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“Say it Right”: Unpacking the Cultural Significance of Names

Ever since author Matthew Kay read abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech about the scourge of slavery, it’s been stuck in his mind. With its eloquent and unsparing accusation that the United States was betraying its very essence by perpetuating slavery, Douglass called for Americans to confront the country’s “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy.” Kay draws on his nearly ten years of teaching high school English and leading discussions on race to write Not Light, but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. He shares actual classroom discussions on such topics as the N-word, cultural appropriation, and pop-up conversations about sensitive, timely topics. In this excerpt, he talks about how he tackled the thought-provoking topic of names.

“Say it Right”: Unpacking the Cultural Significance of Names
By Matthew Kay

My mother Sherrill Kay taught third- and fourth-graders at Loesche Elementary in Philadelphia for thirty-six years. Each year, she would ask students to bring in a dish that represented their cultural identity and describe it to the class. When it was my class’s turn, it resulted in a feast of revelations. I had my first potato latkes with applesauce, my first curries. It was fascinating that my friends, when they went home to be with their own people, ate these different foods. Everyone lived in their own tasty universe, foreign from mine…and if they ate different things, what else did they do that was different?

As I grew up, this perspective stuck with me: somewhere, even close to my home, people are doing things differently than I am, and these things are as normal to them as my habits/values/routines are to me. This stance undergirds both the humility and empathy needed to engage in loaded conversations about race.

It instilled in me the importance of making time to actually appreciate our differences.

In my own high school English class, every couple of days, we pick a different element of culture—names, languages, music, art, religion, etc.—and we discuss the contributions made by these elements to our own cultural identities. If properly executed, these exchanges encourage students to thoughtfully challenge any lingering fear of differences.

We started with names, and I asked students to write about their relationship with their name. Did they like it? Not like it? Are they aware of its meaning? How has their name affected their movement through the world?

To spark the discussion, I handed out an elegant poem, “My Namesake,” by Hiwot Adilow, a former mentee:

i am tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them,
they want me to bury it in the english so they can understand.
i will not accommodate the word for mouth,
i will not break my name so your lazy english can sleep its tongue on top,
fix your lips around it.
no, you can’t give me a stupid nickname to replace this gift of five letters.
try to pronounce it before you write me off as
lil one,
the ethiopian jawn,
or any other poor excuse of a name you’ve baptized me with in your weakness.
my name is insulted that you won’t speak it.
my name is a jealous god–
i kneel my english down everyday and offer my begging and broken amharic
to be accepted by this lord from my parents’ country.
this is my religion.
you are tainting it.
every time you call me something else you break it and kick it—
you think you’re being clever by turning my name into a cackle?
“he when how he what who?”
my name is not a joke!
this is more than wind and the clack of a consonant.
my father handed me this heavy burden of five letters decades before i was born.
with letters, he tried to snatch his ethiopia back from the middle of a red terror.
he tried to overthrow a fascist.
he was thrown into prison,
ran out of his home—
my name is a frantic attempt to save a country.
it is a preserved connection,
the only line i have leading me to a place i’ve never been.
it is a boat,
a plane,
a vessel carrying me to earth i’ve never felt.
i speak myself closer and closer to ethiopia by wrapping myself in this name.
this is my country in ink.
my name is the signature at the end of the last letter before the army comes,
it is the only music left in the midst of torture and fear,
it is the air that filled my father’s lungs when he was released from prison,
the inhale that ushers in beginning.
my name is a poem,
my father wrote it over and over again.
it is the lullaby that sends his homesickness to bed—
i refuse to break myself into dust for people too weak to carry my name in their mouths.
take two syllables of your time to pronounce this song of mine,
it means life,
you shouldn’t treat a breath as carelessly as this.
cradle my name between your lips as delicately as it deserves—
it’s Hiwot,
say it right.

Then I showed a clip of her reading the poem in her viral 2012 YouTube video. We watched the video twice: the first time just to enjoy and absorb, the second time to highlight the lines of her poem that the students related to. I asked them to pair off and share their selected lines with their partners. The hum of conversation was predictable, but after a few seconds, started to rise exponentially. Not quite realizing what was going on because I had turned my back to cue up the next video source, I gently admonished them to keep it down. Then, after a minute, another burst of sound caught my attention. I turned to see my students—every one—engrossed in fifteen of the most focused one-on-one conversations I’d ever seen.

In Not Light, but Fire, you can find out how Kay moves this classroom discussion forward, as students explore ethnic names, nicknames, “passing,” concatenated names, “ghetto” names, and more.

Add comment July 27th, 2018

The Method Takes Shape

This is the second a in series of seven posts that we’ll feature in the coming months commemorating the 25th anniversary of Stenhouse Publishers.

When Stenhouse founders Philippa Stratton and Tom Seavey entered the publishing business, they knew the market to be a furious rat race with very high entry costs. “If we tried to go up against the big boys,” recalled Seavey, “we would be lunch.”

Undercapitalized, they knew they had to find a kind of publishing microclimate, a sheltered place in which to take root. Leading Heinemann’s first foray into the U.S. market would be challenging.

With a few successful titles under their belt, Stratton initiated a method that would help define her publishing at Heinemann U.S. and later at Stenhouse: She got out of the office to talk to the educators who would be authors and readers of the books she published. She visited universities and education conferences, listening and taking notes. Persistence was also part of her modus operandi—a steadfast adherence to her own taste and judgment, along with a willingness to follow up with a potential author. Donald Graves’s research on children’s development as writers caught her attention. His book Writing: Teachers & Children at Work was a breakthrough title for Heinemann U.S. Others soon followed, including the bestseller by Lucy Calkins, Lessons from a Child: On the Teaching and Learning of Writing.

While Stratton worked to develop a list for Heinemann U.S., Seavey energetically plowed his own furrow; his job was to find readers—a market—for a different kind of book about learning and teaching.

The direct mail catalogue was his main device. He created mailing lists of teachers who seemed among the most engaged, forward thinking, and ambitious. An actual name went on every envelope. The catalogues fully explained each book.

By the late 1980s, it was clear that Seavey and Stratton had helped Heinemann U.S. find gold: readable books about teaching.

It was also during this period that they decided to act on their dream to start their own publishing house.

They found the ideal investor and partner in Highlights for Children, whose leaders also believed in the value of active, participatory learning and the powerful benefits it could yield.

Why “Stenhouse”? Lawrence Stenhouse (1926 -1982) was an original, provocative, and influential British educational thinker who profoundly affected Philippa Stratton. He possessed that rare ability to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas, and to put them together to create something new.

Stratton and Seavey knew that was their task as well.  They assembled a national network of distributors and connected to Canadian readers through Pembroke Publishers, a like-minded publisher of professional literature for teachers. By the fall of 1994, they put out six books and one video.  A year later, distributors were selling Stenhouse books in 25 states. Within five years, the start-up became profitable and would remain robustly and consistently so. Stenhouse continually drew loyal customers through its videos that showed teacher-authors at work with students in their classrooms, an e-newsletter, and virtual community of educators. By 2001, Stenhouse was publishing 20 books a year in its well-defined niche.

Stiff headwinds came in the early 2000s.

Add comment July 27th, 2018

Jambalaya and Stenhouse

The House That Teachers Built

Since its founding 25 years ago, Stenhouse Publishers has brought together teachers—as authors and as readers, as researchers and practitioners—to exchange ideas through books. Join us we recall our roots and celebrate our enduring mission to publish books by teachers.

Founders Philippa Stratton and Tom Seavey built their careers by creating a new kind of professional book for teachers and creating a market for them. In establishing Stenhouse Publishers, they invited authors—teachers themselves—to build the Stenhouse list, one book at a time.

Stenhouse is a publisher with a mission and a carefully honed point of view. Every book that Stenhouse publishes is grounded in sound theory and research and informed by years of experience in the classroom. Starting in 1993 with two employees and six titles in its first list, Stenhouse has grown to dozens of employees contributing to a catalog of more than 300 books and videos.

This is the first a in series of seven posts that we’ll feature in the coming months.

Jambalaya and Stenhouse

The seeds of Stenhouse were planted in 1967, when Stratton walked into a classroom of six- and seven-year-olds in North London to embark on a teaching career. She was excited to begin. Growing up in a village in southwest England had left her with warm memories of learning and teaching in the context of an extended family. Inspired by the progressive ideas circulating among educators at the time—a reform movement reflecting broader social trends of the 1960s—Stratton hoped to turn a page on the authoritarian teaching and rote learning of the past to accomplish something wonderful with her young pupils.

But she soon discovered that none of the new ideas she’d absorbed during her teacher training had seeded themselves in her small publicly funded school. What would it take to do that?

At the same time across the Atlantic, Maine native Tom Seavey was accruing his own early professional experiences, marketing college texts for the educational books division of a large American publisher. He began to wonder why none of his buyers were teachers. Seavey was curious: Had anyone tried to sell professional books to the millions of teachers out there?

It would be a full decade before either one would revisit their queries.


It was at a home economics conference in 1978 in New Orleans that the paths of Stratton and Seavey, now working in quite different capacities for the same company—Heinemann Education—fatefully crossed. Over a series of fine meals in New Orleans, the two came alive to the appealing qualities of the person across the table. Thy found each other funny and smart. They shared a sense of adventure and an independent streak. The pair parted reluctantly at the end of the week, but before long they were visiting each other whenever they could. By late 1979, they were ready to throw in their lots together. At the same time, Heinemann’s leadership had decided the company was ready to try publishing its own books in the United States. Perhaps the two would like to take that on?

The couple married in Exeter, New Hampshire, and established the two-person office of Heinemann.

They knew the American publishing market to be a furious rat race with very high entry costs. “If we tried to go up against the big boys,” recalled Seavey, “we would be lunch.”

Undercapitalized, they knew they had to find a kind of publishing microclimate, a sheltered place in which to take root.

(End of Part I)

Coming next: The Method Takes Shape

Add comment July 13th, 2018

See you at ILA 2018 in Austin!

Visit the Stenhouse Booth #205 at the ILA Annual Convention in Austin to shop our rich collection of professional books, check out the new Who’s Doing the Work? Lesson Sets, and meet our authors! And join us Friday from 4-5pm for cupcakes and celebrate our 25th Anniversary!

This year we will be holding five mini-sessions in our booth. Stop by for a quick PD session and stay to chat with our authors:

Steph Harvey & Anne Goudvis, authors of Strategies That Work, Third Edition
Saturday @ 10:00am: “Strategies That Keep on Working”

Jeff Anderson & Whitney La Rocca, authors of Patterns of Power
Saturday @ 10:45am: “Grammar: When Reading and Writing Collide”

Matthew Kay, author of Not Light, but Fire
Saturday @ 11:30am: “Not Light, but Fire”

Debbie Diller, author of Growing Independent Learners
Saturday @ 12:00pm: “Tips for Independent Learning”

Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris, authors of Who’s Doing the Work? and the new Who’s Doing the Work? Lesson Sets
Saturday @ 2:30pm: “Prompts that Empower Readers”

Get a complete, printable list of conference sessions and in-booth Meet-and-Greets by Stenhouse authors.

1 comment July 13th, 2018

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast – Episode II: Social-Emotional Learning

We continue our podcast series with Stenhouse author Shawna Coppola and kindergarten teacher Laura, who is in her first year of teaching. In this episode, they tackle behavior charts and social-emotional learning.

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast – Episode II: Social-Emotional Learning
By Shawna Coppola

In the first episode of our podcast focusing on mentoring new teachers, Laura and I discussed ways to cope with the all-too-familiar feeling of worrying about “fitting it all in,” especially in regard to literacy. Too often, classroom teachers are pressured to include so many different components of what constitutes a “balanced” literacy program that we are frequently left feeling as if we are doing none of them justice. During that first conversation, I advised Laura to keep a close eye on the big picture when it came to her students’ literacy experiences and to try to identify the experiences that gave both her and her students the “best bang for [their] buck”–a difficult, yet important, task.

As she continued to experiment with how to incorporate literacy instruction into her students’ day in a way that felt more integrated and less piecemeal, Laura expressed to me that she was beginning to feel challenged by the social/emotional demands of her kindergartners. Like many classroom teachers, Laura is forced to juggle a wide variety of student needs with very little sustained guidance. She feels as though she is “drowning in behavior charts,” which runs counter to her desire to co-construct a healthy classroom community with her students. In this podcast episode, Laura and I discuss how social-emotional learning is at the heart of all good teaching, and I explain how both kidwatching and documentation can help her root out some of the causes of those behaviors that frequently derail the development of the community she and her students are working so hard to create.


Buckley, Mary Anne. 2015. Sharing the Blue Crayon: How to Integrate Social, Emotional, and Literacy Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

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

Mraz, Kristine. Kinderconfidential [Blog].

Goodbye Clip Charts, Marble Jars, and Stickers for Behavior

Full transcript:



Hey there.




How are you doing?


All right. Plugging through.

SHAWNA: I was thinking of you the other day with the football game. We’re not big football fans but that Patriots game was amazing.


Oh yeah. I am all over it.


I was like she must be dying right now.


( ) I read a book about football in our ( ) starting up some Super Bowl activities and things in my room.


Oh, so fun. And how’s your foot doing?


Pretty much better now.




Yeah. I mean I’m pretty intense on the exercise so part of it was my own fault that it was taking so long but it’s manageable. I just wear a brace usually if I’m doing a lot.




Otherwise good to go.


Good, so, well, tell me what’s going on with you and your students?



Um, I don’t know. We’ve been kind of getting into a routine that seems like forever since vacation, especially with all of having a snow day every week and stuff. So this kind of seems to be the first week that we’ve really gotten to have every day. But um, so we’ve been making adjustments with, we started up our new like center routine right after break. So, they’ve kind of been learning to do that. And we’ve been really making, I’ve been trying to make sure I really establish like our schedule at this point. Um, and that we’re kind of doing the same thing every day now. And more with that comes like the more parts of the day where they’re able to work independently. Um, they’ve…


May I ask you a question? So you were talking about your centers routines. What do the routines look like for students or what are their expectations?



Um, well, right, I actually, the change was that they now work with a partner. And we have a lot of different things going on. Right now it’s like seven different centers, um, that are the same all the time and I’ll just rotate like themes on some of them for each month. But yeah, they work with a partner and we do two rotations. So they have, um usually we kind of group and do a small lesson before they start and then I send them and they’re learning, actually this chart thing you can see behind would be their learning how to like find their name and look to see what’s next to it. Um, so which center they have. And then I have  a shelf that has boxes that match `the pictures on the chart, um, for like puzzles and writing and different things that they go and they pull them out. My principal actually observed that week and was at least impressed that they knew where everything was and were able to ( ) it. Which is nice. And then I’m not super like strict about where in the room they’re working and stuff, except for ones that are kind of stuck in one place, like (listening ). But as long as they are able to work quietly and they’re staying in one place.



So it sort of reminds me of Daily Five expectations in a sense where like find a good fit spot and stay in one spot the whole time. Is that sort of what you’ve been working off of or is that just …


Yeah, I did..I read the Daily Five book at the beginning of the year, actually, and I was like I love a lot of this stuff. But I was finding that having too many kids, even if they weren’t sup, even if they didn’t have to sit in the same place, having like too many kids doing listening and too many kids reading to a partner, whatever, they just got very like out of control. Um, and they, it just was kind of crazy. And when I went to a conference in November, yeah, it was November, there was a speaker there that was talking about what she does which was like this partner..she has like twelve centers…


Wow, twelve centers?



Yeah. And so a lot of their like set up was similar. It was just a matter of having `other things that they’re going to. And so I was like, oh, I’ll give that a try. And just working in partners, I had known from doing some other things that I was like I think I might be better. And it has been better, where I just have, I have too many kids who, a  lot of boys and a lot who need a lot of work on self-regulation. And so it’s made it a lot easier to just pair them so that, for the most part they’re able to work with that one person.


And I love that idea of pairing them with  a student, a classmate, too, because not only are they working on their routines you set up for centers, but just honing their collaboration skills is so great for them. Are these partners that they have chosen or are they strategically arranged partners?



Right now they’re arranged. Especially with all of the behavior things going on in here. Which we’ve actually had, we’ve talked about how, um, we’ve talked about two things. One we’ve talked about how, what we can show that we know how to do each center responsibly. Then I could starting having some days where they get to choose their center. Um, and then same thing, once I’ve seen that they’re able to work with their classmates responsibly then we can have some times that they could choose their partner. So we’re kind of working towards that and trying to keep track of the work, like how well we’re doing. And right now they actually have like a little, like a punch card to start off to reinforce like checking on did you do your work? Were you working with your partner? Were you staying in one place? Kind of checking back through those things.



Do they look at that punch card at the end of the whole sort of period?


After each, we do two centers so after each one we check in with that.


And do they punch their own cards or …


Right now it’s been me. Um, we’re getting there.




That’s another like, once we can establish that they’re doing that on their own without deciding that that means they can punch a whole bunch of other things then ….yeah.


So one of my questions is what are the centers that you have set up?



Um, right now I have like a listening one and a, the library which is just they, I let them choose like reading to themselves or their partners for that. And then writing, but that one’s just like free writing since we do more structured writing other times of the day. And then there’s one that’s all puzzles. It started out as all alphabet ones but we’re kind of moving into some like, one I have right now is just like beginning sounds. And then I have some like CBC and a lot of different puzzles. So we’ll kind of build through those. And then I have two different game ones. One is like, like a board game type thing but each space has a sight work on it. So they, it’s just like a roll the dice, move your piece, and say the word that you land on or whatever. And then there’s another one where they’re, it’s a like a board. There’s a letter one that a few of my kids use and then sight words for the other one where there’s a bunch of like spots on it with the words or letters. And they have numbers in the corner, so they were on level one and there’s two spaces that have the word ” I “. So they could piece on. And so once these spaces get filled then if they roll the same one that their partner has they can bump them off. And so they kind of go back and forth and could technically play for probably forever.



But, so those are kind of our two different game ones. And then, oh, and I have like a magnet words where it has like vocabulary for the month. So like right now we have a lot of different winter vocabulary and stuff. Where they’re working on building those words with the magnets. And  I think, yeah, that’s all of them right now. I have the cards ready for a pocket chart center that…( ) there’s’, I was going to do sentences for that although I might pull some (CVC) words to start, so it’s a lot more my kids would be ready to do that independently. And then I have like cards ready for a computer one. And then I have meet with the teacher cards ready to slip in there.


Oh nice.


( ) like I’m ready to stop hovering over what’s going on.


Yeah, it took so long to establish (routines), especially, you know, I feel like with most classrooms you get, you get going with the routines and students start really using them in a consistent way and then all of a sudden it’s winter, that first winter break. And then they come back, and if you live where we live then you’re dealing with you know, the one day holidays, the teacher workshops, the snow days, and it’s really hard to find consistency. I feel like everybody I’m talking to right now is struggling with that or just now feeling like they’re getting back to a routine. So, with the centers what do you think it’s going really, really well for you and the students?



I think the big part is the, like, organizational, independence part of it. I mean they really, at this point, if I have, as long as I’ve moved their cards to where they need to be, pretty much all of them can walk over, know where they need to go and go get what they need. Um, and so that’s been, that didn’t seem to take long, which was awesome. So yeah, that’s definitely the big one. That and just that they’re working well with having partners… () having any bigger groups.


Have you had any major partner arguments or problems that need to be solved?


I have a couple. There’s one boy who’s one of my behavior ( ) and he decided like a few days in that he didn’t want to be with his partner, which there is always the option of them working on some things alone. Some of them will take a day and do something and then be like I don’t want to do this by myself. But, but with him I’m trying to have the partners, also that ( ) set up so that I could pull them both and they’d be working on something similar with me. So with him it was hard to figure out somebody that would be able to work well with him that would also fall into that category. Otherwise it hasn’t been, most of the rest of them have done pretty well. Yeah, I mean nothing like you’d…some of them care more that their partner is like staying with them than others. Like there’s a couple that their partner will wander off and they’re like whatever, versus, I have one who’s so sweet, like come on, we need to go.



She’s a task master.


Oh yeah. So…


Well, that’s great. And so there’s a lot that seems like it’s going well and they, it seems like I remember when we were first talking about the kinds of things you were doing your classroom routines were something that they were, they were sort of taking too pretty well and they’re, I remember you saying that you love the independence of those Daily Five choices, um, which is nice to see that’s still sort of continuing. But what are the things that are challenging you the most about this new sort of set up?



I think through one is like keeping the volume down. Like we’ve done stopping and restarting all the time, really. And it’s still just, will last a couple minutes every time and then…and I have, and we’ve even tried to like start charting it but it was, so far it’s been kind of all the same amount. They’ve had a hard time ( ). So that’s definitely one. The other would just be like some of my kids who, that are very hard to motivate to do anything and so they don’t really seem to care some days what the reward or the consequence is. They just decide they’re going to get up and start bugging somebody else  or….run across the room or different things. So kind of just those outlier situations I guess.



Yeah. And with the volume thing, let me see, if I’m looking back at your centers it looks like there are couple where they would need to be able to concentrate more than others? Um, so do you find that those students are speaking up about the volume or saying it’s too loud? Or are you seeing them non-verbally sort of put their hands to their ears or is it more like you feeling like, okay, it’s getting a little crazy right now?


More like me..they, at that time of the day they’re usually ( ). They don’t seem to notice. But so yeah, when we’re just me…and knowing that like I don’t know, the biggest thing is some of them have just had trouble not like shouting across the room at somebody. Even though when we’re doing other work that everybody’s doing they seem to lose that problem. But as soon as somebody else is doing something different it comes back. And so definitely, also thinking forward to me working with a group it’s going to be difficult when behind them somebody shouts across the room or one of the group working right there is talking ( ).



Right, so sort of like thinking toward the future when you’re looking at trying to work with a small group of students you’re thinking okay, so we need something in place to… or we need to be practicing the volume issue so that we can actually get this work done.


Then they get up, with everything has been, they just get very rambunctious. Cleaning up toys, cleaning up centers, cleaning up anything seems like suddenly like all, all the practicing walking and voice level and all that is like whoa…forgotten.


I mean I know,  there is so much to think about. I mean if we think about even if they weren’t doing something that was as academically challenging as some of things they’re doing, like building words and working on these puzzles it would be hard to manage or would be hard to sort of regulate their bodies and their voices. And then you add that on top of it and it’s like, it’s a lot for them in their little bodies to manage. And so you said you had started to chart the volume. So was that helping or not helping at all?



Not really doing anything..cause I mean part of it is just trying to figure out more ways to have their awareness of it because that’s part of ( ) them not really being aware. Because we were trying like to fill in  like however many minutes we made it before it started to get really loud. And so we kind of just started there and kept charting ( ).



Yeah, and do you have any signals for when it starts to get loud? What do you typically do to draw their attention to that?


I just use like any of the ( ) things and then *( ). So I do have one of those little like wandy things. I ( ) most of the time. It ( ) different noise that gets their attention ( ) occupied in what they’re doing.


Yeah, I know it’s so tough. So I know that initially you had talked about wanting to discuss group or working in small groups? Is that something that, I mean are there things that’ you’ve been thinking about that..I mean we can talk about you know trying to sort of figure out more management of the centers and stuff, but was there something else that was sort of rising to the surface for you that you wanted to talk about?


I’m just trying to like anticipate starting those small group…and so making sure that I’m well prepared to use that time well was kind of my thinking. And I’ve done, I mean like from student teaching and stuff we did small group work but it ended up just like ( ) almost always did the exact same like reading a little book from the curriculum that they had. And they did it kind of the same way every time. That was that. So I didn’t get to see like a whole lot of very individualized instruction.





….from that was..


Can I ask what program they were using?

Do you remember?


Um, they had the…they had like the McGraw Hill curriculum. And then they were using all the like Level ( ) readers or whatever came with that.


So there were lessons that had already been made, then, that people were following in the program?


Not really, cause it was made so that like the readers were following a theme and there were technically, like, I think low, medium, high levels of them. But usually I never saw her actually use the curriculum. She just pulled the readers and kind of just, like every time they would all together do a picture ( ) she would ask questions and then they would read the title and read through it one time and then go back and read through it again.  And then…



Did they take turns reading it or were they reading it in, were they choral reading, all together?




They were choral reading?




Huh, okay. So are you anticipating that, so when you say working with small groups, are you looking at doing some guided reaching specifically?




And have you started sort of thinking about what you want to do? Or have you just thought, you know what, this is sort of a missing piece in what I’m doing and I want to just get some small group guided reading groups started?


Um, I mean to start off I do want to try to make sure we’re just taking a lot of chances to read books that are at their level. And do that more a little more variety than what I was seeing, like taking turns and but practicing reading a page to yourself or reading, like different things like that. So my plan for now was just that I was going to start off there. But I know there’s a lot of skills that we just have a hard time addressing as a whole group that I would like to be able to also get to during that time.



Skills? What kind of skills?


Just like, I don’t know, like doing more work on letters and sounds and kind of the building words part of things. And I mean some of the decoding stuff would be through doing those books together. But just more targeted lessons there. And even pull in some more of the writing stuff that we’re working on, pull that into that…


Into the, into the small group time?




So it sort of sounds like you’re, what you’re describing to me sort of sounds like reading recovery type stuff? Is that stuff, is that intentional? Or is it just happen to …


It’s just kind of the way it…


Kind of what you’ve been thinking about?




Cause it, so Reading Recovery sort of follows’s not ( ) dynamic and responsive to what students need so there’s not you know, a script that you follow or anything like that by any means. But often times there’s a reading that familiar text followed by some word play and by reading an unfamiliar text followed by some writing. So it just sort of sounds like you have some of those elements and that you’re interested in doing, with the small group, which is really cool and interesting. So what have you, from your, sort of school experience, what do you know about guided reading? Did they talk about that a lot? Did they give you readings to do in relation to guided reading? Or people to follow?



Yeah, I mean I felt like they went over a lot of different stuff. But because we went over a lot some of it just wasn’t very much in depth. And I know my school was big on a lot of our learning being out at other schools and seeing what teachers were using. So with that, although with that it kind of, some of it depended on ( ) limit output. Like, like we did …like we had a couple classes that we spent a lot of time going through like just the different reading skills and strategies to use for those, not necessarily specified at how to do that with a group but at least  how to identify the skills that they needed and find different ways to be teaching those. I don’t know. Some of the…I( )I’m just looking and I forget way too much too easily.



Well it ( ) a lot. I mean if you think about, what we’ve talked about before, all the things that you have to keep in your head as a classroom teacher. And even if, you know, I’m a literacy specialist, and just focusing on all the literacy components that…you have this person telling you to do all this stuff and then this group of people saying nope, balanced literacy includes these components and it’s really, really overwhelming. And like you said, a lot of times in our university setting, our college setting we don’t get a lot of in depth practice with them or it’s a lot..I see a lot of breadth versus depth when it comes to with those kinds of things. But one of the things that, that I know about guided reading that I’m not, I don’t know how much of the history you sort of talked about in your classes or with your cooperating teacher, but originally it’s really changed a lot over the years.



And so a lot of times when I talk to teachers about guided reading they’re thinking of cer, you know, particular programs or curriculums that have been really, really popular where guided reading originally was really just meant to be a small group conversation, very sort of I don’t know if Informal’s the right word but certainly not you know, a lesson with, you know, we’re going to go over these three skills. Because it’s really meant to be a dynamic sort of session with say you know, however many readers you have with you. Where you’re sort of reading a text together, like you said. But, and it doesn’t even have to be the same text. But sort of reading with the intent to gain meaning from the text.



So of course that means that sometimes you’re working on decoding because you need to understand, or you need to be able to identify those words to gain meaning from the text that sometimes it might be just talking about the text as well. And it’s just really meant to be really dynamic. So one of the things that has worked for me in the past, I know that a lot of programs have, you know these leveled books that they use and that can be useful as well, but I find that using short poems or songs is really useful as a, as sort of a common text can be useful to do during guided reading, particularly because if they’re familiar to the students, especially the guys sing songs in your class? Yeah. Do they have those printed out at all?



We’ve done a couple that we’ve, like yeah… or ones that we have as like old posters that we put together and stuff to be able to read.


Yeah, so like maybe starting with something like that where let’s say you start with, I don’t know, three students and you start with a really, really familiar song. And your, most of your intent for that meeting would be to just see what they do and that’s how you can sort of build your guided reading curriculum off of just seeing what these, these four, or three or four children do as you’re going through that song. And so one of the things you might notice are oh, well, I’m noticing that this child is following the text as he reads with his finger. And so if that’s something that you’re noticing happening you can sort of stop and just say oh my gosh, you guys look, Joe is so..look at what he’s doing with his finger when he’s trying to read this song or when he comes to a part that he may be forgot or wasn’t sure what the word says. Let’s try that and see if that helps us while we’re reading. But starting something that they’re pretty familiar with is a nice way to start because you know, they’ll experience that success right away.



But I find that, and during any given guided reading lesson I, if I’m focusing on noticing what kids are doing or what they’re not doing that helps me build my curriculum. So I maybe would have an idea of what I might do, but that often changes when I see what they actually do. So that actually happened to me the other day. I had a group of three girls who I was working with and my intent was to read a particular, a particular poem but like, we had a booklet full of poetry that I had created for them with poems that I’d thought they’d enjoy and that were… .you know, I don’t have them leveled but I kind of could sense that they would, it was at a good instructional level for them, that most of the words they would know and some they’d have to figure out. And of course my intention was to start with this particular poem. and they didn’t, you know,they were like oh, can we do this one? And I was like sure, that sounds fine, let’s start with that. Because of course for me engagement makes everything easier for readers. You know, if you’re more engaged in something you’re more likely to want to try to figure it out.



So we did look at the illustration that went with it. It was a Shel Silverstein poem. Do you know his work?


Mm hmm.


Like A Light in the Attic kind of stuff. So it was one of those. And there was a little illustration, so we looked at that and we talked about you know, what do you think, what do you think’s going to happen in this poem? It was about band aids. It was about this kid that puts band aids on every part of his body. And you find out in the last line that he doesn’t’ have any boo boos. Like I think it says something like I don’t, I didn’t have a cut or a sore. So he put them all over his body and the picture has a picture of him with band aids all over him. But he didn’t have anything wrong. He was just putting band aids on his body. So it was actually a great poem to do because there were several tricky `words. So we talked about well, how do you know? How do you figure out what, you know, how do you figure out that word? And they could really help each other out. I mean at one point I sort of sat back and was like they’re literally teaching each other right now. I mean I don’t even need was so great.



I was just sort of facilitating the conversation. And originally that’s sort of what guided reading was about, was really just facilitating conversation about a text. And really focusing on strategies. So, but what it sort of transformed into is more of everybody at the same level, and we go in with a lot, a lot more preconceived notions of what we’re going to talk about. So it’s just interesting how it’s evolved. And sort of, I think some of the intent of guided reading has gotten lost along the way. But I find it really, I find it really fun. However I will say that I think a lot of teachers become very overwhelmed with guided reading. So my question for you is were you thinking of, when you’re thinking of working with small groups are you thinking of rotating through so that eventually you get to all the kids in your class? Or are you just thinking of a targeted group of students who could use an extra little boost at this point in time?



At least to start out I was just going to rotate more through. And then, I mean it’s kind of set up so they can like ( ) replace or stick a little card over whatever they were going to do that way. And so it meant pulling a group (a second time) before getting to others then it would be easy that way. With it not being necessarily in the same rotations, what everything else is in.


Yeah. Well, being a first year teacher and sort of having this feeling of being overwhelmed by what you’d learned about guided reading and knowing there’s so much to sort of think about and there are so many resources to go back to, and I actually have a really amazing resource that I want to share with you, too about it. But my suggestion to you would be to really give yourself the gift of identifying a particular small group that really just want to work with that could maybe use an extra boost but maybe aren’t, aren’t the biggest challenge for you, just to hone your guided reading sort of skills.



And sort of think about what is working and what’s not working. Because I think what happens is that a lot of teachers, veteran teachers included, they feel this pressure to say, well every child must get guided reading. And that’s not the case. It’s a good tool in our tool box of when we’re thinking of balanced literacy. But it’s not something that I believe is necessary for everybody. Of course you want to offer something that seems to be beneficial to every child. But I also think that as teachers we expect too much of ourselves. And so especially, like I said, this being your first year, and you feeling a little unfamiliar with guided reading, I would definitely suggest that you just, you know, if you leave here and say I can’t just do one group, at the very least two groups. And just work with those two groups and really sort of reflect on how guided reading is going, what’s working well, what’s not, what’s not working well, where do you need some extra support? And then not feeling so overwhelmed because you have now five guided reading groups  that you’re feeling overwhelmed with but rather you might have one or two. So that’s my best advice to you.  What do you think about that? Is that something you’re like no, I can’t do that?



No, I think it’s worth a try. The nice thing is from what I get over and over again is that the expectations were not super high because the previous teachers, cause both kindergartens are new this year…and I keep getting this idea of like they just kind of gave up. And seeing where the first graders and the second graders are at, they’re like, I don’t…like they did not get a lot done. And they especially didn’t have a lot of like reinforcement of even just doing their work and things. And so the expectations of me, like yes, I still am supposed to be teaching everything. But they’re just like, like there’s a first grade teacher that’s thrilled that my kids come in every morning now and do a little light handwriting worksheet as their morning work. And things like that, that it’s just..I have one student who’s a repeat who they said, I was in her IEP meeting and they said last year they pretty much just needed her to be quiet and didn’t’ care what she was doing besides that. And so I’m like okay, so I’ve been able to kind of try different things ( ) of that. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good thing but it’s definitely allowed some flexibility.



Yeah. And that’s good, right?  That’s a good thing. But even if you didn’t have that sort of legacy, you know, behind you I think, even if you had, you know, you’re taking the place of a teacher who, by everybody’s account was oh, my gosh she did, or he did everything and this and that and shared reading and, and interactive writing and guided reading and independent reading and conferred with kids and this and that, I’ve never, I mean I’m still in my infancy stage of teaching, being here almost for two decades. You know, you think about how long many teachers stay in the profession but I have not once met a teacher who feels like she does everything well. And I think part of the reason for that is because we’re constantly just piling on, especially with literacy.



You know, there’s so much you could be doing. But you don’t have to do everything. And you don’t have to do everything for every child either. So I definitely feel strongly that it would be in your best benefit and for your students too to say, you know, I’m going to work with one group. And I really would choose one, myself. I’m going to work with one group and really try to, you know, just do a little bit of catching up on some guided reading sources that you might have from your, your year in school, the years that you had in school and some of the readings you had and looking online at what people are doing and sort of picking and choosing things that you think would work for your kids who you know best.

Right? So that’s definitely what I would recommend.



And I actually, I, every time I say this (  ) say oh, I’m not going to throw another book at you but..I just have to tell you about this amazing source that helped me so much. It’s not overwhelming and it’s one of those books that you can dip in and out. And it’s called Preventing Misguided Readings. Have you heard of that?


I don’t think so.


What’s really interesting, I did not plan this, I swear. But they have a brand new version out. So it’s a book, let me try and find it right now so I can tell you…it really helped me so much. So it’s called Preventing Misguided Reading and the subtitle is Next Generation Guided reading Strategies. Originally it was published in 2010, it looks like. But it just came, they came out with a new addition. And it’s just really nice cause it gives you a really, sorry, I’m going through tabs here. So you get sort of the history of guided reading and what its intent is. Which I think is really useful because with so many things in education over time and tends to get lost. And then it talks about all of these different ways that you can stay true to that intent and also give kids what they need.



And so I just find it really useful. And like I said it’s one of those that you can dip in and out. It’s not one that you have to read from front to back cover. And you know, so it also, there are some..I think if you look at it, or I can send you a co, where you can find a preview of the book. But if you look at it you’ll notice a lot of similarities to Daily Five as well, in terms of talk about strategies and grouping based on, not on level but on what strategy do you want to teach that day or what strategy do you think these students need. So it’s really nice, it’s a nice text. But yeah, I definitely think, as you’re thinking about who you think would benefit most from guided reading, working in a small group with you. And you know, start jotting down as you’re, as they’re in stations or as they’re working at that week to self-station….what are some of the things that you’re noticing that they are doing. And build off of those.



Because as you know, if they experience success first then they’re more likely to try something new and unfamiliar. So that’s my best advice for that.


Oh, when it started today I was reading a little book to the class before we started and I let them choose that to go back through if they wanted to and look over. And two of them were sitting there trying to tell the whole story over again.


Aw, I love that. And that’s even something, you know, even if you had the small group and you said, and you noticed that..let’s say `you had a group, a group of students who you just noticed that one of the things that they don’t do is they don’t pay much attention the pictures, that they’re so focused on learning the words even though it’s really hard for them. That they’re not enjoying the reading experience because they’re not sort of practicing that idea that you can read pictures, or that you can retell a story you already know. That could be a guided reading session. It’s just retelling a story they already know. And just talking about `how do we do that.



You know it doesn’t’ have to be super formal. And with my guided reason..I shouldn’t call them lessons cause they’re really just sort of conversations…but you know, let’s say I’ll set aside twenty minutes to work with this group. And sometimes after ten minutes we’re like all right, great. You know, `it’s just very dynamic. And based on what I’m noticing, where they’re engaged and when we’re sort of done with the conversation. And it’s like there’s no reason to keep going just cause I think it should last twenty minutes. So you know, sort of being flexible about that is, you know, taking that pressure off of what things have to be like is something that I think we can always practice as teachers. But I will send you, I’ll send you a link to that, the preview of that book so you can just get a sense of it. And the other thing I could do is I have the old edition at my school. I can sort of maybe scan in a couple of pages that I think are like the most useful for you, if you want I can email those to you.



Mm hm, yeah. And I can also check with a couple people here.




Like I know our principal has a big like library of stuff that he, he has his own little system of ( ) people to take his books out. So a couple people like that that might ( ) have..


Yeah, and as you’re thinking, too, about who you might want to work with or kind of practice this guided reading with and you’re trying to brainstorm possible sessions, you know, possible focuses for a session or you know, these are the things I’m noticing. What do I do with it. Feel free to send those along or take a picture of it if you need someone to sort of bounce ideas off of, too. Cause another thing with teaching is it’s really isolating. And if you don’t have people to bounce ideas off of it can be, it can feel really defeating. And I know you have a great support system in your school, but if you need an outside view I’m happy to take a look or just talk. I have, you know, we can set up just another conversation to kind of troubleshoot. So, does that sound okay?





Okay, all right. Well, it was great to talk to you. And I’m excited for your kids to sort of get started with the small groups. And I’m really excited for them to sort of continue with the center and sort of gain more independence. And I can’t wait to hear more about how that goes and when they start kind of choosing certain centers how that’s going to go. Definitely keep me posted on that. All right. So will, I’ll touch base with you via email and then we can see if you feel like we had talked about possibly talking sometime in March I think? I think? But if you feel like you want to talk before then and just kind of troubleshoot some things, let me know. And we can set that up.




All right. Well, it was good to see you.


You too.







Add comment March 30th, 2018

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

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