Blogstitute Post 8: Play: Creating Time and Tools for Children to Synthesize and Integrate Concepts

Here we are, at the very end of our Summer Blogstitute with an amazing and inspiring post from Sue Kempton, author of Let’s Find Out: Building Content Knowledge with Young Children. Through the story of one little boy in her kindergarten classroom, we get an insight into the tools Sue uses to build content knowledge with her students and how she tunes in to each child’s individual learning style.

Thanks for joining us for this year’s Blogstitute. Please leave a comment or ask a question from Sue for a chance to win a package of 8 free Stenhouse books!

Play: Creating Time and Tools for Children to Synthesize and Integrate Concepts

It’s two days prior to the end of our kindergarten school year during choice time, a predictable forty-five-minute block carved into our afternoon schedule where children are free to play with various materials in the classroom. Given the close proximity to the end of the year, our rich choice areas have narrowed from the painting easel, water table, workbench, observation of classroom animals, weaving, and “The Denver Hospital” to blocks, Legos, computer, and the marble shoot. One student, Mareng, smiles proudly as he sits in an oversized chair he independently constructed with big blocks.

Two sets of 11-x-11-inch hollow maple squares stacked on top of one another form the rectangular base of this large throne, while four rectangle blocks (11 x 22 inches) stand on end and flank the sides. They serve as armrests. A ramp measuring the same dimension as the rectangles rests on top of a square with the tapered end pointing toward the sky, creating a majestic backrest.

“What did you build, Mareng?” I ask.

“I built a Lincoln Memorial chair,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Really?” I question, surprised at his response. “Wow! Can you stand up so I can see this important chair?” Mareng nods gently. His eyes light up and a bright smile spreads across his face.

“You built a chair that looks the same on one side as the other!” I say. “That’s sss . . . ,” prompting him to apply the mathematical term we have used all year.

“Symmetrical!” Mareng responds with enthusiasm.

“Yes!  Whatever block you put on one side, you placed on the other side,” I say.

“That’s a pattern!” Mareng declares.

“You’re absolutely right! Can you show me the line of symmetry with your hand?” I ask. He places his arm vertically down the center of the chair, demonstrating his understanding. “And I really like your choice of shapes and how you arranged them. I love the rectangles as armrests, and the ramp for the back of the chair—that’s so cool!” Mareng smiles proudly. “Do you remember the person who sat here?” I query. He stares at me and is quiet. I can almost see the wheels turning in his head. Intuitively, I know he needs a bit of prompting. “It was for Aaabra . . . ,” I begin.

“Abraham Lincoln!” he confidently responds, filling in the rest of his first name and recalling his last.

“Yes!  Do you remember who he was?” I query.

Mareng quickly responds with confidence, “Abraham Lincoln was the president.”

“Yes, absolutely! Do you remember the important thing he did for our country?” I ask, not knowing if he remembers this significant detail.

“He freed the people.”

“Wow . . . you do remember,” I say, amazed with his recollection. “What people?” I ask.

Mareng pauses and looks toward the stack of books I’ve read aloud; they’re standing upright in a tub labeled “Read-Alouds” next to my chair. Depending on our discussion, I frequently revisit content by rereading snippets of these texts, or refer to the illustrations, throughout the year. Repetition of language and concepts helps to anchor existing schema (background knowledge) for children.

Wanting to empower him, I suggest he find the book I know he connects to—that moving illustration of a plantation owner gripping a long black whip behind his back, while African Americans—grown men, women, and children—hunch over rakes tilling the soil. This emotional image is significant for him. I know that, by looking at this picture, he will recall the people Abraham Lincoln affected.

Sure enough, he returns with speed to the same illustration, spanning two pages, in Young Martin Luther King, Jr. by Joanne Mattern (Troll Communications, 1998). “The slaves,” he responds solemnly. “I don’t want that to happen again—I don’t want people to be slaves.”  Mareng’s reflection is powerful and moving.

“I don’t either—that should never happen,” I respond, shaking my head. And, yet I can’t help but think of the horror that is presently occurring across the world. His innocence is piercing.

As he holds this simple text I use to introduce the civil rights movement, two black-and-white laminated photographs fall from the inside cover. One shows the Lincoln Memorial lit up at night with a silhouette of our sixteenth president positioned between the center columns. Small images of people are dotted across the front steps of the monument, creating a realistic comparison for this expansive sculpture. The words “The Lincoln Memorial” are written at the bottom for reference.

The second photograph is a close-up of Abraham Lincoln, sitting majestically in his stone chair, with his full name below. Both of these visuals were continually referenced when we discussed the chronological history of the civil rights movement before the time of MLK Jr. I bend down and pick up the photos, giving him a chance, once again, to articulate his learning.

“Mareng, what’s this?” I ask, pointing to the memorial.

“The Lincoln Memorial,” he says, smiling.

“And this guy?” I ask, pointing to the enlarged sculpture.

He giggles and responds, “Abraham Lincoln.”

Mareng entered kindergarten at the beginning of the year with no preschool experience. He couldn’t identify any letters of the alphabet or recognize his name. He was a quiet child and needed lots of prompting to engage in discussions and express his thoughts. He sat close to my feet in group so I could easily prompt this engagement and support his academic needs.

His parents came to the United States from Sudan and raised most of his brothers and sisters here. Mareng’s primary language was English, spoken by his father, although he spent quite a bit of time listening to his mother’s native tongue, Sudanese Arabic.

I’m reminded of a quote by Nicole Strangman and Tracey Hall I referenced in Let’s Find Out! (Stenhouse, 2014). It expresses that, for children to fully understand, they need time to assimilate and accommodate new concepts. This echoes my belief that children also need different avenues to express learning in order to integrate new material into their lives.

Children process information in different ways. Some need to talk before writing, some need solitude, some need to draw, and some need to build and manipulate objects. We need to provide multiple outlets in our classrooms for self-expression so children can demonstrate understanding.

Mareng, being one of my least experienced children with school, was frequently on the periphery and observed the constructions in small and big blocks. He would then join the other children in their play after it was completed. I have found this is the progression children take when they are inexperienced with materials (e.g., blocks). They observe before they risk constructing something independently or collaboratively with others.

Looking back on the course of the year, Mareng experimented with balance, symmetry, and patterns in Legos and blocks, and learned vicariously from his friends as well. One of the first constructions he built was a symmetrical horse in big blocks, a day after observing Jacarri and Xavier construct one. Two days later, all three created a horse and the room was filled with yahooing, cowboy hats, and twirling pretend lassos!

The boys needed a way to safely mount their stallions and, with prompting, figured out how to make a set of stairs. I reminded them of Trinity, Niehma, and Mya’s idea to layer 5 1/2-x 11-inch rectangles (one to four blocks) in a growing pattern to form steps going up and down to their elevated walkway that stretched from one side of the room to the other. They immediately sought the girls’ support and took their advice.

In Let’s Find Out! I discuss specific “tools” I use to build content knowledge with young children —for example, literature, visual aids, repetition, manipulatives, song, and dramatization. Tools are added sources for developing background knowledge. The richer our schema, the more options we have for comprehending talk, writing, and reading—even play—across all content areas.

Tools can also be used to demonstrate understanding. Mareng could have written a story about our sixteenth president, or painted or drawn him freeing the slaves, but he chose to build a “Lincoln chair”—a symmetrical construction, involving math concepts, that represented freedom for the slaves. He further demonstrated his understanding through a poignant illustration of a time in history, and through talk.

I never knew the depth of Mareng’s understanding of the beginning of the civil rights movement. Dealing with slavery and the role Lincoln played in history was additional content I covered, because it came up contextually, and it was not intended to be understood by all.

What struck me about Mareng’s experience was the depth, and demonstration, of learning that happened just days before the end of school. His learning came together as he integrated social studies content (studied months prior) with math and literature, and independently built a chair that had meaning for him.

Children need time to apply tools to synthesize learning. Play is a young child’s most natural context to integrate concepts and to explore what is meaningful to him or her. It is during this open, flexible period in the day that great artifacts are created, and they have lasting meaning and memory for children. Play is also a critical time for teachers to facilitate concept and language development, nudging children to expand their learning possibilities.

Every child has a discovery inside to be made, and it doesn’t matter when it happens. It could be at any point in the school year: the beginning, the middle, or the very end. Learning shows up in different ways and different contexts. To serve the needs of children we need to listen intently, be present, and ask questions, so we understand the significance of children’s play and the artifacts they produce.

Time and again, I’m amazed at the thinking, planning, and creativity involved in children’s creations. If we encourage expression of ideas in a multitude of contexts, all children can demonstrate understanding in their own unique way.




7 comments July 10th, 2014

Blogstitute Post 6: Teaching Through and For Discussion

Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz are the authors of Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions. They join us for our Summer Blogstitute with a post about the power of discussion to build a positive, supportive classroom environment. Please be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books from all of our participating authors — including Elham and Allison!

We wrote Intentional Talk because we know facilitating classroom discussions is something many teachers want to get better at and something that can be inherently challenging. We believe that teaching children to participate in genuine discussion is worth the effort—not just because it can be engaging for students to learn from one another, but also because the health of our society depends on our ability to engage each other’s perspectives and come to new understandings through dialogue. We want to teach through discussion but also for discussion.[1] And it never fails that when we are in discussion with children, we learn something new!

Our book describes different kinds of goals that teachers may have when planning and leading a mathematical discussion. In an open strategy sharing discussion, the goal is to get many different ideas out on the table. We contrast that with targeted discussion, which has a more focused goal around a particular idea. For example, a targeted discussion may occur when it’s time to really make sense of one strategy, investigate where an idea is going awry, or slow down and make use of a particular mathematical tool. Teachers will find examples and planning templates for these different types of discussions, and we encourage our readers to think about when these discussions might be most useful as a unit unfolds.

We all know that leading productive discussions is dependent not only on the teacher’s planning but also on how students participate. Helping students learn what it means to be part of a genuine discussion is a tall order. We think taking the time to cultivate productive norms in the first six weeks of school is vital to how well students take up listening to one another and also take risks in sharing new ideas.

One way to gain insight into what students think about participating in discussions is to ask them. Their responses can be great fodder for what we explicitly bring into our norm-setting conversations at the beginning of the year. What would we learn from students by asking the following kinds of questions?

  1. Have students draw a picture of themselves during math discussions. Ask: What did you draw, and why did you draw it?
  2. Why should we have discussions in math class? Why not just sit at our desks and do our own work?
  3. What’s the difference between a discussion and just getting a chance to give answers?
  4. How does it feel when the teacher calls on you?
  5. When your classmates are sharing their ideas, what are you thinking about?
  6. What does it mean to be good at math?
  7. What makes it challenging to share your ideas in math class?
  8. What do you think you learn from hearing how someone else solved the problem?
  9. What does it feel like when someone listens to your ideas and understands your thinking?

Classroom communities become places where students thrive when they feel invested, known, and connected to each other. If we want to have genuinely rich mathematical conversations, listening first to our own students can give us good ideas about how to create positive learning environments.

[1] Parker, W. C., & D. Hess. 2001. “Teaching with and for Discussion.” Teaching and Teacher Education 17: 273–289.

10 comments July 3rd, 2014

Blogstitute Post 5: On Being a Mathematician

Welcome back on this lovely Monday to our Summer Blogstitute! We have a lovely post from Kassia Omohundro Wedekind this morning, author of Math Exchanges and How Did You Solve That? Kassia talks about how her students’ attitudes change throughout the year when it comes to thinking about themselves as mathematicians. And while Kassia talks about math here, the question could be asked in all classrooms: “What is the legacy of our (math) classrooms?” Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of eight Stenhouse books! Last week’s winner is Terri R. Keep commenting!

On Being a Mathematician

2014-02-19 11.48.08In the last days of the school year I always think about how far we are from the first days of school. So much change and growth happens in a classroom between September and June, and as a math coach I get to watch these changes happen in many classrooms and throughout many grades. I had been thinking specifically about how students’ mindset about mathematics can change throughout a single school year when fifth-grade teacher Mary Beth Dillane and I sat down for a coaching session to reflect on our work together this year.

The fifth graders in Mary Beth’s class began the year with a variety of different feelings about math. Some hated it. Some loved it. Some loved it as long as it came easily and quickly. One cried at Mary Beth’s table in the back of classroom, “I’m bad at math. I’m always going to be bad at math.” And most had just not thought much about themselves as mathematicians: people who construct meaning and contribute mathematical ideas.

And yet the first day I visited Mary Beth’s classroom, about midway through the school year, I could immediately tell how much she valued community. The students huddled together in groups working collaboratively on chart paper, lingering over a single problem. A class-constructed number line labeled with fractions, decimals, and whole numbers from zero to two hung in a prominent spot on the wall. Above it were the words and ideas of Mary Beth’s students. (“Connor and Khalil’s rule: Decimals and fractions are the same shown in different ways.”) At the front of a class was a hand-written quote from Mary Anne Radmacher, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it is the voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” Already Mary Beth’s students’ ideas about learning and what it meant to do math were expanding and changing. We continued to work on this throughout the year, explicitly teaching behaviors and practices of mathematicians.

So it didn’t surprise me when our last coaching sessions turned to the topic of how the students have changed as mathematicians and how they view the learning of math in general. We discussed our own ideas about how each student had changed (“Did you see how they persevered on that problem? They spent the whole class working on it and didn’t want to stop!”), but we wanted to hear from the students themselves too. So, a couple of weeks before the end of the school year, I decided to interview some of Mary Beth’s students about how they viewed themselves as mathematicians and their general mindset about math. I asked them several questions (Who is a mathematician? How do you feel about math? What is math? Are there some people who are just good or bad at math?). I want to share just a few of their ideas and words with you.

Kassia Omohundro Wedekind

Kassia Omohundro Wedekind

Who is a mathematician? What kind of person is a mathematician?

“A person who looks at different perspectives to find their answer.”

“A mathematician is a thinker, a strategy person, shares ideas.”

“A mathematician is a person who, like, thinks, thinks about the problems . . . risk-takes about the problem. If they think it’s hard, they still do it.”

“A mathematician is a person who checks and checks if it makes sense.”

What is math?

“Mostly calculating.”

“Numbers—decimals, fractions, everything.”

“Like, stuff. Like diameters, circumference.”

As we talked about the student interviews, Mary Beth and I realized that while the students had broadened their understanding of what kind of people they are as mathematicians, they still have very narrow definitions of math. We know that so much of math isn’t about calculating and numbers. It’s more than the “stuff”—it’s the thinking. We know we need to explore different ways of communicating that to our students.

I think asking these kinds of questions of our students is important. (Next year, Mary Beth and I plan to do a similar interview with students during the first week of school as well as at a couple of other points in the year so we can reflect on how we are helping them grow as mathematicians.) But perhaps it is even more important to ask these questions of ourselves as teachers. What is the lasting legacy of our math classrooms? We hope that it is deep understanding of mathematical content. But just as much, we hope that it is the sense that all people are mathematicians who are capable of the problem solving and persistence required of mathematics.

As Mary Beth’s class of fifth graders prepares to head off to middle school we both ask ourselves, “Are they ready? Are they independent enough? Do they know enough about fractions?” We think about our students who have struggled this year, who have made so much progress, but who still would be thought of by many as “behind.” Like overprotective parents we’ll have to fight the urge to drive over to the middle school in the first days of the next school year and peer through the windows of their classroom, shouting, “Brian, use the number line in your head!” “Giselle, think about what makes sense!” But we won’t. We’ll watch them go, those mathematicians, and take on the world. And we’ll keep working on helping kids be “thinkers,” “strategy people,” and sense makers.


22 comments June 30th, 2014

Blogstitute Post 4: Identifying Academic Language Demands in Support of CCSS

I know it’s the end of the week, but stay with us for this important post from Jeff Zwiers, Robert Pritchard, and Susan O’Hara, authors of Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms:Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy. The authors share their framework for helping teachers implement best practices for English learners by integrating language and content instruction. Make sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books at the end of the week!

Identifying Academic Language Demands in Support of Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards call for specific attention to academic language development across core content areas. As a result, these new standards require effective and simultaneous teaching of academic language skills and the rigorous content that all students must master.  However, academic language, which includes the vocabulary, syntax, and discourse styles of particular content areas, is complex and requires an understanding, on the part of teachers and students, of the specific academic language demands of the content. For example, in math the use of symbolic notation, visual displays such as graphs, technical vocabulary, and grammatical features including complex noun phrases are common. In addition, the language of academic texts, both the ones students read and the ones they produce, has distinctive features and meanings that typically present a contrast to the language used in informal spoken interactions.

Other people have noted the importance of identifying language demands in subject matter materials, but their focus has been on unpacking standards and articulating content and language purposes. We believe that identifying specific academic language demands requires an additional step: an analysis of the text, tasks, and tests to be used in a lesson. What follows is an in-depth look at the process we have developed and implemented with teachers to help them conduct this analysis.

We developed this approach as part of a professional development initiative designed to help teachers implement best practices for English learners. One day’s focus was introducing a framework for integrating language and content instruction. This framework (see Figure 1) begins with the development of content objectives; proceeds through an analysis of the text, tasks, and tests to be used in a lesson as the basis for identifying language demands; and concludes with the development of language objectives that are based on the language demands.  The close-in look that follows focuses specifically on how the analysis of text and tasks was introduced to and modeled for teachers.

The session began with a discussion of the academic language features (lexical, syntactic, and discourse) we discuss in Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms: Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy (see Figure 2). Teachers were provided with content-specific examples of these features and applied this knowledge to the process of identifying language demands. The approach was based on the assumption that teachers need to experience this process as learners, and then reflect on their learning and on the effectiveness of the process from the perspective of students. This increases the teachers’ capacity for explaining and modeling to their students.

Next, teachers were given the following set of instructional materials developed for use in a history lesson: content objectives, text used, and instructional tasks for students.

Content Objectives:

  •  Students will be able to identify the causes and effects of the Great Depression as well as its widespread impact on all Americans through a persuasive article.
  • Students will be able to explain in an essay how Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” expanded the role of the federal government and how the legislation enacted during his tenure continues to impact our lives today.

Sample Text: Defining the Depression

During the 1930s, many people were out of work, and those who had invested in the stock market lost all of their money. Factories closed down. Families lost their homes. People stood in lines to get free food. In the Great Plains, a drought lasting eight years combined with over-cultivation to create the Dust Bowl. It was very difficult to grow anything, and many lost their farms. Due to overproduction and surpluses the prices for wheat became so low that farming the land was no longer worthwhile. What was happening? What had become of the carefree prosperity of the previous decade?

The United States was going through a depression. A depression is a reduction in activity, amount, quality, or force. The Great Depression in American history was a period of low economic activity that was marked by rising levels of unemployment.

The crash of the stock market on October 29, 1929, signaled the beginning of the era known as the Great Depression. The underlying causes of the Great Depression included over-production in industry and agriculture, unequal distribution of wealth, risky banking practices, manipulation of the stock market by unscrupulous investors, and the use of consumer credit for purchases.

Sample Task:  Primary Source Activity


Sample Task:  Writing Activity


Then the teachers, working in pairs, followed the steps below to find the key language demands in each of the three academic language dimensions

Step 1:  Analyze the content objective(s) for message organization (i.e., discourse) demands, then sentence-level demands, and then word and phrases demands.

Step 2:  Analyze texts that will be used. Texts may include written texts, videos, and visuals.  Identify the most challenging language for message organization (i.e., discourse) demands, then sentence-level demands, and then word and phrases demands.

Step 3:  Analyze tasks that will be used, including assessment tasks. Tasks include activities and products. Identify the most challenging language for message organization (i.e., discourse) demands, then sentence-level demands, and then word and phrases demands.

Step 4:  Choose the most pressing demands. Look back at the lesson objective(s) and decide which language is most useful for learning and showing learning of the objective.

Figure 3 is a composite of the outcomes of these group conversations.

Once teachers completed these steps and discussed them as a group, they were given a second set of instructional materials and worked independently through the same process. These experiences were designed to build teachers’ understanding of academic language and how that knowledge can be used to identify academic language demands inherent in content-specific instructional materials. A subsequent session focused on how teachers could use this information to develop language objectives that support content objectives, texts, and tasks of a lesson.

Academic language is one of the most important factors in the academic success of all students, but it is particularly challenging for English learners who have the dual task of mastering complex course content and developing English language proficiency. Therefore, English learners need skillful teachers who have the knowledge and expertise necessary to facilitate their development of literacy in English as they simultaneously learn, comprehend, and apply content area concepts through that second language. Identifying academic language demands in content area materials as they address the Common Core State Standards is a critical aspect of this expertise.

8 comments June 26th, 2014

Blogstitute Post 3: Closely Reading Our Students

We kick off the second week of our Summer Blogstitute with a fabulous post by Dorothy Barnhouse, author of Readers Front and Center: Helping All Students Engage with Complex Texts. In her post Dorothy shows us that by the putting students at the center of our teaching we can help all readers tackle complex texts. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books. Last week’s winner is Alex Fausett. We will pick a winner each week, so keep coming back!

Beyond Text Complexity: Closely Reading Our Students

I love the word complex. It implies a challenge, a puzzle, something to be figured out. The thesaurus gives us intricate and multifaceted as synonyms. Texts worth reading, in my opinion, are all complex, no matter how simple they may seem (see I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen or In a Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming).

The problem, as I talk about in Readers Front and Center, is that the Common Core has emphasized specific levels of text complexity to be achieved by specific grades. And while I’m a strong believer in high expectations, what I have found in schools where I work is that the focus on text complexity has left many of our students behind.

Here’s one, chosen today because he’s pretty typical. He’s an eleventh grader. His class, which I visited in May, had read three novels since September. They were now preparing for the New York State Regents Exams, working with partners to fill in a worksheet describing each novel’s themes and literary devices.

This boy sat without a notebook, a book, a pen, or a pencil, but the backpack at his feet was unzipped to reveal a basketball. He spent most of the class talking with his partner about his game but expertly switched topics when the teacher approached. He had all the answers.

The Great Gatsby,” he proclaimed confidently. “Theme: Love is out of reach.”

As the class drew to a close, his partner pointed to the sheet. “We still need a literary device.”

“Easy,” the boy replied. “Symbolism. Don’t you remember in the movie? The green light at the end of the dock—always out of reach.”

With that, he borrowed a pencil, completed the worksheet, zipped his backpack around his basketball, and walked out of class.

We all know students like this, students who get the gist of a text but don’t understand or seem to care about the details. Often our default mode when we’re teaching these students is to do the work for them. We may, as the Common Core materials suggest, ask “text-dependent” questions, or we may stop at a particular place in a read-aloud and ask a series of questions that help students uncover the meaning. If we’re conferring with a student who is independently reading, we may focus the conference on correcting that student’s comprehension, perhaps by drawing attention to a word or phrase we determine he or she is missing.

But these methods of teaching are all limited by one thing: they are privileging the text over the student. Ironically—and often, tragically—the more we focus on texts, the less our students do. “Why bother?” is the response of many. Others internalize the messages we’re sending with “I can’t.” And we all know how quickly “I can’t” turns into “I won’t.”

So here’s a different idea. Let’s start our instruction with the student, not the text. Let’s take this eleventh grader, for example, and invite him to take his basketball out of his backpack, so to speak. Let’s ask him about his game. How did it go? Tell me about it. What happened next? Why did you do that? Why do you think the other player did that? If you had done something differently, what do you think might have happened? Why do you think the ref made that call? How would a different call have affected the outcome?

You get the picture. Questions like these are, of course, frames for complex thinking:

  • Looking at how different parts are connected
  • Considering how the different parts contribute to the whole
  •  Asking and answering “how” and “why” questions
  • Thinking about “what if” possibilities

Similar questions can be asked of a text, perhaps even of The Great Gatsby.  Not that this list should be trotted out and delivered as a task for reading The Great Gatsby, mind you. Instead, what’s useful about making this list is how it helps us see that students, even those we think can’t, actually can analyze and interpret. In other words, they can do complex thinking. In fact, this boy was doing exactly that with his friend—and with no prompting from me.

Instead of making this list for students, what we can do is make this list with students. “Look what you’re doing,” we can say. “That’s reading!” In this way we can make complex thinking visible for our students, in the texts of their lives.

If we want our students to closely read complex texts, let’s first closely read our students, complex beings that they are. Let’s heed the words of the late Maxine Greene: “To pay attention is our endless and proper work.”

As I’ve been planning with teachers for the coming year, here are a few ways we’ve decided to situate ourselves to pay closer attention to our students:

  • Plan our year as a stepped-up opportunity. If we want to end with grade-level complex texts, let’s start with highly engaging texts—maybe even a basketball game or two. “Read” those texts side by side with students, with no agenda. Listen for complex thinking, places where students are analyzing “why” or considering “how” or synthesizing parts into a coherent whole. Step students up to do this thinking in other texts, from ones we know will be highly and immediately engaging to ones that will require some deferred gratification.
  • Teach mini-lessons after students read, rather than before. That way, we can turn our students’ thinking into notice-and-name mini-lessons. They will thus become the teachers in the room.
  • Establish independent reading as the backbone of our classes (yes, even and especially in high school). Students need to read widely in self-selected texts. Conduct research conferences. Our job is to get to know how our students think as they read. Books are our indispensible partners in this work.

How are you planning on putting your students at the center of your instruction this year? I’d love to hear your comments.



31 comments June 23rd, 2014

Blogstitute Post 2: Poems Waiting to be Found

blogstitute2014Welcome back to the second post in our summer Blogstitute series. We are staying with the topic of writing — but this time we are joined by author and poet Shirley McPhillips who shares her thoughts on “found poems.” These poems are all around us — on traffic signs, in letters, in newspaper articles. We just have to have an open eye and an open ear to find them. Shirley shares some student-found poems and ideas for inspiring students to write their own poetry.

Shirley’s latest book is Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers. Leave a comment — or better yet, a found poem — in the comments section for a chance to win a package of eight Stenhouse books. One winner each week! You can also use code BLOG to receive 20% off and free shipping on your order from the Stenhouse website.

Poems Waiting to be Found

“Those happy poets who write found poetry go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps. They hold and wave aloft usable artifacts and fragments: jingles and ad copy, menus and broadcasts. . . .”    

—Annie Dillard (1995, ix)

Once addicted to words—to the tune of words, to the feel of writing them down, to the look of them in print—they do indeed begin to “wave aloft” their hidden treasures. I hold onto them in my notebooks: lists, snippets, clusters, lines. Many times before I begin to write a new poem I read a few pages by an author I admire in order to get into a certain thoughtful zone. When I feel itchy (or most often before) to walk down that writerly path, I read through some pages of disparate lines in my notebook hoping to catch not so much an idea but a thought, an image, or a sound that will start me off. Often a new poem begins with a line I like the sound of. That sound will lead me to places I never expected to go. The words lead. I follow. Connections are made. In this way I “find” my poem.

But “found” poems tweak the process a bit differently. These are poems in which someone else’s phrases or lines are taken from their usual context (fiction, nonfiction, signage in our daily lives, another poem, etc.) and arranged to make a new poem. In this way the new poem is not a “copy,” nor is it “plagiaristic.” And, if published, the origin of the lines may be attributed. Once you’ve recognized and arranged found lines to make something new, your eyes and ears will find it hard to resist the search thereafter. We go “pawing through the popular culture” like the sculptors Dillard writes about in the epigraph.

Finding Poems in Unexpected Places

Blog posts online describe fascinating found poem experiences. Patrice, for example, noticed a line in the carriage of the Paris Metro, “A sonorous signal announces the closure of doors.” She thinks the English translation reads better than the French. Benny wrote a poem from suggested recipes for the Ultimate Banana Daiquiri. Bill reminds us of a whole book of poems from the broadcast musings of Phil Rizzuto, shortstop and announcer for the New York Yankees. Danika has written a collection of poems from comments on YouTube. Randy wrote poems taking lines from articles about Hurricane Sandy. He sent one to each of his relatives who lost property on the Jersey Shore.

Poet Hart Seely scoured official Defense Department transcripts of news briefings and speeches by then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He took the best nuggets from Rumsfeld’s “verbosity” and turned them into art. His poems, published as The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, first appeared in Slate in 2003, and readers shivered with recognition and newfound truth. No doubt you will recall these words from a February 12, 2002, press briefing addressing the lack of evidence of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”: “There are known knowns . . . there are known unknowns . . . there are things we do not know we don’t know.” You might want to read Seely’s poem online: What a difference a form makes.

Jenni B. Baker and her friends in graduate school arranged an online poetry-writing group. They posted and responded to a prompt each week. One week they challenged themselves to write a poem using words found on product packaging. Not having much faith in the idea, Jenni reached for a product at hand—teeth-whitening strips—and copied down all the words. She did it in half an hour, and it was fun. Since then she uses this strategy as an exercise when struggling with an idea, “a way to unclog the creative pipes.” Eventually, she began practicing “crafting poems from speeches, menus, Twitter streams and more” (“Finding Poetry” 2012).

By 2011, Jenni had become an active devotee. So she founded the Found Poetry Review (, a biannual literary journal, to showcase poets finding poems in their everyday lives and to encourage others to try.

Students Find Poems in the Everyday

Following is a sampling of poems students have found from everyday sources. The lines have been left wholly intact, nothing added. They have provided a context for their poems. And each source has been attributed. When you read these poems, imagine the poetic eye sharp enough to recognize selected print as a source for a poem. Imagine the mind composed enough to separate out words and lines around a single idea or image or event or experience. Imagine the ear receptive enough to hear and select words and lines that sound so right in their arranged places. Imagine the poetic knowledge required to find a beginning line, to end-stop or enjamb (one line spilling over into the next) those lines, to break the stanzas, to land in a strong place. These are some of the skills all poets need. Even found poets.

James—a found poem from the book The Most Beautiful Place in the World by Ann Cameron (1993):

I remember the peacocks on the lawn,
thousands of stars in the sky—
my town.

But back
the wall,
a good
I ran out
of signs.

I can’t go there again.

Nathan—a found poem from a Public Service Electric & Gas monthly statement:

Public Service

This is the charge
for delivering.
This is the charge
for balancing
for transporting.

This is the charge
for generating.
This is the charge
for commodity,
for Worry Free.

This is the charge
for the balance
of those, energy strong,

William—a found poem from the Playbill of Kinky Boots on Broadway:

Play Bill

Welcome to the vault.
Something wicked
this way comes.

Kinky Boots,
Viva glam!

Bank your Broadway
memories, unlock
the last five years.

It’s about taking you
on a journey, beyond
your four walls, beyond
a new town.

As the Poem Finds Its Way to Paper

Finding lines that have possibilities for poems is one thing. What to do with them is another. Poets spend years honing their craft. It’s serious business. So some might bristle to hear that folks think they can just find some lines on a bottle of olive oil, and voila!

Granted, not all found poems are created equal. Not all found constructions work well as poems. And readers’ tastes run the gamut. But finding lines and crafting these types of poems can be liberating and fun. When feeling strapped for an idea, or stuck on a poem of our own, we can take a break and use someone else’s words and still feel creative as we try to arrange and order them to represent some kind of new truth. We can still practice the craft of making a poem and yield something honest, artful, even moving, as the preceding examples show. We might transform what is found using a traditional form such as a sonnet or villanelle, or write in free verse making decisions about line endings, spaces, stanzas, and so on.

As students and teachers get started writing their own found poems, I think Baker’s breakdown of the types of submissions she receives for the Found Poetry Review online, and what she tends to accept as quality, can be instructive. She describes three broad buckets:

1. Reportage: A problem

Excerpted, sequential lines from a text, with added line breaks and spaces. “Singling out a pithy paragraph in Lolita, pressing the return key a few times and calling it a found poem doesn’t do much for me on the editorial front—it is not surprising or inventive.”

2. Distillation: Can work

Words and phrases from a text rearranged so the message is the same but the lines are arranged in a different way. She looks for originality in arrangement.

3. Reinvention: Works well

Words and phrases from a text arranged so that the poems meaning has little or nothing to do with that of the source material. It answers the questions: “What can you add to the source material? What new story can you find within the original?”

Some Tips for Crafting a Found Poem

•Your source is any text that’s not already a poem (unless it’s a cento, which is made of lines from other poems).

•As you read source material, you may underline or highlight lines or phrases that speak to you, that you like the sound of. Maybe you have a theme or mood or image in mind as you’re reading, and you find yourself jotting around those. Or you may review your listings later and discover your central idea.

•Jot the phrases and lines on a notebook page or in a word-processing document. Or cut them out and arrange them on a table. Short lines probably will work better. Arrange them by common characteristics or theme or sound or grammatical units.

•Begin to write your poem. You might find a good first line and let that line push you sound-wise, sense-wise, and rhythmically to the next line and the next. Lines and phrases can be repeated too. Some people like to group their lines and phrases in various ways: good beginnings, description, actions, speaking to the reader, repetition, statements or commands, great landing pads (endings), and so on.

•Revise. And revise again. Now you’re thinking “poem.” You might have a few poems you like next to you as you work, including some found poems from this text, or Dillard’s (1995).

•Read your poem out loud. Again. To yourself. To a kind person. When your voice follows your notation, does it sound right? Does it feel right? Does thought move from the first line and push its way forward? Do you land at the end?

•You might experiment by writing several different poems using the same lines and phrases.

Finders Keepers

Summertime, that beautiful word. Seems like a good time to practice finding poems in the print all around us. With the folks you’ve just read about as inspiration, dive in. Bet you’ll never see the words on your hand sanitizer the same way again.


Cameron, Ann. 1993. The Most Beautiful Place in the World. New York: Yearling.

Dillard, Annie. 1995. Mornings Like This: Found Poems. New York: HarperCollins.

“Finding Poetry in the Existing and Every Day: Jenni B. Baker on Found Poetry.” 2012. Metre Maids.


30 comments June 19th, 2014

Blogstitute Post 1: Aimee Buckner on Grammar

blogstitute2014Welcome to the first post of our 2014 Summer Blogstitute! We kick off our series with a post by Aimee Buckner on teaching grammar. Aimee is working on a book about the topic (yay!) and here she shares her thoughts on where, how, and when to approach this important topic. Aimee’s most recent book is Nonfiction Notebooks. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a package of free Stenhouse books from our Blogstitute contributors. That’s eight free books! You can also head over the the Stenhouse website and use code BLOG to receive 20% off and free shipping on your order.

Grammar on my mind



No peace, no peace I find

Just this old, sweet song

Keeps grammar on my mind

Okay, so that’s not exactly how Ray Charles wrote the lyrics, but sometimes that soulful tune amplifies my feelings toward grammar. It’s a tricky relationship, teachers and grammar. Some teachers are proud to be self-proclaimed “Grammar Nazis,” which I find intriguing. I mean, who in their right mind would ever, ever want to been known as any kind of Nazi? Then there are some who dread teaching grammar because they find it boring to teach (and kids will still make mistakes in their writing). And some teachers love teaching grammar because it’s the only subject in which you can run off a bunch of worksheets and no one will think less of you for it.

I’m not a “Grammar Nazi.” As a matter of fact, I envision my editor having lifted her eyebrow at my new book proposal about grammar and the writer’s notebook. I do pay attention to the green and red squiggly lines on my Word documents and fix them immediately.  I like finding interesting sentences and putting them in a sentence diagram tool online just so I can see how each sentence was put together. I also am a big fan of Grammar Girl’s blog and NPR podcasts like A Way with Words.

I guess you could say I’m interested in grammar and word usage. I’m interested in grammar because I’m interested in how to be a better writer. I’m interested in the concept of how to teach grammar well because I’m interested in teaching children to be better writers. But mostly, I’m interested in how to get my students interested in grammar concepts to help them become better writers.

If Not Workshop, Where?

Teaching grammar has been the thorn in the writing workshop side since its inception. It seems to be the one part of writing we can’t quite get right—possibly because we still think of grammar as a separate subject. Many teachers have writing workshop and grammar scheduled at two different times during the day. Other teachers have a day where they teach grammar instead of writing workshop. And then there are those who think that if kids are writing, they’ll pick up the grammar naturally.

We can do better than that. I’ve started thinking about grammar as a truly integrated sub-subject across the curriculum. Mostly, however, I find myself teaching grammar standards in one of three areas: writing workshop, word study, and test prep. I try to teach each standard in the area where kids will get the most immediate experience with it.

For example, prepositions can have a grand effect on a student’s writing. Once students learn how to use a prepositional phrase to extend a sentence, they’re automatically using a more complex sentence structure. The best part is that, no matter what my students are writing (even poetry), prepositional phrases can be applied—whereas learning how to form the past tense of a verb and knowing its irregular past tense may affect a student’s writing but won’t be used if he or she is writing in the present or future tense. (However, I can teach this during word study, as the Common Core State Standards refer to forming and identifying these kinds of verbs.)

It’s true that all grammar supports writing. However, in fifth grade, a student can still write well and not realize he is using a modal verb. Knowing a modal verb may help students be more analytic about their writing, but it’s not necessarily going to make an immediate impact for every writer. So I might teach this nugget during test prep.

In order to determine when and where to teach each concept, I simply ask myself these questions:

  1. Will knowing this concept improve my students’ writing today?
  2. Does it make sense to teach this standard during word study?
  3. Is this a standard that students will need to know in isolation for a standardized test?

The only RIGHT answer is the answer that helps your students learn the standard in the most meaningful way possible.

Grammar Is for Editing . . . Right?

I used to be a firm believer in teaching grammatical skills and punctuation when most of my students were editing. I’m rethinking that. I do think reviewing skills and elements that students have mastered should be retaught or examined during this phase. But, if I’m teaching a new concept, the editing stage is really too late.

I moved grammar work to when most of my students are drafting or revising, and I found that they are more willing to try the concept and play around with it in their writing. During drafting and revision, kids expect to make changes. They are mentally prepared to focus on their wording and try different ways of writing. During the editing phase, they see the light at the end of the tunnel. They want to fix mistakes—or even ignore them—so they can finish the project. They’re tired. They’re ready for it to be done.

I spent two mornings with a third-grade class working on informational posters about different countries. I entered their writing process when most students were drafting and revising their work. Because many of the students were listing items (cities, foods, sports, etc.), I showed them how to use a colon (which is a ninth-grade standard, but the writing called for it). The kids wanted to try it and started putting colons everywhere. They were rewriting paragraphs to set up longer, more complex sentences just to use a colon. We talked more about commas in those two days—as most of their new sentences really needed commas—than they had all year. Kids were asking each other, Is this a run-on sentence or does it work?

This kind of talking, writing, and rewriting is exactly what writers do when they revise. Although the concept of using a colon may not be part of the curriculum for third grade, the conversations about commas and run-on sentences are definitely third-grade skills. These two days inspired me to keep thinking about how we can get kids excited about writing and rewriting based on a grammar and punctuation lesson.

Thinking Through

We need to keep thinking about grammar and punctuation concepts and how to teach them well. They’re not going away, and, quite frankly, writers need to know them. Based on the teachers I have visited, nationally and internationally, no one seems content with how they are teaching grammar. It’s not good enough to teach it in isolation and hope it seeps into student writing. It’s not good enough to ignore it and pray that kids will somehow get it. It’s also not good enough to take a month out of the year, stop writing, and teach the entire grammar curriculum. These approaches may keep us afloat, but I think our kids deserve better.



94 comments June 16th, 2014

Blogstitute 2014 Coming Soon!


I have admit I am a bit giddy about this year’s Blogstitute. This is our fourth summer PD event and the lineup of talent and content this year is amazing. I hope you can join us starting June 17 for four weeks of learning with eight of our latest, brightest authors. This year we’ll be sharing two blog posts each week on topics ranging from math, to teaching grammar, to poetry.

The post important part of this blogstitute — well, other than our authors — is your participation. So leave comments, ask questions, start a discussion. Each week we’ll raffle off the latest books from our blogstitute authors — that’s 8 FREE BOOKS!

Here are the authors who will share their knowledge with us:

Jeff Zwiers, Robert Pritchard, and Susan O’Hara, authors of Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms
Sue Kempton, author of Let’s Find Out!
Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz, authors of Intentional Talk
Shirley McPhillips, author of Poem Central
Dorothy Barnhouse, author of Readers Front and Center
Aimee Buckner, author of Nonfiction Notebooks
Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, author of Math Exchanges
Laurie Rubin, author of To Look Closely

So mark your calendar and spread the word to your colleagues! See you back here soon!



8 comments May 30th, 2014

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