Archive for June, 2012

Blogstitute Week 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing

We are  excited to kick off our Summer Blogstitute series with a post by Mark Overmeyer, author of When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working and What Student Writing Teaches Us and the DVD on conferring How Can I Support You?  Mark has written many times for the Stenhouse blog and in this post he explores how the language we use in writing workshop turns an assignment into a treasured opportunity to write, and a student into a writer.

Be sure to leave your comments and questions! Three lucky commenters during the blogstitute will receive a package of five books of their choice. You can also receive 20% off plus free shipping on all books and videos by blogstitute authors.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing

Summer: a time to reflect on our teaching practices, a time to read more and write more for us, not just for our students.

When I think of summer, I often think about the many times I have joined writing groups, either through the Denver Writing Project, the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop (also here in Denver), or the summer I went to Port Townsend, Washington, to spend a week learning from Mark Doty, my favorite poet.”

All of these experiences have shaped me as a writer and as a teacher of writing, and in particular they strike me as places where so much talk about writing happens. When I first started writing and teaching writing, I never thought about the role that talk plays in our writing lives. Now I think about talk all the time when I think of writing.

So, what do we talk about when we talk about writing?

Here are just a few possibilities.

We talk about the work a writer is doing.

I have no idea if Mark Doty has read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, but it sure seems as if he has. Dweck’s research on motivation shows that the more we equate success with being “good” or “smart,” the more we shut down motivation and progress. So, as a writing teacher, I have to be careful. Instead of saying “You are such a good writer!” I might say, “You are doing the work of a writer who really wants to convince your mom to buy you a dog.” In the writing workshop I attended with Mark Doty, he often talked about the “work” of a poem as something almost separate from the writer. He would say, “This poem works right here because . . .”  or, “It seems as if the poem is concerned with helping the reader understand that…”

I have tried this technique with many students since my experience in Mark’s workshop, and I have had success with them all the way down to the primary grades. Recently, I talked to second-grader Amina about an opinion piece she wrote during a unit on being a food critic:

Me: What have you been working on, Amina?

Amina: My piece about eating a goldfish cracker.

Me: Great. Can you read it to me?

Amina: In my opinion the goldfish made me feel wonderful. The goldfish made me feel like hitting a piñata! It’s very cheesy and it made me make up a goldfish dance.

Me: Amina, you worked hard as a writer today to make sure you didn’t just write: “It is delicious. I like it.” That’s exactly what we discussed—when we become food critics, we need to think like food critics, taste food like food critics, and write like food critics. That’s exactly what you did today. What do you plan to do next as a writer?

Amina: I am going to write about the tortilla chip.

Me: Okay—I hope it is as good as the goldfish cracker!

I am still working to make this kind of exchange sound more natural, but I can honestly say that students beam when I frame my talk in the context of doing the work of a writer. When the talk is framed around work, the writer can actually do something to get better, or to continue on the same successful path.

We talk about writers who are doing similar work.

When we study mentor texts and professional authors during a writing workshop, teachers have powerful opportunities to build confidence during conferences.

When I conferred with Aiden recently about his expert book on football, I was able to say, “You are doing the work of Gail Gibbons. You have diagrams of a football field on this page, and you include a lot of information in a ‘how-to’ format. This is what Gail Gibbons does—she thinks about how to teach us about something and then she makes sure the paper matches what she wants to teach.”

The expert book that Aiden completed during this study represented his best writing to date. He was motivated to keep working because he didn’t see this writing opportunity as an “assignment.”

Comparing student writing to the work of professional writers positions our instruction in the real world—what Katie Wood Ray calls “true writing” in her book Study Driven. Our students can create identities as writers at a very young age if we ask them to do what real writers actually do.

We talk about Skittles and Milo.

Two years ago, Madison wrote an essay titled “Skittles Is a Troublemaker” during the time I spent with her third-grade class. It is a piece I have never forgotten, and not just because Madison taught me that third graders can indeed write essays full of voice and passion and energy. She also taught me that the content of our pieces can help us make connections with writers. So when I say “We talk about Skittles,” what I really mean is that we talk about the content of our work.

When I confer with Barron about how much he loves Lakeside, a local amusement park, I learn about his favorite rides at the same time I learn about him as a writer. When I listen to Keoni share her story about the time she fell and banged her head on the concrete, I can picture her worried father’s face while I am learning about Keoni’s ability to craft a narrative.

I often write about my cat, Milo, when I work with students, or about walking my friend’s dog, Finn. Months may go by and I will be walking down the hall at a school, and a student will say “How’s Milo?” or “Have you seen Finn lately?”

This year, I had the opportunity to work again with Madison, who is now in fifth grade.

Me: How is Skittles?

Madison: He died.

Me: I am so sorry! Did you get another ferret?

Madison: No! He was so bad, we were worried about getting another ferret. Now we have a dog.

And, of course, I remembered how much trouble Skittles caused: chewing computer wires, ripping up socks and blankets, and trying to run away from home. I told Madison I feel like Skittles is almost famous because I talk about him in the context of the essay she wrote when I tell teachers about the possibilities essay writing can provide. I thanked her for her writing, and for sharing her thoughts about Skittles. She smiled. “How’s Milo?” she asked.

I wish for you a summer full of memories that can first be written, and then shared with your friends, family members, workshop members, and students. And I hope you have many opportunities to talk about writing.

50 comments June 25th, 2012

Eating your cake and reading it too

Cake and reading: Really, is there a better combination?

Check out this cake Kelly Gallagher received from the Mid-State Reading Council in Illinois. Why, that looks like Kelly’s book, Deeper Reading! I see a baking contest in our future — Readicide-cake, anyone?

2 comments June 19th, 2012

Summer PD opportunities with Stenhouse authors

Catch these Stenhouse authors at various conferences and workshops throughout the country:

Kate Messner, author of Real Revision and numerous children’s books, is hosting a free online “Teachers Write!” camp on her blog through August 10. Kate and guest authors will respond to questions and provide feedback to participants. The schedule is flexible and teachers and librarians—beginning or experienced writers alike—are welcome.

Join a host of Stenhouse authors at SDE’s national conferences this summer in Las Vegas, July 10-13. The Differentiated Instruction conference features Kelly Gallagher (Write Like This), Stephanie Harvey (Strategies That Work), Julie Ramsay (Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?), and Rick Wormeli (Metaphors & Analogies).

The Singapore Math conference includes Chris Confer & Marco Ramirez (Small Steps, Big Changes) and Jessica Shumway (Number Sense Routines).

Rick Wormeli will also be presenting at SDE’s DI conference in Chicago, July 22-25.

If you need to hone your students’ — or your own — public speaking skills and elevate the quality of discussions in your classroom, catch Erik Palmer (Well Spoken) at Technology in Education’s conference in Colorado and Curriculum Mapping Institute 2012 in Saratoga Springs, NY, July 10-14.

Stephanie Harvey, Debbie Miller, and Cris Tovani will be presenting together at the ERG Literacy Institute August 7-9 in Winston-Salem, NC. You can also catch all three of them at their Comprehension X3 event in Denver in July.

And of course, don’t forget about the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute kicking off June 25 right here on the Stenhouse Blog. It’s FREE! And you don’t have to leave your room or your PJs behind.

Add comment June 12th, 2012

Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute 2012

We are very excited to bring you another Summer Blogstitute this year, starting June 25. Like last year’s event, this year’s posts are designed to bring you some brief but thoughtful blog posts about teaching from some of our expert authors. Last year we focused on writing, but this year we are expanding our topics to cover math, reading, conferring, classroom talk, and writing. Here is this year’s lineup:

The entries will include three video sneak peeks into brand new videos in production by Chris Confer and Marco Ramirez, Cris Tovani, and Debbie Diller.

During the event we are also offering a 20% discount and free shipping on any books or videos by the Blogstitute authors. Just use the discount code BLOG when placing your order online starting June 25 until August 30. Three lucky commenters during the blogstitute will receive a package of five books of their choice.

We hope you will join us for a few weeks this summer to hear from great authors and to exchange ideas with fellow teachers. See you soon!

12 comments June 6th, 2012

Undercover boss

It’s been a busy couple of weeks (even months!) at the Stenhouse offices in Portland, Maine, and in our warehouse in Hilliard, Ohio, as we embarked on the long process of upgrading our inventory system. Stenhouse general manager Dan Tobin visited the warehouse recently and as you can see on this picture he had quite a good time exploring all of the new high-tech “toys.”

Add comment June 5th, 2012


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