waited. Daryl’s hand went up. That got everybody’s attention. He tried to use the same expression as Miss Eloise, to the amusement of all. She smiled appreciatively and thanked Daryl for his “spirited” rendition.
That was it! No rules and regulations. Just hanging a poem in the air. This was my new class. My new teacher! A rare and strange feeling (as Dickinson said herself) came over me, as if the top of my head were taken off. I didn’t understand that poem really, nor some poems we read later, but I felt their power. And the power of a teacher who believed in words to instruct and inspire. Believed is us. Had faith that when we became friendly enough with poems, we would make connections. We would find out how they might work, on paper and in our lives.
I no longer recall what happened next that first day so long ago. I do recall we didn’t dissect the poem, or try to figure out what we thought it “meant.” I remember at the end of class Miss Eloise gave each of us a small packet of poems, as a welcome to the new year. Perhaps we might find one we liked, she said. If not, we needn’t worry. There were plenty of poems in the world for everyone. We would find what we wanted, what we needed. And leave the rest for others.
The waters parted.
Of course, as the year went on, no matter what other subject matter presented itself, there were always poems. We were building up a friendship with them. We opened up to talk about them, to consider our own connections. To consider our own questions, not just answer Miss Eloise’s. We collected poems in folders and began to write our own. That was the beginning of my discovery, with poet Mary Oliver, that poems can be a “life cherishing force.” That understanding has lasted to this day. Ever growing.
BUILDING UP A FRIENDSHIP WITH POETRY
Poems are short. It doesn’t take much time to read a poem and think about it. And that’s what our students who hope to live with poems, who hope to write poems, need to do. Day one / week one, we can get poems out into the airwaves, pin them up against the light. Give them a chance to circulate with pleasure. It works best if the habit of poetry is embedded in our experiences from day to day, where we live. Not just on special occasions.
To build up a friendship with poems that will be the foundation for going deeper over time, we need some foundational beliefs about what might support students in this goal. Once we say, “Yes, that sounds like something important for readers and writers of poems,” the next question becomes, “So what can we arrange that will give this a chance of happening?” Considering the first question, here’s my short list for now. You might want to revise and add to it.
Students need opportunities to:
•read and listen to some poems without an expectation to “do” anything.
Just breathe them in and out. Not to “analyze.” Just hear the sounds. Feel the rhythms. Experience. Get a “taste.” Crack open the door of fear to let a little light come in. Realize one can be moved by words without always knowing why. Just like we can be moved by music without knowing why. A little mystery is good. Not everything has an answer, in poems and in life.
•read poems more than once, the more often the better
Revisit poems they’re attracted to for different reasons. To be allowed time to “request” poems to listen to and read together again. To revisit and share poems they’ve collected, or that have been charted, or tagged.
•choose their own poems to enjoy, explore, talk with others about
(in addition to those the teacher will want to introduce them to).
Collecting poems, sharing with each other, reading poems consistently across time, students build up their own personal taste, an identity with poems and poets.
•write out lines and poems they like
For sounds of language, for image, for memories they evoke, because of an intimate connection. Writing (or typing) out a poem helps you know it more closely. You are doing exactly what the poet did, and what you can do any time you want.
•listen to and read different types of poems, by different authors, to broaden the field and welcome challenges.
Becoming more familiar with different ways poems can look and sound, we become more comfortable with tasting something new. Like a traveler who happily anticipates trying new cuisine instead of turning up her nose because it’s “different.” If we feel we have to do something “serious” with every poem we read, we won’t read enough of them to get a sense of what they can be, of finding those that stick with us.
•give voice by reading poems aloud, individually and in chorus with others.
To catch the sounds and tune the ear. To bring poems inside. And out again. Poetry is a “bodily art” says poet Robert Pinsky. Reading aloud, we can begin to intuit a feel for craft. Craft is partly what directs us how to read a poem.
•excuse themselves from the company of those who would beat a poem “with a hose to find out what it really means” (Collins 2001, 16).
“Meaning” is made at the point where a reader connects with the “voice”—some inner verbal music— of a poem. An immense intimacy is felt. An exchange takes place in which something new is created. This is a personal relationship. Mysterious and miraculous. We do want to get closer to some poems as we go, especially as writers learning craft. Also, to take pleasure in the challenges of the poem, in what the writer has done to delight or move us.
•respond naturally and openly to poems
To begin, simply “say something.” Or, “What do you notice?” “What does this make you think?” Noticing and thinking. Two actions we want to become habits. They can last all year, carry over to other endeavors, the responses and interactions becoming deeper and more extended. A good way for teachers to observe, listen, get to know the students: What is she noticing? What is she thinking based on that observation? From that information, notice how the ability to observe and think deepens with consistency, experience and the work of the community. This is a foundation for those who will be writing poems.
CHOOSING POEMS, RIGHT FROM THE START
In the beginning of the year (and always) I choose to read poems aloud that I delight in, that move me in some way, that show extraordinary craft. I also hope these poems will help set a tone of openness and thoughtfulness; will help build “community think.” At the same time, I want to encourage a curiosity for the limitless ways poems can be. We will revisit these poems along the way. Some of the specifics I list here may be helpful in choosing many other poems for read aloud and discussion. You’ll find your own.
A very few examples. Key:—perhaps older students, •perhaps younger students, **perhaps both
— “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell Luscious words, wonderful metaphor, September experience
— “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon
Anaphora (repetition of first lines), tapping into memories, things that represent a life, springboard for sharing appreciation of life’s moments, great as a model for exploring one’s own life
— “Unfolding Bud” by Naoshi Koriyama
Amazing metaphor for unfolding of a poem, for reading again and again
— “The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes” by Mekeel McBride
Different perspectives of ordinary object, touch of humor, human condition we can relate to, conversational tone, comparison to a poem
— “Deformed Finger” by Hal Sirowitz From the author’s collection of advice from his mother, funny stream-of -consciousness, identifiable, poems from the ordinary made extraordinary
** Stone Bench in an Empty Park selected by Paul Janeczko
Anthology of haiku that shows poets looking carefully at what’s around them in the city.
Intriguing images, like taking a walk and looking around.
** “Teased” from Secrets of a Smaller Brother Richard Margolis
Short, sensitive poem, few words with deep underlying emotion. Collection of typical sibling situations. Oldie but goody.
• “Dear Apples” by Takayo Noda
Speaker talks to apple, sensuous language, detail, no rhyme (the young need that too)
• “Skyscrapers” by Rachael Field
A list of all questions. Could extend to notice, ask questions of objects, standard rhyme
• “A Lazy Thought” by Eve Merriam
Strong noisy verbs, questions inside, internal rhyme not the usual, good for choral reading, provocative ending
• “Beginning on Paper” by Ruth Krauss
Jazzy rhythm, list in syncopation, repeated phrase, great images, surprise ending, nice human touch, good for choral reading. Note: Can find poem in this wonderful anthology:
And so it goes…
Shirl is Poet Laureate for Choice Literacy online. Read some of her poems and reflections at ChoiceLiteracy.
We recently asked some of our authors for their best tips for starting the new school year. In the first installment, Katie Egan Cunningham and Jennifer McDonough both discuss the importance of building relationships with students:
The first edition of Becoming a Literacy Leader chronicled Jennifer’s work as she moved to a new school and a new job as a literacy specialist. She found herself tackling everything from teacher study groups to state-mandated assessment plans.
The new edition of her book is a thoughtful, reflective evolution of her work as she rethinks how her identity and role as a literacy leader have evolved. She focuses on three ideas to describe her work: the concept of layered leadership, shared experiences in making meaning together, and the importance of rowing in the same direction as a school community.
Jennifer describes the layers of support that coaches can implement within a school and provides an explicit framework for implementing these layers and explains how administrators can use the literacy leader position to build and sustain change within their schools.
Danielson’s book reveals the wonder and freedom of expression that many children don’t often experience in mathematics. A single, simple question puts children in a position to speak mathematically even at early ages. Ask students of all ages “Which one doesn’t belong?” and revel in the reasoning and conversation that results.
How can I recommend this highly enough? Christopher Danielson emphasizes the stimulation of curiosity and that math is about making precise things that we—and children—can informally observe, without having to learn any mathematical language first. Which One Doesn’t Belong? is a glorious book for adults and children to explore together, and the Teacher’s Guide makes it into a profound mathematical resource.
—Eugenia Cheng, pure mathematician, University of Sheffield and School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and author of How to Bake Pi
Which One Doesn’t Belong? is a children’s book about shapes. More generally, it’s a book about mathematics. When children look for sameness and difference; when they work hard to put their ideas into words; when they evaluate whether somebody’s else’s justification makes sense—in all of these cases, children engage in real mathematical thinking. They build mathematical knowledge they can be proud of. They develop new questions. They argue. They wonder.
In the accompanying teacher’s guide, author Christopher Danielson equips teachers to get maximum benefit from Which One Doesn’t Belong? Through classroom stories, he models listening to and finding delight in students’ thinking about shapes. In clear, approachable language, Danielson explores the mathematical concepts likely to emerge and helps teachers facilitate meaningful discussions about them.
In the decade since the first edition of Still Learning to Read was published, the prevalence of testing and various standards have changed what is expected of both teachers and students.
The new edition takes into account this sense of urgency that changing times impose on classrooms and focuses on the needs of students in grades 3-6 in all aspects of reading workshop: read-aloud, classroom design, digital tools, fiction, nonfiction, and close reading.
The book provides expanded examples of mini-lessons and routines that promote deeper thinking about learning. A new chapter includes information on scaffolding for nonfiction and showcases the authors’ latest thinking on close reading and text complexity. Online videos provide glimpses into classrooms as students make book choices, work in small groups, and discuss their reading notebooks.
We are excited to bring you a new lineup of professional development books from well-known authors as well as some new voices. Browse the list below and look for our fall catalog in the mail in the coming weeks—or download it now.
Craft Moves Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts
Foreword by Lester Laminack
Stacey Shubitz, cofounder of the Two Writing Teachers website, does the heavy lifting of finding mentor texts for you: using twenty recently published picture books, she creates more than 180 lessons to teach various craft moves that will help your students become better writers. Follow Stacey on Twitter: @sshubitz
Join the Facebook discussion group for Craft Moves: https://www.facebook.com/groups/craftmoves/
The Author’s Apprentice Developing Writing Fluency, Stamina, and Motivation Through Authentic Publication
Foreword by Jeff Anderson You’ve got to read this book.
Help improve your middle level students’ writing fluency, stamina, and motivation by letting them do what professional writers do. You’ll see how to build “writerly” routines through projects like National Novel Writing Month. Follow Vicki on Twitter: @VMeigsK
Teaching Globally Reading the World Through Literature
Edited by Kathy G. Short, Deanna Day, and Jean Schroeder Teaching Globally brings together fourteen classroom teachers and university professors who use global children’s literature to help students explore their own cultural identities and broaden their knowledge of the world.
Which One Doesn’t Belong? A Shapes Book and Teacher’s Guide
Christopher Danielson Which One Doesn’t Belong? is a children’s book about shapes and a book about mathematics. When children look for sameness or difference, when they work hard to put their ideas into words, they engage in real mathematical thinking. They develop new questions. They argue. They wonder. The companion Teacher’s Guide shows how to facilitate rich discussions and teach mathematical argumentation. Follow Christopher on Twitter: @Trianglemancsd
Starting Strong Evidence-Based Early Literacy Practice
Katrin Blamey and Katherine Beauchat Starting Strong shows teachers how to use four proven instructional approaches—standards based, evidence based, assessment based, and student based—to improve their teaching practice in all areas of early literacy. Follow Katrin on Twitter: @KatrinBlamey
Becoming a Literacy Leader Supporting Learning and Change
The new edition of this bestselling book is a thoughtful, reflective evolution of Jennifer’s work as a literacy leader. You’ll get an explicit framework for implementing in-class support, curriculum support & assessment, study group facilitation, and teacher leadership. Administrators will see how they can use the literacy leader position to build and sustain change within their schools.
Still Learning to Read Teaching Students in Grades 3-6
Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak
Foreword by Colby Sharp
The new edition of Still Learning to Read focuses on the needs of students in grades 3-6 in all aspects of reading workshop, including read-aloud, classroom design, digital tools, fiction, nonfiction, and close reading. Watch two short videos of coauthor Franki Sibberson talking about how the classroom environment has changed for both teachers and students since the original edition was published. Follow the authors on Twitter and join us for a Twitter chat on Monday, August 1st, at 8:30 p.m. EST: @frankisibberson, @karenszymusiak
Join the book’s Facebook group, where discussion will begin September 5th: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1111996965547648/
Conferring with Young Writers What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do
Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough
If you’ve ever sat down to confer with a child and felt at a loss for what to say, this book is for you. Conferring with Young Writers will help writing teachers—and students—learn to break down and utilize the qualities that enable good writing: elaboration, voice, structure, conventions, and focus. Follow the authors on Twitter: @kristinack1, @jenjmcdonough
Dream Wakers Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture
Foreword by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Ruth Culham focuses her love of children’s literature on books that celebrate Latino life and culture. She provides a wide variety of ideas to teach writing using some of the richest and most beautiful children’s books available. Follow Ruth on Twitter: @WritingThief
In today’s globally connected world, it’s essential for students to have an understanding of multiple cultures and perspectives. In Teaching Globally, Kathy Short, Deanna Day, and Jean Schroeder bring together fourteen educators who use global children’s literature to help students explore their own cultural identities and broaden their knowledge of the world.
Contributors take you into a wide range of classrooms—from Mexican-American students in Southern Arizona learning about their heritage through the picture book Esperanza Rising, to a diverse group of seventh graders immersing themselves in the culture of Nigeria through a global novel.
Teaching Globally lays out why this kind of global curriculum is important and how to make space for it within district and state mandates. Built around a curriculum framework developed by Kathy, the ideas and strategies will help teachers integrate a global focus into existing literacy and social studies curricula.
Teaching Globally is filled with vignettes from K-8 urban and rural schools, as well as an extensive lists of book recommendations, websites, professional books, and an appendix of global text sets.
We close this year’s Summer Blogstitute series with a post looking ahead to the upcoming school year. Stacey Shubitz, the author of Craft Moves, shares her strategies for establishing routines and classroom procedures during the first few weeks of school so that students — and teachers — can maximize learning and teaching time during the entire year. There’s still time until the end of this week to leave comments or to Tweet about any of our Blogstitute posts using #blogstitute16 for a chance to win free books!
Establishing Routines and Procedures for the Writing Workshop By Stacey Shubitz
Having solid routines and procedures for independent work increases student engagement and frees teachers to confer and work with small groups during independent writing time. But how does one accomplish this?
I believe in the Responsive Classroom approach’s First Six Weeks of School, which asserts that the beginning of the school year is a time to lay the groundwork by teaching academic routines, discussing expectations, and creating goals that will enable a classroom community to thrive for the entire year.
Here are some things to think about during the first six weeks of school so your writing workshop will function well for the entire year:
Create a list of writing workshop expectations with your students. This list will be different from the classroom rules you create with your class. Click here for some ideas about creating expectations for writing workshop alongside your students.
Invite students to create a verbal or written plan—at the end of every mini-lesson—so they will have an idea of how they’ll use their independent writing time. If students create a plan for how to use their time, they’re likely to stick to it because it’s their own. You can also refer to their plan if you find them off task.
Build stamina. Whereas you can launch writing workshop on the first day of school, you’ll have to build students’ stamina for independent writing. Increase the amount of time students are writing by five minutes every few days so they can reach forty-five minutes of sustained writing time by the end of the sixth week of school.
During these six weeks of stamina building, students will come to realize the following things about independent writing time:
Writers work on their own. In order for this to happen, you must teach students how to solve their own problems and carry on with their work without looking for your support.
Teachers help students by conferring with them one-on-one and by leading small-group strategy lessons.
Consider communal supplies. By providing students with access to all of the supplies they’ll need during independent
A writing center may contain a variety of paper, index cards, sticky notes, clipboards, interesting writing utensils, paper clips, tape, and dictionaries.
writing time, you’ll make them less dependent on you when they need anything from sticky notes to a clipboard or a red pen.
Make mentor texts available in your classroom. Whether you have multiple copies of texts or provide your students with typed texts as “literary gifts” (as Carl Anderson calls them), students need access to mentor texts for ideas or inspiration at any time during writing workshop.
Minimize disruptions. Develop systems for minimizing disruptions. Students need to know they cannot interrupt you—unless it’s an emergency—while you’re leading a writing conference or a small-group strategy lesson. Implement a system for kids to sign out to get drinks of water or use the bathroom. Create spaces where kids can turn in their work. Develop a system for students to request a conference. Your ultimate goal is to wean students off of needing you for assistance, which will make them more self-sufficient and provide you with sustained periods of time to confer or to meet with small groups.
You don’t have to wait until the first day of school to get ready for writing workshop. Here are a few things you can do now to think about routines and procedures before the school year begins:
Make writing workshop a priority every day. Carve out forty-five to sixty minutes of your daily schedule, at least four days a week, for writing workshop. If you cannot find these blocks of time, sit down with your principal for assistance with scheduling so you can make daily writing a priority.
Put together a communal supply list and send it out to your students’ parents. In your letter, ensure parents that pooling the supplies will eliminate distractions because materials will be stored in a central location of the classroom, meaning there is less “stuff” in each student’s individual workspace.
In addition, if you don’t already have a place to house communal supplies, you’ll want to see if your school can help you make an investment in items like supply caddies and a storage unit for your class’s writing center. (If your school doesn’t have the money for this and you can’t spend your own, consider writing a mini-grant proposal, like this one, on org.)
Create a conferring toolkit you will use for your conferences and strategy lessons. Having a well-stocked toolkit close at hand will keep you focused on your students when you’re working with them during independent writing time. Items in your toolkit may include the following:
Record-keeping forms (handwritten or electronic)
Checklists or rubrics
Your writer’s notebook
Supplies (markers, pens, sticky notes, loose-leaf paper, and index cards)
I know it seems tempting to jump right into teaching a unit of study when the school year begins, but in order to maximize your teaching time all year long it is necessary to build a writing community and to teach students how to use materials and be self-sufficient during independent writing time. I’ve jumped in head-first and I’ve spent time teaching routines and procedures during the first six weeks of school. Lowering my expectations about how much curriculum I’d cover during the first month of school was beneficial and let me cover more units during the school year because I reaped the benefits of the time I invested in establishing routines and procedures during the first six weeks of school.
If you only have time to read just one of our Blogstitute posts this year — and we hope you have time for all of them — you should definitely read this provocative, inspiring piece from Lucy West. She digs into what it means to have respectful discourse in the classroom, with our students, with colleagues, and why it’s crucial to teach our students the skills they need to disagree respectfully. “As educators, we don’t have much influence over the way people in the media or our politicians speak to one another. We can, however, have a positive impact on our own interactions and those of our students.” We say – AMEN. Lucy’s latest professional video is Adding Talk to the Equation.
Give Me the Patience to Listen and Learn
By Lucy West
Have you noticed how polarized the discourse in our country has become? Whether people are talking politics, health care, or education, it seems that they take a stand and insist on that stand no matter what. On TV and in the political arena, the talk can get downright hostile and disrespectful, with people talking over one another, name calling, and shouting. As a New Yorker, I’m accustomed to feisty talk with multiple voices speaking at once; it’s part of our fast-paced culture. However, it is not an effective way to have a conversation. If the purpose of the conversation is to share ideas, come to a better understanding, solve complex problems, and even learn from and with one another, these patterns of interaction are not only counterproductive, they are downright harmful.
In both the math and literacy standards, respectful discourse in which students listen well to the ideas of others, reflect on those ideas, and then agree or disagree using text-based evidence is expected. It seems a bit ironic to expect of our youth this sophisticated and open-minded way of discussing matters of importance, but not of the leaders in our society. How is it that teachers—who are not given much voice in what and how they teach these days and can’t often speak out and challenge policy effectively—are expected to not only give students lots of voice in what and how they learn, but in how to engage in argumentative dialogue? Seems like we are being hypocritical, to say the least.
As educators, we don’t have much influence over the way people in the media or our politicians speak to one another. We can, however, have a positive impact on our own interactions and those of our students. If we have the will, enough self-awareness, and emotional and social intelligence, we can function in schools the way we want our students to function in the world. We can have quite a bit of influence on the interactions our future citizens will have in society by changing how we talk with one another and with students in our schools. If we realize how important adult interactions are in shaping our students’ ways of interacting, and we take the time to learn how to have challenging conversations with one another, we will have a positive impact on society. By understanding the importance of culture—the way we interact and do things—and reshaping that culture to welcome the kinds of interactions that respectfully and reflectively challenge the status quo, we can set an example for the next generation. We can, by our own interactions with students, other adults in the school, and the larger community, demonstrate how reasonable, intelligent human beings engage in informed conversations, in which opinions are backed by facts and valid evidence. We could show students how new information causes us to rethink what we used to think and reconsider our stance and actions.
You may be thinking that the teachers and administrators in your school get along really well, are polite to one another, and even enjoy one another’s company outside of school. While this may be true, this sort of collegial discourse is not what I am referring to. I am thinking about the tendency of adults in schools to stay at the superficial level in discussions that matter. When it comes to the instructional core—planning, implementing, and reflecting on lessons—we rarely take the time to examine why we do what we do and to what degree our present practices are actually getting the results we are aiming for. For example, in many places teachers consider collaborative lesson planning to mean that someone will gather the materials called for in a given lesson, maybe read and plan the lesson, and share it with the whole team that will be teaching that lesson in the name of collaboration. However, rarely does the team question why they are teaching that lesson, whether the way it is laid out in the book or by a colleague will work with all of their students, how they might adapt it to meet the needs of students who need more challenge, or better ways to access the content. When we do attempt to engage in more rigorous analysis and someone disagrees or pushes back by saying “We don’t have time for this,” the conversation is aborted or people decide in their own minds to do it their own way. Therefore, no real collaboration or learning has taken place. We are often afraid to say what we really think, so we don’t say anything or we just go along with whomever we perceive to be in charge. If this is the way we tend to interact with one another—avoiding questioning each other’s choices, beliefs, lesson designs—how can we teach students to challenge one another’s thinking? We don’t have the skill set and haven’t cultivated a culture in which people engage in this way.
Since it is really difficult to teach what we don’t practice or deeply understand ourselves, then it stands to reason that if we don’t practice having academic and professional conversations that go well below the surface, question our present beliefs and practices, insist that opinions be backed by evidence, and work through our differences, we can’t expect to know how to get our students to do these things. When is the last time you politely, yet specifically, challenged a colleague’s thinking, opinion, or lesson design? How receptive was the person you challenged? Was the challenge taken personally or was it considered from a professional perspective—a learning perspective? When’s the last time you and a colleague had a difference of opinion about pedagogy or the use of curriculum materials? Were you able to turn that difference into an inquiry and explore each perspective against evidence of student learning or lack thereof? Or were you content to agree to disagree and keep the status quo safely in place?
In order to create rich learning environments in which children are capable of listening well, with open minds and hearts to classmates’ ideas; considering those ideas before rejecting them or adding another one; then determining whether or not they agree and being able to articulate why; we need to be to do these things with one another–not just those teachers with whom we agree, but especially those who think differently than we do. We need to get past the “agree to disagree” stage to the “let’s investigate this further” stage, during which we test out our ideas and gather evidence to determine their validity.
We need to be able to speak up to administrators and policy makers in a way that our concerns can be heard and reflected on rather than having our concerns be seen as resistance or insubordination. I wonder what it will take to change the education culture—the way we interact and do things in schools—to the degree that educators are practicing the accountable talk standards expected of their students? If we did create such cultures, I wonder if we would be able to influence our larger communities to engage in more thoughtful, reflective, and respective conversations about the important issues that face us all?
On the last full week of our Summer Blogstitute we welcome Joan Dabrowski, who, along with Kate Roth, is the coauthor of Interactive Writing Across Grades. In this excellent post and accompanying video (see below), she talks about the crucial role of classroom talk in the practice of interactive writing. Be sure to leave a comment or Tweet about this post using #blogstitute16 for a chance to win a bundle of Stenhouse books — including Interactive Writing Across Grades!
Let’s Talk About It! The Powerful Role of Talk in Interactive Writing
By Joan Dabrowski
This spring, as I rode the train up and down the Eastern Seaboard, I did a bit of estimation work. I tallied up the number of classrooms I have visited in recent years. I discovered that I have spent time in well over 300 classrooms. Wow! As I reflected on these visits I thought about the teacher and student voices I heard (or didn’t hear).
I am fascinated by the role of talk in schools! I listen for the language of instruction—the words chosen and how the sentences flow. I notice the dialects, the tones, and the volume. I pay attention to the body language of those who are speaking and of those who are listening. I think about the purpose, content, and quality of the talk.
I spend a lot of time with teachers, principals, and district leaders. When I do, I pay attention to my talk: my tone, speed, word choice, and cadence. I consider when to slow down, ask a question, clarify a point, or repeat myself. I also think about when I should shift from talking to listening or when the talk should be captured in writing. These processes—thinking, talking, listening, and writing—are inextricably linked.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that as Kate and I wrote Interactive Writing Across Grades we found ourselves frequently landing on classroom discourse as an essential feature worth highlighting. At every step of the interactive writing teaching sequence, there are opportunities to deepen student understanding about writing through speaking, listening, and discussion. Here’s how it happens.
Experience: Priming Our Students for Writing
The first step in an interactive writing lesson is Experience. By this we mean that an interactive writing piece is informed by a shared classroom experience. These experiences include things such as “field trips, science investigations, author studies, science and social studies topics of study, math projects, books read aloud in class, class assemblies, classroom routines and procedures, and special school events” (30). We note that the shared experience need not be a “big project” or “grand event.” Rather, it is about, “selecting, capturing, and recording the meaningful events that students experience each day at school” (30).
Because teachers often know ahead of time that an experience will be used for interactive writing, they prime student thinking for writing by engaging in intentional conversations throughout the experience. For example, as first-grade students conduct a science investigation seeking to understand the difference between solids and liquids, the teacher talks with them using precise vocabulary such as shape, harder, pour, float, and sink. Later, when students compose their interactive writing piece, the teacher will prompt students so that these important words can be used in their pieces (see Figure 1). Similarly, a fifth-grade teacher who plans to use a class novel for an opinion piece based on its theme will hold strategic discussions at key moments during the reading of the book. Then, when she and her class compose their essay together during interactive writing, she refers to these important conversations.
Figure 1: Interactive Writing in Grade 1
The conversations and discussions that occur during Experience hold important value as students acquire and develop a shared expertise: they will all have something to say about the topic when it comes time to write about it. This is particularly empowering for students learning English. For these students, the well-sequenced steps of experience, talk, and writing lead to deeper comprehension, expanded language, and strengthened writing skills (Gibbons 2015).
PreWrite: Making a Plan for Writing
During Prewrite, teachers talk with students about the purpose of the interactive writing piece, consider the audience who will read it, and generate ideas to include. Embedded in the Prewrite discussion are the essential issues writers consider before they begin to write: purpose, genre, and audience.
The Prewrite talk holds both exploratory and organizing qualities. You wonder aloud about the best way to convey the ideas in the piece as you consider the audience who will read it. You determine the best way to organize ideas so that the writing is clear and easy to follow. This is the work that real writers do every day—but frequently it is done in solitary fashion within one’s own mind. The Prewrite conversation, however, “turns up the volume” on this internal process for emerging and developing writers. The process becomes transparent. Talk becomes a scaffold for students. The Prewrite thinking is shared and heard by all.
For older and more fluent writers, the Prewrite discussion is complex and robust. Ideas are growing and expanding while language becomes more sophisticated. Often, the planning addresses organization and word choice. Thus it follows that teachers sometimes jot notes or organize the points that occur during Prewrite discussions. This skillful teaching decision models for students that what one says can transform into what one writes.
The following video is a snapshot of the talk that occurs during Prewrite. In this clip you see me working with a group of third-grade writers. We are in the midst of planning a persuasive essay where we hope to convince people to adopt a cat from a local animal shelter.
To begin, you hear the students discuss at tables what they know about pets. Then I talk with them about the essay we will work on together. I name the structure (genre) we’ll use and the real-world audience who will read it. Finally, I facilitate a discussion about organization. I jot down their reasons, evidence, and elaboration so that we can remember them for Compose (see Figures 2 and 3).
Figure 2: Turning Talk into Words by Jotting Down Ideas During Prewrite in Grade 3
Figure 3: Persuasive Writing in Grade 3
Compose and Share the Pen/Keyboard: From Spoken to Written Word
In Chapters 5 and 6 of our book, we unpack the core of interactive writing: Compose and Share the Pen/Keyboard. In broad terms, Compose is a collaborative classroom conversation facilitated by the teacher about the craft of writing. By craft we mean the qualities of writing that make a book or text original, meaningful, and memorable. For us this includes ideas, organization, word choice, sentence fluency, and voice.
During Compose, teachers work with students to build the precise language for the interactive writing piece by building and refining the sentence(s). This phase of the lesson relies heavily on talk as teachers initiate sentence-building conversations, negotiate the ideas presented by the class, seek out multiple suggestions, and push for students to consider the quality of their words. Teachers may also have students listen to how the words and sentences flow well together (or not). Compose is the perfect spot to capture student voices and model for them how spoken word is connected to written word.
This notion is fully realized when the sentence has been composed and is ready to be written down through the innovative technique known as Share the Pen/Keyboard. As students write or type part of the sentence, teachers are talking with them about the important conventions of writing. In-the-moment technical discussions take place about spelling, letter formation, grammar, punctuation, or keyboarding skills (e.g., using the Tab or Shift key, selecting font size/styles, or using spell-check). These timely discussions provide “just right” instruction for students who benefit from the quick, direct guidance.
Review and Extend
Once the sentence(s) have been written, the lesson moves into Review. During this step, the teacher and students once again read the interactive writing piece aloud. This repetitive choral reading allows students to practice fluency and deepen their understanding of their written work.
Next, the teacher talks with students about the craft and convention work they practiced. Questions such as Who can find a place in our piece where we included an interesting word? Who notices a sentence that combines two simple ideas? Why did we make that decision? What word(s) were tricky for us to spell? guide students to talk about their learning. The talk is inquisitive and is anchored in metacognition. The discussion unpacks the “what” and “why” of the interactive writing lesson for students, helping them to better understand how to do this work independently.
The second part of Review takes this idea further as the teacher directs students to link what they practiced during interactive writing with their own writing. The talk is clear, concise, and direct. For example, a teacher might say, “Remember how we started each sentence in a new way? We all agreed it makes our writing so much more interesting to read. You need to try this when you write on your own today. Be sure that your sentences begin in different ways.” Or, “When you work on your essay today, check to see if you state your opinion clearly like we did on our piece.” This type of teacher talk is explicit and sets clear expectations for students’ independent writing.
Finally, during Extend, classroom conversations center on the qualities of the piece itself, the real-world value it holds, and the ways it might be enhanced with visuals. Worth noting is that a powerful way to Extend a piece is to reread it with students. Hearing the ideas, the flow, and the cadence of a piece is a helpful reminder for students. It solidifies their understanding of what writing work they did.
The Last Word(s)
It takes courage for students to say ideas out loud—especially if they may be revised or rejected. It also can be embarrassing to misspell a word in front of one’s peers. For a student learning English, fear of mispronouncing a word can be too much to bear; it’s safer to stay quiet. Thus, the collaborative spirit of the talk during interactive writing cannot be understated.
The most effective teachers we’ve seen using the method teach with joy, enthusiasm, and encouragement. They foster a community in which all students can safely talk and listen to one another. In these classrooms, the energy is palpable as young writers are empowered to discuss and debate with their peers. They know that if and when a mistake occurs, it is taken in stride; corrections are quickly made in real-time while the lesson moves forward. Perhaps most striking are the understood norms in these classrooms:
We are a community of writers—we can and do write for real-world purposes.
Writing is hard work—we need one another’s support.
All writers make errors as they work to improve and grow.
We celebrate and share our writing experiences through collaborative conversations.
Interactive writing is a small practice that offers BIG results for students and teachers in PreK–5. One result is the inevitable connections you will find among thinking, talking, listening, and writing. Harnessing the power of talk will propel your students’ writing. So, perhaps this summer you will have a chance to reflect on the talk in your classroom. How’s it going for you? For your students? How might it improve? My suggestion: start talking about it!