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Blogstitute 2016: Getting Started with Close Writing

The next post in our #Blogstitute16 series comes from Paula Bourque (@LitCoachLady), author of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6. Paula shares her strategies for creating a habit of close reading — the first step in developing close writers. Be sure to leave a comment or tweet about this post using #Blogstitute16 for a chance to win some amazing new Stenhouse books!

Getting Started with Close WritingClose Writing approved cover
Paule Bourque

I love coaching in classrooms during writing workshop. I love to watch students take ideas from their heads and magically transfer them to paper. I love listening to the talk that floats above the flurry of writing. It was from these opportunities that I noticed the varying range of connectedness students had to their writing. The most successful writers seemed to be very connected to their written work, while those who struggled more were often quite disconnected. This translated into some students frequently rereading and revisiting their writing and others who saw writing as a one-way process: get it down and done.

I started observing the most accomplished writers to analyze which behaviors and habits supported their success. The thing that jumped out at me in almost every instance was that these writers were close readers of their own writing. They reread their work with purpose and focus, and they did so frequently. I thought about how we have been teaching students to closely read the work of other authors but not how to apply those strategies to their own pieces of text. That was the genesis for my book Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2–6 (2016).

What started as a book about teaching students close reading strategies for their own work evolved into a plethora of approaches for creating stronger relationships between writers and their writing and building awareness of their writing identities. That process was a genuine path of discovery for me, and it continues to this day.

I am now frequently asked by teachers who have looked at the collection of ideas and strategies in Close Writing, “Where should I start?” I think that’s such a relevant question because teachers sometimes find writing instruction “messy.” Writers’ needs are so varied, and their styles are so individual. One size rarely fits all. I usually suggest that they start where I did—encouraging writers to create a habit of close reading.

The premise for Close Writing is that writers reread, reflect, and revise with a variety of purposes and lenses. Writers cannot reflect or revise if they aren’t aware of what IS and what IS POSSIBLE, and that can happen most effectively when they first reread what is in front of them. So I now emphasize teaching students to reread (closely read) their writing to raise that awareness as the first step in becoming a Close Writer.

Three Aspects of this Initial Process

  • Awareness
  • Purpose
  • Practice


Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. —Thich Nhat Hanh

You can’t be intentional without awareness. You can’t purposefully change a behavior you aren’t aware of. So how can we raise this awareness?

How Do Other Authors Do It?

We can start by sharing with our students audio or video of published authors reading their work. These are obviously successful close writers! Some of my favorites are Neil Gaiman, Eric Carle, Mercer Mayer, and Suzanne Collins. We can ask students to describe what they notice about how they read their work and why they made certain choices. I found many of the techniques could fall into one of these categories:

  • Pace—How quickly or slowly authors read
  • Pause—Where authors stop at various points
  • Punch—What words or phrases authors choose to emphasize
  • Play—The dramatic quality or style of authors’ voices

I then invite students to try these techniques in their own writing and to think about their purpose to help them share—as well as reflect on—their writing.

How to Read Your Writing

Once students are aware of techniques and purposes for reading their work, we can reread with a variety of lenses. Close reading often answers a question for the reader. You change your lens or focus to answer questions. We can ask questions of our own writing that can be answered with a close read, such as these:

  • How do I show transitions of time or place to my reader?
  • How natural does my dialogue sound?
  • How varied are my sentences?
  • Which verbs are my strongest? My weakest?

The questions are limitless. Whatever craft element, technique, or convention you are working on can be monitored and strengthened by close reading.


“Children work very hard in their purposeful endeavors in the world, when they have ends they want to accomplish themselves.” —Frank Smith

Almost all of the students I know want to get better at what they do. Most recognize that this requires work. When we understand the purpose and can see how that work could pay off, it is much easier to invest time and energy.

  • Why is close reading important? I contrast a “fast forward” style of reading (quick, mumbled, inattentive) with a purposeful “writer reading” (intentional pace, pause, punch, play techniques) and discuss the difference between “getting through” a piece of writing and really “getting into” a piece of writing. I invite students to consider which style will help them to be more aware and purposeful with their writing. I believe that if they don’t understand the purpose behind a skill, it doesn’t become a strategy.
  • How does this close reading help me? The idea isn’t that they can turn their writing into readers’ theater. The focus is on the purposeful choices they make to interpret and convey the meaning of their writing more precisely. Slowing down, thinking about what is important, and listening to how those written words sound when spoken aloud can help readers to better reflect on what they have written.
    • One of my favorite lessons to demonstrate the effectiveness of rereading is “Rewind and Find.” I ask students go back and read a piece of their work for just two minutes to see what they might find to revise or edit that their teacher would find if he or she read it. We then list everything they notice, and those lists are often quite extensive. I say, “Look at what we were able to find in just two minutes. Do you think if you took two minutes each day to go back and reread your work that you would become a stronger writer?” At this point, most students are convinced!


“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you are good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” —Malcolm Gladwell

We can’t just tell our students to reread their writing and expect them to be more attentive and intentional. How often have kids told us they have reread their work only for us to discover a myriad of errors, incomplete sentences, or gaps? They may have reread it, but they weren’t sure what to look for.

  • Teach it. I don’t assume that this comes naturally to students. I model how it looks and sounds using my own writing and then give them plenty of opportunities to practice it themselves with feedback and reinforcement.
  • Prompt for it. Once I teach a technique such as Flash Editing, Rewind and Find, or Listen and Learn, I can then quickly prompt for it so that students can practice independently without a lengthy lesson. If every time students said or thought “I’m done!” they heard a prompt for closely reading their work, they would very quickly begin to develop that approach as a classroom expectation.
  • Make it a habit. If we put structures and routines in place that foster close reading, it will more easily become habituated. We need to make it easy for our students to develop these close writing behaviors.

There are so many more strategies and approaches that I have written about that can help our students become Close Writers, but if we can begin by making them aware, helping them to understand its purpose, and giving them opportunities to practice closely reading their writing, I am confident that they will become much more accomplished writers. I welcome you to continue this exploration with me on Twitter @LitCoachLady, on Facebook, or at my website. You can find resources for my book Close Writing at the accompanying Stenhouse website.

13 comments June 16th, 2016

Blogstitute: Reflections on another school year

This is the last week of our 2015 Summer Blogstitute and I am excited to bring you this post from Mark Overmeyer (Let’s Talk), who has some wise words to share as you reflect on the past school year and prepare for the next. We have one more post coming to you on Wednesday, so this is your last week to look back on previous posts and leave a comment for a chance to win 12 free Stenhouse books. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15.

Reflections on another school year
By Mark Overmeyer

lets-talkTeachers often create goals for the summer: they plan to work in their gardens, finish house projects, and try to get to those books they set aside earlier in the year. I am the same way, but I also spend the early part of my summer reflecting on what I learned in the previous school year.

Perhaps because I have lived my life in school years since the age of five—moving from school to college to teaching to graduate school to consulting—I tend to reflect more in the summer than in January, the traditional time for resolutions and reflection.

Here are three lessons I learned during this school year that have helped me reflect on how I facilitate writing workshops:

  1. Conferences are important, but writing time is more important. Conferring plays such an important role in our work with readers and writers. The opportunity to talk with a student one-on-one is priceless. However, what if a student needs time to write more than he or she needs the chance to talk with you? I ask this question because of my many interactions with primary students in writing workshops this school year. On at least three separate occasions this year, when I began a conference with the question “What are you working on as a writer today?,” the response was “I am working on my writing. I don’t need help.” One kindergarten writer told me, “I need to get my writing done. I need to work alone.” Most of the students who tell me they need more time to write are under the age of seven. As writing teachers, we have so much to learn about independence and agency from our youngest writers. Because of so many students asking for more time, I often start a conference now with something like this: “I would love to have the chance to talk with you about your writing. Can you talk now, or do you need to get some more work done before we talk?”
  1. Love the resisters. We have all taught resisters. They might sit passively during the first few days of writing time, hoping you don’t notice how little they produce. Or they may actively resist writing early in the year, saying something like “You aren’t going to make us write a lot this year, are you?” These resisters are so good at what they do: they avoid, they wander around the room during writing time, they keep saying they don’t know what to write about, or they just sit. Instead of being frustrated with resisters, I learned this year to find them fascinating—and to love the resistance. Fourth-grade teacher Sandy Mulligan in Colorado Springs has helped me to see resistant writers in a different light. Sandy actively decides to love her resisters. When she meets a fourth grader who hates to write, she doesn’t worry at first about why. She just says, “I am so glad you are in my class! This is your year! We are going to figure it out together. You are going to LOVE writing with me. I promise.” And she is right. It takes a while with some of her students, but when I have visited her classroom in May the past two years, I have asked students what they think about writing, and they love it. All of them. I merely ask “What do you think about writing?,” and they spontaneously yell out “We LOVE IT!” Sandy has students just like yours: Some come to her classroom with struggles in life and struggles in learning. Some come to her classroom ready for whatever life brings them. Sandy is relentlessly positive about writing, and her workshop is filled with joyful work. It is not a place filled with chaos, or with the message that everything written is wonderful. She has high expectations, and she provides scaffolds and safety nets when needed. From what I have witnessed, in classrooms where the writing workshop has meaningful purpose and is filled with joy, resisters stop resisting. Not always at first, but I have learned to never give up. I have learned from Sandy—and Elizabeth and Keith and Cheryl and Shelly and Monique and so many other teachers like them—that if you love your resisters, slowly the walls of resistance will break down and writing will happen. And happen. And happen. At some point, you won’t be able to stop them from writing, which brings us to my next lesson . . .
  1. In effective classrooms, writing is its own reward. I have felt this way for more than twenty years, but I was reminded of how rewarding writing can be in so many schools this year. I witnessed students clapping in at least ten classrooms when writing workshop was about to begin. I heard many students groaning when writing time had to end, begging for more time to write. Anne Lamott would be proud of the teachers in these classrooms. My favorite quote about writing is from her classic book Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994):

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (xxvi)

One of my teaching goals every year is to hear students ask for more time to write. Sometimes I intentionally go past our writing block to see if anyone notices. When students are lost in writing, whether they are five or fifteen years old, they don’t want to stop. In the most effective workshops I visit, students are not rewarded for writing more, and they are not punished if they are not quite ready to write on any particular day. Teachers in these classrooms set up rituals and routines the first day of school that allow and expect writing to happen. If we avoid writing early in the year by setting up notebooks for a week, or if we skip writing a few times a month because of assembly schedules, students may think of writing as difficult, boring, or unimportant.

As teachers, our feedback comes not just during conferences but throughout each day. The longer we wait to start writing workshop, or the more quickly we end it before the school year is over, the more likely some unintended feedback might sneak in—the message that, somehow, writing is inherently unpleasant and should be avoided. Why not start Day One, Minute One? What better way to get to know your students than to start with, “I am so excited to meet you! We aren’t starting with rules. We aren’t starting with putting away supplies just yet. Let’s get to know each other a bit. I can’t wait. I am going to share something I wrote so you can learn about me, and then I am going to invite you to think, talk, and write a bit so I can get to know you. This is going to be a great year.” When we start with rules and supplies, our message is “School is a place filled with rules and school supplies, and these are of primary importance.” When I start with writing, my message is “I want to hear from you. I care about you. I want to know what you think. This is a place where we will learn from each other through writing.”

I wish you all a summer filled with relaxation, rejuvenation, and reflection.


17 comments July 20th, 2015

Citation as Fashion: Do You Really Need Those Page Numbers?

We are happy to have Sarah Cooper back on our blog with a post about those pesky citations at the end of a research paper. Are they important? Why are they important? She breaks it down for us with some useful tools and advice. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionCitation as Fashion: Do You Really Need Those Page Numbers?

By Sarah Cooper

I like to be able to justify to myself and my students why I’m teaching what we’re learning.

Usually in history it’s easy: relate past to present, analyze a relevant ethical issue, tell a story that makes people pop to life.

But last week it wasn’t easy. The eighth graders were spending two days in the library to find sources and write a Works Cited list.

The assignment: to write a paragraph about an issue related to their service projects in science, such as strategies for teaching children with Down syndrome or the environmental value of biking over driving.

The topics were meaningful and the sources strong. I had no problem rationalizing the assignment until the third day, when I helped students with their paragraphs and also checked their Works Cited lists.

The eighth graders had used NoodleTools, a research program I love, to create their bibliographies. As with EasyBib, BibMe, and other citation sites, NoodleTools asks for all the relevant information and then creates a bibliographic citation in the right format. The program also goes one step beyond to alphabetize, double-space and indent.

Walking around in the computer lab, looking over students’ shoulders, I compiled a list of common fixes for their Works Cited pages.

See if you can figure out which one was hard to justify for me:

1. Include the article title as well as the publication title.

This is necessary information to find the source again, and students definitely need to list it.

2. Indicate that an electronic source was found on a database rather than in print.

This makes sense because I’d like students to appreciate the plethora of online sources available.

3. List the volume and issue numbers for scholarly journals.

This is a little more esoteric but okay. I would like students to understand that journals are almost like books in how seriously they organize themselves and how closely they track their topics.

4. Include the page numbers for newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals found in online databases such as ProQuest Research Library.

What the heck?!

After asking at least half the students to go back and add the page numbers from the original database source – not the page numbers of the their printed-out pages, but those from the actual journal or magazine, as listed in the citation on the database – I started to feel sheepish.

Why am I asking students to cite page numbers for print publications that they will never see, that 99% of the people citing their articles will never see, and that almost didn’t exist to begin with since the publication is almost always accessed online?

After sleeping on and wrestling with this page numbers issue (you can see I really don’t like having my students do work that doesn’t make sense!), I came to this conclusion:

Including the page numbers in your MLA citation of an online source is like ironing your shirt before you go to a job interview. It’s like putting on earrings to match your necklace. It’s like knotting your tie tightly.

Citation as fashion.

Citation as window-dressing.

Citation as dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s so that no one faults you for not knowing the rules – so that they can be impressed by your unwrinkled collar and pay attention to what you are saying instead of what you’re not wearing.

Helping my students make the right impression on future teachers, professors and employers by sweating the details – this I can justify.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook relegates page numbers to the same dustbin where the now-optional URLs lie.

Which citation details do you care about? Why do you care?

2 comments February 16th, 2015

Wrapping up the Revision Decisions blog tour

revision-decisionsI hope you had a chance to visit all of the blogs during our week-long blog tour talking about Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s new book, Revision Decisions! Today is your last chance to leave a comment on any of the blogs — including this one — for a chance to win a free copy of the book!

Here are some highlights from the tour:

The Two Writing Teachers

Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean have a new book that deals with revision in grades 4 – 10.  Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond is a professional book that will help students realize that reseeing, reformulating, redesigning, rethinking, recasting, reshaping, and retweaking isn’t so scary.  In fact it can be fun!  (Yes, I wrote FUN!)

Writing is messy.  As teachers we need to provide our students with opportunities to see our struggles as writers.  When students see us revise (i.e., rewriting, throwing out chunks of text, adding new parts), they’ll come to understand that revision is a natural part of the writing process.

Great writing usually doesn’t pour out in first drafts.  All writers need time and space to revise sentences, paragraphs, or whole pieces of writing multiple times to get it right.

The Reading Zone

Q: In a school system where standardized tests only value quick, rough drafts, how do teachers help students value revision?

Jeff: Great question. A few things come to mind. This same conundrum faces middle and elementary teachers as well as your high school students. First, when we revise often, our first drafts get better each time, right out of the chute. So, the playing with sentences we call for in Revision Decisions lessons, prime our writers best craft to the surface. In exploration and discovery of how sentences can be put together, young writers minds are opened to possibility. These possibilities eventually get applied (sometimes with our nudges). As the Writing Next report (2007) concludes sentence combining is a proven pedagogy for improving student writing in grades 4-12. So there’s that. But also most standardized writing test have a test on revision, editing, and grammar. To pick the best sentences, students need practice at this kind of evaluating, and this is just the kind of practice they’ll get in Revision Decision lessons.

Deborah: We’ve had quite a few teachers ask this question; there is so much concern about testing! But we both believe (and our work with student writers seems to show) that this kind of playing with sentences improves even students’ one-shot writing, which is often all they have time for on tests. After this kind of playing around with sentences and paragraphs, they have more ways of using language effectively stored in their heads, so they can use it spontaneously as well as in situations where they have time to revise and craft more carefully.

The Nerdy Book Club

When Jeff told me that he was working on a new book with the brilliant Deborah Dean, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. If these two thought leaders had something new to teach me, I wanted to learn. Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond pushes our thinking as Jeff and Deborah introduce a framework for teaching students how to revise. By framing and naming revision techniques in ways we can model and practice with students, Jeff and Deborah help teachers understand the revision process and move students forward as writers and thinkers.

Focusing on the importance of sentence combining as the foundation of good revision, Jeff and Deborah offer a framework that supports writers first, then their writing. Trust, practice, risk-taking, play—without these fundamentals it’s difficult to engage students with revision.

From this supportive foundation, Jeff and Deborah move teachers step-by-step through model lessons that show young writers how to examine mentor texts, reflect on techniques, and hone in on targeted changes that improve their own writing.

Rich with resources, Revision Decisions offers lesson sets, anchor charts, authentic sentence models from children’s authors like Sarah Albee and Albert Marrin, and conversations from students as they ask questions and learn to revise.

Digital Writing, Digital Teaching

Q: How do you balance teaching “revision decisions” with authentic pieces of student work against these constraining types of test questions? In what way are we able to have students transfer their knowledge of grammar from their “revision decisions” into the reality of test prep?

Jeff’s Response: The cool thing about the concrete acts modeled and experimented with in Revision Decisions is that they are based in a sound research-based instructional methods and help prepare kids for test. Sure, it will work best for critical thinking, revision, and sentence combining questions that students are sure to encounter. It’s not so much about editing; however, since we only use grammatically correct sentences to play with and combine, they are getting exposure to correct texts as they reformulate and revise.

Thinkers. That is what we want our students to be in our classroom, in the world, and even on tests. Thinkers. Thinkers evaluate what best communicates and idea, analyzing, testing it. This is all built into the lesson cycle or progression in Revision Decisions.

2 comments November 14th, 2014

Talking poetry

Spend an hour in good company with poet and Stenhouse author Shirley McPhillips and National Writing Project host Tanya Baker as they discuss poetry, Shirl’s new book Poem Central, and the joy of reading the right poem at the right time. So pour a cup of tea and click on this link to listen to the entire interview.

Add comment September 23rd, 2014

Register now to chat live with The Sisters

There’s still time to register for our live online chat with The 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey & Joan Moser, Tuesday, March 25 at 3:30pm ET. Submit your questions in advance or during the chat. All registrants will be able to access the recorded event afterward:

What is Daily 5? Is it easy to get started? Are any special materials or resources needed? How do Daily 5 and CAFE fit together? In this new video, Gail & Joan answer some frequently asked questions:

Add comment March 21st, 2014

Meet us in San Antonio for IRA!

We will be in San Antonio this weekend, April 20-22, and we hope you will stop by at booth #1727. You will be able to browse and buy our books and receive a 25% show discount, meet our authors, and receive this FREE poster for your classroom or office.


This is also a great chance to find out more about our Read & Watch books. Authors Lee Ann Tysseling (Word Travelers) and Lee Ann Spillane (Reading Amplified) will be at the booth to present mini-sessions about their online books. Stop by to see what the buzz is about and receive a free trial!

Here is a list of author signings and mini-sessions:

Saturday, April 20
10 a.m.: Debbie Miller (Reading with Meaning)
11 a.m.: MINI-SESSION with Lee Ann Tysseling
1 p.m.: MINI SESSION with Lee Ann Spillane
2 p.m.: Steve Wolk (Caring Heart & Critical Minds)
2 p.m.: Jeff Anderson (10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know)
3 p.m.: Cris Tovani (Talk to Me)
3 p.m.: Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, Margot Holmes Smith (Word Nerds)

Sunday, April 21
9 a.m.: Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan (Assessment in Perspective)
11 a.m.: Carol Bedard and Charles Fuhrken (When Writing with Technology Matters)
Noon: Mary Shorey (Many Texts, Many Voices)
Noon:MINI SESSION with Lee Ann Tysseling
1 p.m. MINI SESSION with Lee Ann Spillane
1 p.m.: Debbie Diller (Moving into Math Stations)
3 p.m.: Steven Layne (Life’s Literacy Lessons)

Monday, April 22
9 a.m.: MINI SESSION with Lee Ann Spillane
10:30 a.m. Julie Ramsay (“Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?”)
1 p.m.: MINI SESSION with Lee Ann Tysseling


1 comment April 16th, 2013

White Wonderful Winter: Using Strong Verbs to Create an Image

We continue our early National Poetry Month celebration with another Your Turn Lesson from Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, the authors of Poetry Mentor Texts on using strong verbs to create an image. Leave your short poem in the comments section for a chance to get a free copy of Poetry Mentor Texts!

White Wonderful Winter

Word choice is an important part of any kind of writing. Poets, especially, need to be conscious of the words they use as they create images with only a few words. In this lesson, writers are reminded of the power of strong verbs in writing. The scaffold provides a framework that ensures the success of all writers.

Hook: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner is a wonderful source of verbs for this particular scaffolded poem. In the book, a young girl is cross-country skiing through the woods with her father, while under the snow is a secret world where animals eat, sleep, and hide. Students are fascinated by the activities of the animals, so it is a good idea to introduce this book as a read-aloud first before using it as a mentor text. Return to the book and ask students to listen for the verbs the author uses to describe the actions of the animals and the people. They can record them in their notebooks or on individual whiteboards.

Purpose: Writers, today I will show you how you can use strong verbs to create clear images for your reader. We will use this scaffold to create poems about winter:



White wonderful winter!

Kids _________________________

Grown-ups ___________________

White wonderful winter!

Brainstorm: Together with the class, create a t-chart of verbs. On one side, list the verbs from the book that describe the actions of the animals and people. Students can brainstorm additional verbs for winter activities. For the other side, ask the class for verbs that could be used with snow. Your chart may look something like this:

        Animals and People                                    Snow               

disappear     glide         scratch                           glistens

doze             climb        swoosh                           whispers

dodges         snooze     snore                              swirls

huddle          snuggle    scurry                             blows

cuddle          listen        build                               piles

ski                leap          cheer                              blankets

complain      toboggan    skate                            sparkles

Model: Use the scaffold to create a poem. Think aloud about the words you choose to use for the images you want to create. You can add other words, such as conjunctions or transition words, to help shape your poem. Here is an example from Rose’s notebook:


Snow blankets the earth while
Animals snooze peacefully underground
White wonderful winter!
Kids cheer joyfully and
Grown-ups cuddle by a cackling fire
White wonderful winter!

Shared/Guided Writing: Together with your students, create one or two poems. Discuss how the use of strong verbs helps create a more precise image. Students can also work in pairs or triads and share their thinking.

Independent Writing: Ask students to create their own winter poems using the scaffold. Some students may use the scaffold as a guide or adjust it slightly to meet their needs. Here is an example from a second grader:


A Winter Wonderland

by Josh

Snow falls on the earth.
Animals dream
Of a warm spring!
White wonderful winter!
Kids ice-skate in an ice rink as
Grown-ups slurp hot cocoa.
White wonderful winter!

 Reflection: Ask your students to reflect on how the writing worked for them:

Was creating the poem easy or hard? Why?

Did you revise your poem to use a stronger verb?

How did using a strong verb help you to create a clearer image in your writing?

Options: You can try this scaffold with other seasons or holidays, adjusting the phrases as needed—perhaps “Sizzling Sunny Summer” or “Thankfully Thankful Thanksgiving” or “Fabulous Festive Fall.” The book Outside, Inside by Carolyn Crimi compares and contrasts a thunderstorm brewing outside with what is happening inside a young girl’s house. It is also a good mentor text for strong verbs.

1 comment March 26th, 2013

Talking to kids about unspeakable events

In the wake of last week’s tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, all of us are struggling to find words to express our grief, horror, bewilderment, and outrage. Our friends at Responsive Classroom offer some practical tips for teachers and administrators looking for help on what to say—and what not to say—to a roomful of students:

Although you are dealing with your own grief and fears, when you are with students tomorrow and in the days to come, do your best to focus on the children and their needs. It’s daunting, but projecting an emotional front of calm and safety and not showing extreme grief, anger, or fear with students is one of the most effective things you can do to keep children from feeling anxious. Principals and other school leaders can support teachers and staff in this by checking in frequently, by providing space and time for counseling, and by supporting teachers’ efforts to take care of themselves and each other during this time.

Plan for a week of learning that emphasizes peace, inclusion, and community in a secure, predictable environment. Stick to familiar routines and schedules as much as you can. Set academic goals that will allow students to feel masterful and successful, safe and in control. Plan to do activities that you know your students enjoy. Read aloud books with kind and loving characters, whether fictional or real. Although nothing can undo Friday’s tragedy, we can help restore children’s belief in other humans by showing them the opposite—that people can be good, noble, and selfless.

If your class uses an arrival routine such as Morning Meeting, that familiar structure will be especially helpful now. Greeting each other, using an established, predictable format for sharing, doing a physical activity or singing together can all help affirm classroom community. Try to choose greetings and activities that foster a sense of peace and community, and consider using particular favorites of the children. Stick to the structure you’ve already established for meetings. As many educators did after 9/11, you might use Morning Meeting as a place to talk about the Sandy Hook tragedy with children, but don’t let discussion or sharing about it dominate or take over your meetings.

Make time at the end of the day to check in with the group. In classrooms, a routine such as Closing Circle gives teachers an opportunity to hear what the day has been like for students and to take a measure of what is on their minds. A brief check in for faculty and staff can also be helpful at times like this.

For more tips from the Responsive Classroom, visit their website.

Add comment December 17th, 2012

A Collage Poem: The Cento

Author and poet Shirley McPhillips continues our Poetry Month series this week with a post about collage poems. Make sure to check out her previous posts on bringing students into the world of poetry and blogging about poetry. Share your own cento in the comments section!

A Collage Poem: The Cento

Recently I started a collage notebook. Each page has an arrangement of shapes, colors, and textures suggesting a theme, an idea. Keeping this notebook, I find myself being attracted to materials for making collages. I collect papers of all sorts. I save art magazines. I dismantle packaged products. The expectation of creating something keeps me looking for possibly useful and surprising materials.

After Hurricane Irene, for example, I tore pieces from an old watercolor painting and cut shapes from an art magazine to make an abstract design suggesting the ferocity of that storm. Plants spiking, twisting, wrenching. Light shafting, cutting. Water curling, grasping, overlapping. Ever after I will think of the storm with my new image in mind.

A poem form called the cento can be thought of as a collage poem. Cento means “patchwork” in Latin. It is a type of writing, especially a poem, composed wholly of quotations from the works of other authors. A whole new poem, a new meaning, is made from choosing and assembling lines from other poems.

Poets can make small changes in the lines they choose for a cento, or use lines exactly as they appear. Usually a cento will include no more than one line from each poem, and the lines may represent one poet or several poets.

Lest we get excited that this may be “stealing” lines, we can remember T. S. Eliot’s statement: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” It seems respectful practice, in any case, to cite one’s sources. (My opinion.)

On the Academy of American Poets Web site, the staff show how they composed a cento using lines from Marie Ponsot, Emily Dickinson, Charles Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett.

More contemporary centos, such as John Ashbery’s “The Dong with the Luminous Nose,” are often witty and play with ideas and images. See also “Wolf Cento” by Simone Muench.

Finally, creating a cento is not about constructing but rather arranging lines in a particular sequence. That arrangement can delight and inspire and move us for the same reasons that any other kind of poem can.

Cady (grade six) wrote a cento after looking through his favorite collection called ’Til All the Stars Have Fallen, poems selected by David Booth. He used sources from James Reaney, Myra Stillborn, Jane Wadley, Joanne Lysyk, Ken Stange, Robert Heidbreder, Dorothy Livesay, Chief Dan George, and Anne Corkett.

The wind was a tall sweet woman

circling the shadow of every tree
tramping the grass so that it lay flat
cackling with laughter—

speaks to me
now raise your arms and fly, fly, fly.

This night I rise and scream
Till I’ve cried the rivers full.

O where have you gone?

1 comment April 18th, 2012

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