Blogstitute 2016: Establishing Routines for the Writing Workshop

We close this year’s Summer Blogstitute series with a post looking ahead to the upcoming school year. Stacey Shubitz, the author of Craft Moves, shares her strategies for establishing routines and classroom procedures during the first few weeks of school so that students — and teachers — can maximize learning and teaching time during the entire year. There’s still time until the end of this week to leave comments or to Tweet about any of our Blogstitute posts using #blogstitute16 for a chance to win free books!

Establishing Routines and Procedures for the Writing Workshop
By Stacey Shubitz

stacey_croppedHaving solid routines and procedures for independent work increases student engagement and frees teachers to confer and work with small groups during independent writing time. But how does one accomplish this?

I believe in the Responsive Classroom approach’s First Six Weeks of School, which asserts that the beginning of the school year is a time to lay the groundwork by teaching academic routines, discussing expectations, and creating goals that will enable a classroom community to thrive for the entire year.

Here are some things to think about during the first six weeks of school so your writing workshop will function well for the entire year:

  • Create a list of writing workshop expectations with your students. This list will be different from the classroom rules you create with your class. Click here for some ideas about creating expectations for writing workshop alongside your students.
  • Invite students to create a verbal or written plan—at the end of every mini-lesson—so they will have an idea of how they’ll use their independent writing time. If students create a plan for how to use their time, they’re likely to stick to it because it’s their own. You can also refer to their plan if you find them off task.
  • Build stamina. Whereas you can launch writing workshop on the first day of school, you’ll have to build students’ stamina for independent writing. Increase the amount of time students are writing by five minutes every few days so they can reach forty-five minutes of sustained writing time by the end of the sixth week of school.
    • During these six weeks of stamina building, students will come to realize the following things about independent writing time:
      • Writers work on their own. In order for this to happen, you must teach students how to solve their own problems and carry on with their work without looking for your support.
      • Teachers help students by conferring with them one-on-one and by leading small-group strategy lessons.
    • Consider communal supplies. By providing students with access to all of the supplies they’ll need during independent
      Figure 3.4

      A writing center may contain a variety of paper, index cards, sticky notes, clipboards, interesting writing utensils, paper clips, tape, and dictionaries.

      writing time, you’ll make them less dependent on you when they need anything from sticky notes to a clipboard or a red pen.

    • Make mentor texts available in your classroom. Whether you have multiple copies of texts or provide your students with typed texts as “literary gifts” (as Carl Anderson calls them), students need access to mentor texts for ideas or inspiration at any time during writing workshop.
    • Minimize disruptions. Develop systems for minimizing disruptions. Students need to know they cannot interrupt you—unless it’s an emergency—while you’re leading a writing conference or a small-group strategy lesson. Implement a system for kids to sign out to get drinks of water or use the bathroom. Create spaces where kids can turn in their work. Develop a system for students to request a conference. Your ultimate goal is to wean students off of needing you for assistance, which will make them more self-sufficient and provide you with sustained periods of time to confer or to meet with small groups.

You don’t have to wait until the first day of school to get ready for writing workshop. Here are a few things you can do now to think about routines and procedures before the school year begins:

  • Make writing workshop a priority every day. Carve out forty-five to sixty minutes of your daily schedule, at least four days a week, for writing workshop. If you cannot find these blocks of time, sit down with your principal for assistance with scheduling so you can make daily writing a priority.
  • Put together a communal supply list and send it out to your students’ parents. In your letter, ensure parents that pooling the supplies will eliminate distractions because materials will be stored in a central location of the classroom, meaning there is less “stuff” in each student’s individual workspace.
    • In addition, if you don’t already have a place to house communal supplies, you’ll want to see if your school can help you make an investment in items like supply caddies and a storage unit for your class’s writing center. (If your school doesn’t have the money for this and you can’t spend your own, consider writing a mini-grant proposal, like this one, on org.)
  • Create a conferring toolkit you will use for your conferences and strategy lessons. Having a well-stocked toolkit close at hand will keep you focused on your students when you’re working with them during independent writing time. Items in your toolkit may include the following:
    • Mentor texts
    • Record-keeping forms (handwritten or electronic)
    • Checklists or rubrics
    • Mini-charts
    • Your writer’s notebook
    • Supplies (markers, pens, sticky notes, loose-leaf paper, and index cards)

I know it seems tempting to jump right into teaching a unit of study when the school year begins, but in order to maximize your teaching time all year long it is necessary to build a writing community and to teach students how to use materials and be self-sufficient during independent writing time. I’ve jumped in head-first and I’ve spent time teaching routines and procedures during the first six weeks of school. Lowering my expectations about how much curriculum I’d cover during the first month of school was beneficial and let me cover more units during the school year because I reaped the benefits of the time I invested in establishing routines and procedures during the first six weeks of school.

26 comments July 19th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Give Me The Patience to Listen and Learn

If you only have time to read just one of our Blogstitute posts this year — and we hope you have time for all of them — you should definitely read this provocative, inspiring piece from Lucy West. She digs into what it means to have respectful discourse in the classroom, with our students, with colleagues, and why it’s crucial to teach our students the skills they need to disagree respectfully. “As educators, we don’t have much influence over the way people in the media or our politicians speak to one another. We can, however, have a positive impact on our own interactions and those of our students.” We say – AMEN. Lucy’s latest professional video is Adding Talk to the Equation

Give Me the Patience to Listen and Learn
By Lucy West


Have you noticed how polarized the discourse in our country has become? Whether people are talking politics, health care, or education, it seems that they take a stand and insist on that stand no matter what. On TV and in the political arena, the talk can get downright hostile and disrespectful, with people talking over one another, name calling, and shouting. As a New Yorker, I’m accustomed to feisty talk with multiple voices speaking at once; it’s part of our fast-paced culture. However, it is not an effective way to have a conversation. If the purpose of the conversation is to share ideas, come to a better understanding, solve complex problems, and even learn from and with one another, these patterns of interaction are not only counterproductive, they are downright harmful.

In both the math and literacy standards, respectful discourse in which students listen well to the ideas of others, reflect on those ideas, and then agree or disagree using text-based evidence is expected. It seems a bit ironic to expect of our youth this sophisticated and open-minded way of discussing matters of importance, but not of the leaders in our society. How is it that teachers—who are not given much voice in what and how they teach these days and can’t often speak out and challenge policy effectively—are expected to not only give students lots of voice in what and how they learn, but in how to engage in argumentative dialogue? Seems like we are being hypocritical, to say the least.

As educators, we don’t have much influence over the way people in the media or our politicians speak to one another. We can, however, have a positive impact on our own interactions and those of our students.  If we have the will, enough self-awareness, and emotional and social intelligence, we can function in schools the way we want our students to function in the world.  We can have quite a bit of influence on the interactions our future citizens will have in society by changing how we talk with one another and with students in our schools. If we realize how important adult interactions are in shaping our students’ ways of interacting, and we take the time to learn how to have challenging conversations with one another, we will have a positive impact on society. By understanding the importance of culture—the way we interact and do things—and reshaping that culture to welcome the kinds of interactions that respectfully and reflectively challenge the status quo, we can set an example for the next generation. We can, by our own interactions with students, other adults in the school, and the larger community, demonstrate how reasonable, intelligent human beings engage in informed conversations, in which opinions are backed by facts and valid evidence. We could show students how new information causes us to rethink what we used to think and reconsider our stance and actions.

You may be thinking that the teachers and administrators in your school get along really well, are polite to one another, and even enjoy one another’s company outside of school. While this may be true, this sort of collegial discourse is not what I am referring to. I am thinking about the tendency of adults in schools to stay at the superficial level in discussions that matter. When it comes to the instructional core—planning, implementing, and reflecting on lessons—we rarely take the time to examine why we do what we do and to what degree our present practices are actually getting the results we are aiming for. For example, in many places teachers consider collaborative lesson planning to mean that someone will gather the materials called for in a given lesson, maybe read and plan the lesson, and share it with the whole team that will be teaching that lesson in the name of collaboration. However, rarely does the team question why they are teaching that lesson, whether the way it is laid out in the book or by a colleague will work with all of their students, how they might adapt it to meet the needs of students who need more challenge, or better ways to access the content. When we do attempt to engage in more rigorous analysis and someone disagrees or pushes back by saying “We don’t have time for this,” the conversation is aborted or people decide in their own minds to do it their own way. Therefore, no real collaboration or learning has taken place. We are often afraid to say what we really think, so we don’t say anything or we just go along with whomever we perceive to be in charge. If this is the way we tend to interact with one another—avoiding questioning each other’s choices, beliefs, lesson designs—how can we teach students to challenge one another’s thinking? We don’t have the skill set and haven’t cultivated a culture in which people engage in this way.

Since it is really difficult to teach what we don’t practice or deeply understand ourselves, then it stands to reason that if we don’t practice having academic and professional conversations that go well below the surface, question our present beliefs and practices, insist that opinions be backed by evidence, and work through our differences, we can’t expect to know how to get our students to do these things. When is the last time you politely, yet specifically, challenged a colleague’s thinking, opinion, or lesson design? How receptive was the person you challenged? Was the challenge taken personally or was it considered from a professional perspective—a learning perspective? When’s the last time you and a colleague had a difference of opinion about pedagogy or the use of curriculum materials? Were you able to turn that difference into an inquiry and explore each perspective against evidence of student learning or lack thereof? Or were you content to agree to disagree and keep the status quo safely in place?

In order to create rich learning environments in which children are capable of listening well, with open minds and hearts to classmates’ ideas; considering those ideas before rejecting them or adding another one; then determining whether or not they agree and being able to articulate why; we need to be to do these things with one another–not just those teachers with whom we agree, but especially those who think differently than we do. We need to get past the “agree to disagree” stage to the “let’s investigate this further” stage, during which we test out our ideas and gather evidence to determine their validity.

We need to be able to speak up to administrators and policy makers in a way that our concerns can be heard and reflected on rather than having our concerns be seen as resistance or insubordination. I wonder what it will take to change the education culture—the way we interact and do things in schools—to the degree that educators are practicing the accountable talk standards expected of their students? If we did create such cultures, I wonder if we would be able to influence our larger communities to engage in more thoughtful, reflective, and respective conversations about the important issues that face us all?

5 comments July 15th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: The Powerful Role of Talk in Interactive Writing

On the last full week of our Summer Blogstitute we welcome Joan Dabrowski, who, along with Kate Roth, is the coauthor of Interactive Writing Across Grades. In this excellent post and accompanying video (see below), she talks about the crucial role of classroom talk in the practice of interactive writing. Be sure to leave a comment or Tweet about this post using #blogstitute16 for a chance to win a bundle of Stenhouse books — including Interactive Writing Across Grades!

Let’s Talk About It! The Powerful Role of Talk in Interactive Writing

By Joan Dabrowski

This spring, as I rode the train up and down the Eastern Seaboard, I did a bit of estimation work. I tallied up the number of classrooms I have visited in recent years. I discovered that I have spent time in well over 300 classrooms. Wow! As I reflected on these visits I thought about the teacher and student voices I heard (or didn’t hear).

I am fascinated by the role of talk in schools! I listen for the language of instruction—the words chosen and how the sentences flow. I notice the dialects, the tones, and the volume. I pay attention to the body language of those who are speaking and of those who are listening. I think about the purpose, content, and quality of the talk.

I spend a lot of time with teachers, principals, and district leaders. When I do, I pay attention to my talk: my tone, speed, word choice, and cadence. I consider when to slow down, ask a question, clarify a point, or repeat myself. I also think about when I should shift from talking to listening or when the talk should be captured in writing. These processes—thinking, talking, listening, and writing—are inextricably linked.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that as Kate and I wrote Interactive Writing Across Grades we found ourselves frequently landing on classroom discourse as an essential feature worth highlighting. At every step of the interactive writing teaching sequence, there are opportunities to deepen student understanding about writing through speaking, listening, and discussion. Here’s how it happens.

Experience: Priming Our Students for Writing

The first step in an interactive writing lesson is Experience. By this we mean that an interactive writing piece is informed by a shared classroom experience. These experiences include things such as “field trips, science investigations, author studies, science and social studies topics of study, math projects, books read aloud in class, class assemblies, classroom routines and procedures, and special school events” (30). We note that the shared experience need not be a “big project” or “grand event.” Rather, it is about, “selecting, capturing, and recording the meaningful events that students experience each day at school” (30).

Because teachers often know ahead of time that an experience will be used for interactive writing, they prime student thinking for writing by engaging in intentional conversations throughout the experience. For example, as first-grade students conduct a science investigation seeking to understand the difference between solids and liquids, the teacher talks with them using precise vocabulary such as shape, harder, pour, float, and sink. Later, when students compose their interactive writing piece, the teacher will prompt students so that these important words can be used in their pieces (see Figure 1). Similarly, a fifth-grade teacher who plans to use a class novel for an opinion piece based on its theme will hold strategic discussions at key moments during the reading of the book. Then, when she and her class compose their essay together during interactive writing, she refers to these important conversations.

Figure 1: Interactive Writing in Grade 1

Figure 1: Interactive Writing in Grade 1

The conversations and discussions that occur during Experience hold important value as students acquire and develop a shared expertise: they will all have something to say about the topic when it comes time to write about it. This is particularly empowering for students learning English. For these students, the well-sequenced steps of experience, talk, and writing lead to deeper comprehension, expanded language, and strengthened writing skills (Gibbons 2015).

PreWrite: Making a Plan for Writing

During Prewrite, teachers talk with students about the purpose of the interactive writing piece, consider the audience who will read it, and generate ideas to include. Embedded in the Prewrite discussion are the essential issues writers consider before they begin to write: purpose, genre, and audience.

The Prewrite talk holds both exploratory and organizing qualities. You wonder aloud about the best way to convey the ideas in the piece as you consider the audience who will read it. You determine the best way to organize ideas so that the writing is clear and easy to follow. This is the work that real writers do every day—but frequently it is done in solitary fashion within one’s own mind. The Prewrite conversation, however, “turns up the volume” on this internal process for emerging and developing writers. The process becomes transparent. Talk becomes a scaffold for students. The Prewrite thinking is shared and heard by all.

For older and more fluent writers, the Prewrite discussion is complex and robust. Ideas are growing and expanding while language becomes more sophisticated. Often, the planning addresses organization and word choice. Thus it follows that teachers sometimes jot notes or organize the points that occur during Prewrite discussions. This skillful teaching decision models for students that what one says can transform into what one writes.

The following video is a snapshot of the talk that occurs during Prewrite. In this clip you see me working with a group of third-grade writers. We are in the midst of planning a persuasive essay where we hope to convince people to adopt a cat from a local animal shelter.

To begin, you hear the students discuss at tables what they know about pets. Then I talk with them about the essay we will work on together. I name the structure (genre) we’ll use and the real-world audience who will read it. Finally, I facilitate a discussion about organization. I jot down their reasons, evidence, and elaboration so that we can remember them for Compose (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Turning Talk into Words by Jotting Down Ideas During Prewrite in Grade 3

Figure 2: Turning Talk into Words by Jotting Down Ideas During Prewrite in Grade 3

Figure 3: Persuasive Writing in Grade 3

Figure 3: Persuasive Writing in Grade 3


Figure 3: Persuasive Writing in Grade 3

Compose and Share the Pen/Keyboard: From Spoken to Written Word

In Chapters 5 and 6 of our book, we unpack the core of interactive writing: Compose and Share the Pen/Keyboard. In broad terms, Compose is a collaborative classroom conversation facilitated by the teacher about the craft of writing. By craft we mean the qualities of writing that make a book or text original, meaningful, and memorable. For us this includes ideas, organization, word choice, sentence fluency, and voice.

During Compose, teachers work with students to build the precise language for the interactive writing piece by building and refining the sentence(s). This phase of the lesson relies heavily on talk as teachers initiate sentence-building conversations, negotiate the ideas presented by the class, seek out multiple suggestions, and push for students to consider the quality of their words. Teachers may also have students listen to how the words and sentences flow well together (or not). Compose is the perfect spot to capture student voices and model for them how spoken word is connected to written word.

This notion is fully realized when the sentence has been composed and is ready to be written down through the innovative technique known as Share the Pen/Keyboard. As students write or type part of the sentence, teachers are talking with them about the important conventions of writing. In-the-moment technical discussions take place about spelling, letter formation, grammar, punctuation, or keyboarding skills (e.g., using the Tab or Shift key, selecting font size/styles, or using spell-check). These timely discussions provide “just right” instruction for students who benefit from the quick, direct guidance.

Review and Extend

Once the sentence(s) have been written, the lesson moves into Review. During this step, the teacher and students once again read the interactive writing piece aloud. This repetitive choral reading allows students to practice fluency and deepen their understanding of their written work.

Next, the teacher talks with students about the craft and convention work they practiced. Questions such as Who can find a place in our piece where we included an interesting word? Who notices a sentence that combines two simple ideas? Why did we make that decision? What word(s) were tricky for us to spell? guide students to talk about their learning. The talk is inquisitive and is anchored in metacognition. The discussion unpacks the “what” and “why” of the interactive writing lesson for students, helping them to better understand how to do this work independently.

The second part of Review takes this idea further as the teacher directs students to link what they practiced during interactive writing with their own writing. The talk is clear, concise, and direct. For example, a teacher might say, “Remember how we started each sentence in a new way? We all agreed it makes our writing so much more interesting to read. You need to try this when you write on your own today. Be sure that your sentences begin in different ways.” Or, “When you work on your essay today, check to see if you state your opinion clearly like we did on our piece.” This type of teacher talk is explicit and sets clear expectations for students’ independent writing.

Finally, during Extend, classroom conversations center on the qualities of the piece itself, the real-world value it holds, and the ways it might be enhanced with visuals. Worth noting is that a powerful way to Extend a piece is to reread it with students. Hearing the ideas, the flow, and the cadence of a piece is a helpful reminder for students. It solidifies their understanding of what writing work they did.

The Last Word(s)

It takes courage for students to say ideas out loud—especially if they may be revised or rejected. It also can be embarrassing to misspell a word in front of one’s peers. For a student learning English, fear of mispronouncing a word can be too much to bear; it’s safer to stay quiet. Thus, the collaborative spirit of the talk during interactive writing cannot be understated.

The most effective teachers we’ve seen using the method teach with joy, enthusiasm, and encouragement. They foster a community in which all students can safely talk and listen to one another. In these classrooms, the energy is palpable as young writers are empowered to discuss and debate with their peers. They know that if and when a mistake occurs, it is taken in stride; corrections are quickly made in real-time while the lesson moves forward. Perhaps most striking are the understood norms in these classrooms:

  1. We are a community of writers—we can and do write for real-world purposes.
  2. Writing is hard work—we need one another’s support.
  3. All writers make errors as they work to improve and grow.
  4. We celebrate and share our writing experiences through collaborative conversations.

Interactive writing is a small practice that offers BIG results for students and teachers in PreK–5. One result is the inevitable connections you will find among thinking, talking, listening, and writing. Harnessing the power of talk will propel your students’ writing. So, perhaps this summer you will have a chance to reflect on the talk in your classroom. How’s it going for you? For your students? How might it improve? My suggestion: start talking about it!

6 comments July 12th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Elements of a good argument

What is an argument? Do your students know how to make one, or are they just reciting their opinions? In this post Erik Palmer, author of Good Thinking, breaks down what makes a good argument and how to teach your students the critical thinking skills they will benefit from for the rest of their lives.

ErikPalmer-Jan2016Elements of a good argument
Erik Palmer

Here’s an example of a fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but, unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking: the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed-upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting . . .,” but they really don’t. Ask students to define the word argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book:

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, or from grade to grade, is not okay. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach argument. Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade-appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day of their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion?

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements, but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sorts of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we are clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) teach specific lessons on each of those pieces. We teach sentence structure and given students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We teach topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one here is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie-burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

We can use a graphic organizer such as the one that follows. Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of handguns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments, checking to see if statements are missing and if all statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported, so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence, and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are one type of evidence, and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “. . . causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “Find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the questions the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “What statements lead to that conclusion?”]

Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of our class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy. Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

5 comments July 7th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: The Role of Reflection in Writing Workshop

Diane Dougherty and Lynne Dorfman

Diane Dougherty and Lynne Dorfman

Our Blogstitute 2016 series continues today with a post by Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty, authors of Grammar Matters and Getting Into Grammar. Follow along as they explore the role of reflection in writing workshop and how it can help create self-motivated, self-confident writers. “Reflection is just as important as modeling and practice. When student writers think about what they know for sure, when they apply what they tried out in writing today to other pieces they may have already written or may be thinking about writing in the future, the strategy becomes their own. They are more likely to use it again and again.”

Be sure to comment or Tweet about this post and others in our summer series for a chance to win all 10 of our new fall titles!

The Role of Reflection in Writing Workshop
by Lynne R. Dorfman and Diane E. Dougherty

“Can you read this and tell me if it’s good?”

“Did I do this right?”

“Is this what you want?”

“Is this how you spell that word?”

Questions such as these are disheartening. We want our students to be confident readers and writers. We understand that lifelong learning requires self-motivation, self-confidence, and self-knowledge. Yet, either because students perceive that they don’t have these qualities or because they have been “trained” to look to the teacher as the final authority, many of them still ask for our approval whenever they take a risk. Or, even worse, some students are wary of taking risks at all. Afraid of failure, they stick to what they already know works for them. As their teachers, we have a responsibility to move them toward independence and confidence in themselves.

We believe that self-discipline can become a habit, a habit that teachers can help students develop. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business, tells his readers that “self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.” It is a better indicator than IQ. We need to believe that change is possible for our students, and we need to make that change real. One vehicle for doing this is to make reflection a part of our daily classroom routine. Just as we engage in reflection on our own practices, we expect our students to reflect on what they know, what they can do well, and what they perceive as areas that need improvement.

In Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts (Dorfman and Cappelli), as well as Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts (Dorfman and Dougherty), the Your Turn Lesson format emphasizes the gradual release of responsibility model. We begin with a hook (usually a mentor text) followed by an explicit statement of purpose: Writers, today I am going to show you . . . Next, we brainstorm applications of the lesson in action. For example, if the lesson is about prepositions, students brainstorm a list of prepositions they know or may remember from the mentor text reading. Then, we model using our own writing/thinking, sharing our process with the student writers. This is followed by shared/guided writing, where the student writers try out the strategy together. After all of these steps, students engage in independent writing. Always, we end with reflection. We ask student writers to think about what they now know, how they used the strategy, and/or when they might use this strategy again. Reflection is just as important as modeling and practice. When student writers think about what they know for sure, when they apply what they tried out in writing today to other pieces they may have already written or may be thinking about writing in the future, the strategy becomes their own. They are more likely to use it again and again.

Consider this Your Turn Lesson from Grammar Matters on the topic of prepositions and the prepositional phrase (available as a video lesson in Getting into Grammar [2015]. This video also includes a lesson on paragraphing in narrative as well as conversations with teachers who conduct writing workshop in their classrooms every day.):

Teaching prepositions and the prepositional phrase gives student writers a way to add sentence variety to their pieces. Students need to understand the prepositional phrase and its usefulness in writing.

Hook: Read Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins to the class. This delightful book is filled with prepositional phrases on each page as Rosie the hen goes for a walk around the barnyard, not knowing that a fox is following her. Children love the illustrations and the fact that the fox is foiled at every turn. Read it for enjoyment. Then point out the prepositional phrases. Follow up with a reading of Behind the Mask by Ruth Heller or If You Were a Preposition by Nancy Loewen.

Purpose: Writers, today I am going to show you how you can use prepositions and prepositional phrases to add variety to your sentences. We are going to practice moving prepositional phrases around in the sentences we write.

Brainstorm: Ask students to brainstorm the job of a preposition using the information from the book If You Were a Preposition. Their list should include the following:

  • Prepositions make sentences longer by adding more detail.
  • Prepositions tell where things are.
  • Prepositions tell when things happen.
  • Prepositions never work alone. They are always part of a prepositional phrase.

In advance, prepare three-by-five-inch cards by writing one preposition on each card. Distribute them to the class so that each student has one card. Pair students with a partner. Together they can decide which of the prepositions to “act out” for the class. As the student pairs demonstrate the prepositions through role play, ask the class to state the preposition and the prepositional phrase, naming the object of the preposition each time. You may need to explain that the object of the preposition is the noun in the phrase. For example, Jordan and Gia walked around the desk. The preposition is around and the phrase is “around the desk.” The object of the preposition is desk. When Skye and Ashley acted out down, they sat down. That was the perfect opportunity to show that down in the sentence “They sat down” is not a preposition because prepositions never work alone. They are always part of a phrase and take an object.

Model: Use the prepositions on the three-by-five cards to write sentences that include prepositional phrases. Show students how the phrases can be positioned in the sentence and how prepositional phrases can be linked together.

For example:

By the side of the road I noticed an old bicycle with broken wheels.

I noticed an old bicycle with broken wheels by the side of the road.

I noticed, by the side of the road, an old bicycle with broken wheels.

Shared/Guided Writing:  Ask students to use the prepositions on their cards to create sentences and to play with the placement of the phrases in the sentence. They may work in pairs or individually. Display their sentences on a classroom anchor chart and let the students discuss which sentences “sound” best. Sometimes prepositional phrases can’t easily be moved within a given sentence, and student writers need to know how moving phrases can affect meaning.

For example:

On the table sat a mason jar filled with flowers.

A mason jar filled with flowers sat on the table.

A mason jar sat on the table filled with flowers.

In the third sentence above, the phrase “on the table” is ambiguous. Is the mason jar filled with flowers or is the table filled with flowers? Writers need to be aware of times when changing the position of the phrase may also change the meaning of the sentence.

Independent Writing: Ask students to return to their writer’s notebooks or to their current drafts to find places where they could add another prepositional phrase or change the position of the phrase in the sentence. Ask them to share what they changed and why they changed it.

Reflection: After students share their sentences, ask them to think about what they did and how it worked for them.

Examine the lead sentences in some of your narratives or descriptions of setting in your writer’s notebook. How could you revise the lead(s) to use one or several prepositional phrases to create a more detailed picture?

            Can you find sentences in one of your pieces where you could move the prepositional phrases to another position in the sentence? Explain which position fits your purpose better and why.

            What do you now know about prepositions and prepositional phrases?

            When will you use prepositional phrases again?

These reflective questions ask students to think about themselves both as writers and as thinkers and decision makers. Reflection is important also as a kind of formative assessment. As we teachers listen to and read student reflections, we note where they have had success and where they may need further teaching/modeling.

In addition, reflection contributes to growth mindset as opposed to fixed mindset. We know that IQ alone does not account for success. Many of us are aware of exceptionally bright students who are reluctant to accept challenges, take risks, or accept critical feedback and learn from it. Carol Dweck, in an Education World interview, states that “. . . being mastery-oriented is about having the right mindset. It is not about how smart you are. However, having the mastery-oriented mindset will help students become more able over time.”

So, what role does reflection play in integrating growth mindset–oriented learning processes into the classroom? We begin with high expectations and achievable goal setting for each student (as in the Your Turn Lesson example above). Success breeds confidence and a “can do” attitude. We recognize the challenging aspects of specific writing tasks, and we communicate our belief that all of our students will be able to meet the challenge. By using the gradual release of responsibility model, ending with reflection, we emphasize the importance of students recognizing what they know and can do.

Ask students to reflect on their process:

  • What did you do today in writing workshop that was hard for you?
  • How did you decide what to revise today?
  • What did you learn from your conference today?
  • What strategy did you try today? How did that work for you? What did you learn from it?
  • What strategy will you try tomorrow?
  • What can you do to improve your writing?
  • How did you solve a problem in your writing today?

Ask students to reflect on their product:

  • What did you write today that you like? Why do you like it?
  • What can you share with your writing group (the class) today? Why will you share it?
  • Why did you organize the piece the way that you did?
  • What other ways could your piece be organized?
  • What is interesting about your lead?
  • What makes your ending satisfying?
  • What kinds of sentences did you use? Is there variety?
  • Find some words that you are really proud of choosing and share them with us.
  • What did you do to edit your work?

Certainly, we wouldn’t ask students to reflect on all of these questions at once. However, reflecting on process and product keeps growth mindset in the forefront every day. Students who believe that their abilities can be developed and that they have the wherewithal to become better writers will become more able writers. Isn’t that what we all want for our students?

8 comments July 5th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: How Well Do You Know Your Students?

In this touching and thoughtful post Jake Wizner shares why it’s important to know our students beyond the surface relationship of student-teaching and how writing memoir can help students know themselves. Jake is the author of the recent book Worth Writing About. Check out his book on our website and then be sure to leave a comment or tweet about this post using #blogstitute16.

How Well Do You Know Your Students?
By Jake Wizner

I was twenty-five and living in New Orleans the night one of my tenth-grade students saw me wandering around the French Quarter in my boxer shorts. It was Halloween 1995, and my roommate had convinced me that we should dress up as that dream where you go to work and realize too late that you have forgotten to put on pants. So there we were with briefcases in hand, wearing dress shoes and socks, button-down shirts, suit jackets and ties, boxer shorts, and nothing else.

Suddenly I heard a female voice screech, “Oh my God, that’s my English teacher!”

I spun around and saw her gaping at me. She was with some older girls I did not know, and she was holding a large cup of beer in her hand. Our eyes locked. We stood there in silence, regarding each other. Time froze, and the earth stood still. Then, in the same instant, we both turned away and moved off in opposite directions.

It was clear to me that in the moment we turned away from each other, we had come to a tacit agreement. Neither of us would say anything. I was just a temporary teacher at her school anyway, a long-term sub filling in for two months while her regular teacher had back surgery. Whatever relationship I had with her would remain defined only by what happened between us in the classroom. I would continue to do my best to uphold my responsibilities as a teacher, and she would continue to do her best to uphold her responsibilities as a student, and what had transpired outside the classroom would have absolutely no bearing on anything.

What happens in the French Quarter stays in the French Quarter.


My response made sense to me at the time. As a child, I had always thought it was weird and unnatural to see my teachers outside of school (even fully dressed). I remember once running into my fifth-grade Hebrew teacher buying groceries at Stop and Shop and becoming so flustered that I could barely speak. And now, as a new teacher myself, I had no desire for my personal and professional lives to intersect. School was school, and everything else was something separate. I wasn’t interested in knowing what my students did outside the classroom, and they had no business knowing what I did either.

It’s remarkable to me now that I felt this way about my New Orleans encounter, because so much of my life as a teacher after this, over the past twenty years, has been about forging deep human connections with my students that go beyond seeing each other in such specific roles. For me, this begins just before summer vacation when I visit the seventh-grade classes I will be inheriting the following year, introducing myself and talking about how great eighth grade will be, even though I know they are nervous about applying to high schools. I hand out a summer assignment—maybe not the best way to make a good first impression, but it mostly involves making time to read, something most of our students would choose to do on their own. The single piece of writing that I request is a letter in which they tell me about themselves. I’m interested to know who they are as readers and writers, but I’m just as interested to know about their hobbies and passions, about their family lives, and about any little details that will help me know and understand them on a more personal level. I devour these letters, and then make it a priority to go around that first week back and connect with each student about something he or she has written—a shared love of basketball, a place we have both traveled, a familiar dynamic with a younger sibling.

As the year moves forward, almost everything I do is about deepening and strengthening the bonds I have with my students, and the bonds they have with each other. It helps to work at a school that believes in the importance of relationships—a school where teachers go by first names, where tables are arranged in each class to encourage talk and collaboration, where students hang out in our rooms during lunch, and where the principal’s door is always open for kids to pop in and borrow a book, or just to chat.

It is in the context of this community that I launch my unit on memoir writing during the final semester of our students’ middle school years.

There are many reasons why I believe so passionately in teaching memoir, but one important reason is this: writing memoir allows us to know ourselves and each other in deeper and more profound ways. With all the work we do collecting data—administering baseline assessments, conducting reading and writing conferences, analyzing standardized test results—let’s not forget that some of the most important insights and understandings we can gain about our students involve knowing who they are as people.


It is early May 2016, and my students have just submitted the final drafts of their memoirs. I have seen bits and pieces throughout the writing process, but reading these drafts is still a revelation. I pick up the memoir of a student who rarely completes assigned work on time but who has been uncharacteristically diligent and absorbed during this unit. His piece is called “SMH (Sharing My Horror).”

At almost the exact same time, the art teacher comes to ask my advice about this student. He has fallen so far behind in her class, has spun so many stories about why he is not doing his work, and has devised so many ways of avoiding the situation that she is at a loss. She can’t call his parents because they do not speak any English, only Chinese. Do I think she should e-mail his older sister, a tenth-grade graduate of our school, who had always been an extremely hardworking and responsible student?

This seems like a good idea, except that I know this student and his sister in ways that go beyond their classroom personas. Two years earlier, his sister had revealed herself in her memoir as a fierce and angry young woman, deeply resentful of her weak father and her unfaithful mother. Now, in this student’s memoir, he has written about the ways in which his sister emotionally abuses him, taking every opportunity to put him down and make his life miserable. In another vignette, he delves into his struggles at school, revealing his deep fear of facing teachers when he has not done his work, and how he is trying to learn to face his problems rather than run away from them.

“I don’t think e-mailing his sister is the way to go,” I tell the art teacher, and I confidentially share a bit of what I have read in the student’s memoir. “Let me talk to him.”

So we talk, not so much at first about what work he is missing, but about his memoir and about how lucky it is that I read it just before the art teacher was preparing to e-mail his sister. We talk about fear and about the ways that avoiding a situation usually makes the situation even worse. When we finish talking, we walk together to the art teacher’s room, and the three of us sit together and talk some more. The art teacher suggests that he submit just the first piece of the project. He says that he can do more. They both seem gratified by the encounter, and the art teacher informs me several days later that he has been coming to her room to work each day at lunch.


Sometimes I think back to that night in New Orleans when my student and I stood frozen in time regarding each other.

What would I do now if I could replay that moment?

“Happy Halloween,” I say. “It looks like we both found our own ways to celebrate.”

She laughs nervously.

“I’m sure that beer’s nonalcoholic.”

“Oh, definitely.”

“I’m glad,” I say, “because trying to write an in-class literary essay with a hangover is pretty rough.”

“Good to know.” She smiles and seems to relax. “For the future, I mean.”


Or maybe I would turn tail and run away just as I did more than twenty years ago.

Neither of us breathed a word about what had happened, but our encounter did change things between us. Not on the surface. We fell back into our school identities, and life continued as normal. But I know we knew each other a little better than we had known each other before. I’d like to think that when she had an assignment for me, she lingered over it a little bit longer before turning it in. I’d like to think that I, in turn, gave that assignment a second read and took just a bit more time phrasing my comments. One thing I know for certain is that when I look back across more than twenty years, she is the only student I truly remember from that tenth-grade class.

7 comments June 30th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Unleashing the Power of Games

In the next post in our Blogstitute 2016 series, we turn our attention to math and math games. Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch, authors of the Well Played series share with us what they learned when they examined how to make math games increase student learning. Be sure to leave a comment, ask a question, or tweet about this post using #blogstitute16!

Unleashing the Power of Games

Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch

Last week, we overheard a conversation between a second grader and his mother as he climbed into her car. His mother greeted him warmly and then added, “We need to stop for groceries on the way home.” The boy responded, “Oh no, I really want to get home and play the math game we learned today. Do we have to go shopping? I really want to play some more!”

More and more classrooms are offering opportunities for students to play math games, and students appear to enjoy them. Most textbooks now incorporate games into their lesson plans and, when teachers set up stations, a math game almost always is included. As we noticed this increased attention to games, we began to think about their use. We wondered about changes we could make in the games that were played or in the ways they were played in order to increase student learning. As a result, we spent eighteen months thinking and writing about math games, and we’d like to highlight a few things we learned.

Play in Partners

pairsOne of the most important insights we gained was that games offer more powerful learning opportunities when students play in teams. When one student plays against another, they rarely discuss strategy or what they are learning, perhaps because they do not want to give away an advantage. As a team of two or three players, students state their reasons for what move they want to make next. As they play, they coteach, practice vocabulary, create mathematical arguments, and critique their teammates’ suggestions. Over and over again, teachers have told us that this simple change has transformed the playing of games in their classrooms.

One of our favorite conversations occurred in a game that required students to match cards with equal values. Students could find matching cards in their hand or trade one of their cards for one in their opponent’s hand (cards are placed faceup) to make a match. Elly and Quinn were partners, and Elly wanted to take their opposing team’s card showing 5 x 9 + 3 x 9 to match their card showing 8 x 9.

Elly: We should take that card to match this one.

Quinn: Wait, wait—how do you know they match?

Elly: It’s that distribution thing.

Quinn: Huh?

Elly: You know, you split the eight nines into five and three of them.

Quinn: Oh yeah, it’s a property or something. We should look it up, but after we win.

They actually did go to the word wall after the game and identify the distributive property. Elly remarked, “I don’t think that’s what I called it, but good to know.”

Increase Time on Task

One of our least favorite games is Around the World. In this game two students are shown a math fact. The student who identifies the correct answer first moves to compete against the next student. The goal is to make it “around the world” by beating each and every classmate. As a result, the student who needs the least practice gets the most, and the student who needs the most practice likely considers only one fact. Most games are not nearly as problematic, but many can be altered to increase time on task. Sometimes we can adjust game rules so that the following occur:

  • There is an opportunity to trade cards (such as in the game described earlier), which increases attention to opponents’ decisions.
  • Points are awarded for finding a move worth more points than opponents found.
  • Both teams respond to a roll of the dice simultaneously and then compare their decisions.
  • Students play cooperatively, with both teams involved in all moves.
  • Students decide on a reward for finding an error in their opponent’s play.

Include Assessment

There are a variety of ways that we can include assessment within game playing. Here are a few:assessment

  • Think about what players might say or do to indicate their mathematical ideas, and make a list of these “look-fors” to focus our observations of students’ play.
  • Create recording sheets for students to complete as they play that we can look at later and that help students recognize that they are held accountable for their learning while playing.
  • Have students complete exit cards after they play a game that can help us decide who might need further instruction or who might need additional challenge. We can offer questions such as If you land on 24, what number would you like to roll? Why? or You were dealt cards showing the numbers 2, 4, 5, and 7. Where would you place these numbers in the equation ___ − ___x = ___ + ___x, to get the greatest value for x? We can also ask questions such as What did you learn from your partner as you played the game?

Games often engage students. With some simple changes we can greatly increase their educational value. We hope these suggestions lead you to identify other ways to unleash the power of games so that they are Well Played.

9 comments June 28th, 2016

How a Summer Writing Institute Inspired a Book for Teachers

What are you working on this summer? During the school year, it’s easy to get bogged down in our day-to-day to-do lists. Big ideas, big projects languish in desk drawers for months — maybe forever. In this guest post, author Dave Somoza shares how a summer writing institute helped him focus on his big ideas, connect with like-minded colleagues, and helped him write a professional development book, Writing to Explore.

How a Summer Writing Institute Inspired a Book for Teachers

By Dave Somoza

Writing to ExploreIt was a crazy time in my life. I had two small kids at home, I had recently started a new teaching job, and I was returning to school at night to complete my master’s degree. I was talking with my graduate advisor on a spring afternoon when I asked about class opportunities for the summer. I told him how much I loved teaching writing and how I’d wanted to find a way to steer my classes in that direction. He jumped up and grabbed a flyer from his secretary’s desk. He told me excitedly about a summer writing institute that I could still join, which would allow me to write about what I was discovering in my teaching, meet with many other enthusiastic teachers, and become part of a writing community. Oh, and I’d receive graduate credits too! It sounded perfect. When I told my friends about it, they thought I was crazy—why would you go to class in the summer to meet with other teachers and write? It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, for my teaching and for myself. And it led to a book on writing for teachers, something I never thought I’d do.

Around that time my friend and author/college professor Pete Lourie visited often—his daughter was attending college in the town where I lived. We would get together for coffee and talk for hours about writing and teaching, and the more we talked the more we found we had in common. One morning Pete said, “Dave, we have to write a book together!” I remember laughing and explaining that I wasn’t a writer and never would be. But that idea came up again when I started the summer writing institute. I was spending time with incredible teachers from around the area who were all so passionate about writing and had so much to write about. I began to focus on how I teach writing and on the beautiful ideas that the kids were coming up with in my classes. So I wrote—not a lot, just some small chunks—bits of ideas that seemed to explain my thinking. Later, I would compile these bits into larger sections and eventually even chapters. But it was sitting with this group of dedicated teachers at the institute and listening to their ideas about teaching and writing that inspired me. At first it was just fun to get a few of these ideas, which had long been floating around in my head, down on paper. Eventually I decided that maybe Pete was right; maybe we could actually write a book together in two voices—the teacher and the professional writer.

Now when I think back on the summer institute and why it worked so well, I realize that teachers—all teachers—have so many great ideas, big ideas, and teaching philosophies. But the way that we work often forces us to focus on the small details, the to-do list of insignificant items we have to complete in order to make it through the day: call John’s mom about upcoming IEP meeting, meet with Sarah at recess to go over subtracting mixed numerals, e-mail colleagues to confirm field trip, eat lunch while checking e-mail, pee. It’s crazy how busy we get. It’s an insane job, and it’s the hectic schedule that tends to suppress our best ideas. Yet all of these great ideas are mulling around just behind the to-do list. Often it’s not until we put ourselves in a new situation, purposely, with really interesting people that our best ideas come to the surface. Sometimes, if we take the time to sit alone and think and write, these ideas can blossom.

A summer writing institute is exactly that kind of place. When mine started I walked in slowly, feeling a bit like an imposter for even being there. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a writer, like all the others. I was just there for the credits. The room filled up, and I imagined that the other attendees were all brilliant teachers who knew exactly what they were there to do: hone their skills. I started thinking this may have been a bad idea. But a cool thing happened that first day. Our instructors, who were wonderful and bright and down-to-earth people, were able to somehow draw us all out of our selves. They started group discussions about the teaching of writing, which we could all relate to, and pretty soon all of those ideas and philosophies that we had about teaching and learning and living and writing began to bubble up and flow out of us. Then we broke into small working groups, which was another great idea. Here we talked more privately and more openly about ourselves, about our work, just getting to know one another. I learned that we were all in the same boat, trying to figure out what we hoped to get out of this experience.

It’s been almost ten years now, and I still remember every member of that group. We met every day, bounced ideas around, and shared our writing, which we were all self-conscious about at first. Every day we also had time to ourselves to think and write alone, knowing that the next morning we’d be back together and we’d need to have something to share. The range of topics our group wrote about was beautifully varied, from personal narratives about childhood experiences to more philosophical ideas about life and learning. I focused on how I teach writing. Between the talks about writing we shared ideas about teaching—things that had worked and things that hadn’t. I realized something else while I was there: teachers are so open. They want to share ideas, and they want to listen and learn from others. It’s such a non-competitive field where we can all imagine ourselves in the other’s place and can work together to help one another. By the end of the summer, our group had a powerful connection. By sharing ideas that were personal and professional, we had opened up to one another in a way that usually takes years between friends, and here we had done it in weeks between strangers. I’ll never forget those teachers, and I’m so grateful to have joined in.

After the institute, I was on fire. I now had a great start on my writing, and the ideas just kept flowing. I wanted to write each day, which I often did before work—just a bit at a time, one idea, one lesson, one student’s writing that had inspired me. Pete and I talked almost daily, and he was working like mad too, describing what his life was like as an adventure writer who travels the world turning his detailed journals into published books. We e-mailed ideas back and forth, edited each other’s writing, and inspired each other to continue. This was collaboration, too, somewhat similar to the group work at the institute. When we felt we had a clear idea of where we wanted to go, we started looking for a publisher.

Our book, Writing to Explore, is written in two voices and talks about the writing projects we’ve done with our students, how students have responded over the years, how teachers can incorporate research and technology into the writing process, and how adventure writing can become a vehicle for exploration in both fiction and nonfiction writing. We both still teach and write, but we also travel to conferences and summer institutes across the country, talking to teachers about writing. It has been an incredible ride!

As summer arrives, some of you may be attending summer writing institutes. I’m sure you’ll have a great experience too. Sometimes summer institutes don’t fill up right away, so there may still be time to get into one. And if you feel passionate about an idea that you’re doing with your students and have considered writing a book, reach out to Stenhouse.


5 comments June 22nd, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

Welcome back to week 2 of our Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. We are excited to bring you a post by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, whose latest book is the groundbreaking Who’s Doing the Work. You can still preview their book on the Stenhouse website, but first read their post below about why and how students reach a reading plateau and what you can do about it. There’s also some dancing involved. Be sure to comment or Tweet about this post for a chance to win our 10 new fall books! And be sure to join the #G2Great Twitter chat this Thursday, June 23 at 8:30 p.m. EST with Jan and Kim to discuss shared reading.

The Electric Slide Effect: Explaining Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

Whos Doing the WorkTraditionally, the gradual release of responsibility has been viewed as a process educators follow through a single lesson: teacher does, students and teacher do together, students do. However, a single lesson is often not enough. In many cases, students need varied levels of support on multiple occasions to get sufficient practice to really learn the thing they are trying to master. This means that, to avoid learning plateaus, we must hold tight to all four instructional contexts: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. As a whole, they provide students both the practice and the support they need to improve.

How Learning to Read Is Like Learning to Dance

Can you do the Electric Slide? The Electric Slide has been a dance party staple since we were teenagers, so over the years we have had multiple opportunities to learn and join in this dance. If you have ever learned the Electric Slide, or any other line dance, then you have keen insight into the gradual release of responsibility, including why each instructional context is critical for the transfer of learning.


Imagine you are somewhere with live music, the band begins to play the Electric Boogie, and the cool cats rush out to the dance floor. On cue, their feet and arms begin to sway and move synchronously. You stand along the edge of the dance floor admiring their coordination, feeling the call of the music, and wanting to be part of the fun. This watching from the side is like read-aloud, where a skilled other shows you the joy that can be yours as soon as you learn to read. This kind of reading aloud is a commercial for reading, just as watching people dance entices you to want to learn the Electric Slide.

You continue to watch carefully as the dancers move—right foot right, count to four, left foot right, cross behind the right foot—analyzing their strategies for changing direction or for keeping time. This close watching is also like read-aloud, when the more skilled other gives you a window into the strategies that will make the new task more accessible. When you are watching a dance because you want to learn to do it, you watch differently. The same is true for learning to read.

Jan and Kim 2014Shared Reading

Next, you move to the dance floor where the crowd dances as one. You stand behind someone who appears to be a viable candidate for So You Think You Can Dance? and attempt to jump in. Your dancing model holds the choreography, dancing steadily even as you stumble through the steps. Noticing your struggle, she begins to support you by counting or calling out the next step. Eventually, you bumble less and dance more. This phase of learning the Electric Slide is like shared reading. The learner approximates as the lead offers guidance while maintaining a steady reading pace.

Guided Reading

The song ends before you quite have the Electric Slide down. You, joined by a few other novices, pull your dancing friend aside to get both confirmation and guidance. Each beginning dancer works through a different sticking point, tries different movements, asks questions, makes attempts, and repeats the process until his or her Electric Slide is stabilized. The teacher celebrates your success, and you feel like John Travolta! You can’t wait to hear the Electric Boogie again! This small-group Electric Slide support is like guided reading, where the teacher watches the students work through the reading process independently as they identify tricky spots, try new strategies, and confirm or revise approximations.

Independent Reading

Finally, driven by your vision of yourself taking command of the dance floor, you crank up the Electric Boogie at home in your bedroom. As with independent reading, you choose how much or little you practice; you choose when and where to practice; and you even choose what music to practice to, switching to Don Henley’s All She Wants to Do Is Dance after you’ve replayed the Electric Boogie for the eleventh time. As you practice more and more, you mess up less and less, your confidence and your joy rise, and you begin to plan your groovy wardrobe for the next dance party.

Becoming a Cool Cat

We must confess: neither of us has mastered the Electric Slide. Like the teacher frustrated by the student readers stuck at the same place on the reading proficiency continuum, we find ourselves frustrated by our Electric Slide plateau. Why haven’t we ever mastered this silly dance that everyone else seems to have been born knowing? We think our need for an Electric Slide intervention has to do with our instruction, and the missing instructional contexts in our experience.

Learning involves progress across the gradual release, with each stage in this release represented by a different instructional context: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. In our case, with the Electric Slide, steps along the gradual release have been omitted, as is the case with reading in many classrooms today.

Historically, we have watched the Electric Slide and then jumped in expecting to be able to do it, always a step off, always facing the wrong direction. This is the equivalent of moving from read-aloud to independent reading without having time to stabilize and consolidate our learning through shared and guided experiences. We can’t learn the Electric Slide by skipping the instructional contexts that afford us the additional practice we need to truly master the dance, any more than we can skip shared reading and/or guided reading and expect students to progress as readers.

In reading instruction, this Electric Slide pattern of skipping instructional contexts is classic, with one instructional context favored over another until there is a pendulum swing in the other direction. For example, pre-Common Core, many children received a lot of guided reading instruction, leaving very little time for read-aloud and almost no time for shared reading, which made the shift brought about by the Common Core predictable! Since the Common Core and its emphasis on text complexity, educators have shifted to doing a lot more read-aloud and shared reading, and in many cases almost no guided and/or independent reading.

Closing Thoughts

If you want to avoid the Electric Slide effect in your students, if you want the reading strategies you teach students to transfer to their independent practice, then hold tight to all four instructional contexts. These four ways of supporting students’ authentic interactions with text work together as a whole and give students the varied practice they need to grow.

See you on the dance floor!

Jan & Kim

14 comments June 21st, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Wide Awake to Stories

We are excited to kick off #blogstitute16 with a post by Katie Egan Cunningham, author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning. What will you do this summer to be open and awake to the stories around you? Katie shares her ideas. Tweet about her post using #blogstitute16 or leave a comment for a chance to win 10 brand new Stenhouse books!



Wide Awake to Stories
Katie Egan Cunningham

Recently I was driving in the car with my family when my seven-year-old asked us to turn up the radio. The song “Seven Years” by Lukas Graham was playing. As a seven-year-old the lyrics likely caught his attention when he heard his own age affirmed as something important. After all, being seven is really important. We all listened more closely, drawn in by the singer’s voice, the resounding beat, and the urgent message of the song to “Remember life, and then your life becomes a better one.” The song describes a life story told in stages that include friendship, family, and dreams. The word lonely is repeated over and over across the verses as a constant presence at every life stage. Perhaps Graham is reminding us that part of what binds us as humans is that we are forever seeking to belong—no matter who we are or where we’re from. As the song wound down, Jack declared a bit mournfully that the song was really sad but that he still liked it. I remain grateful that the song gave him the opportunity to really feel something that great songs, works of art, poetry, and literature all offer us.

This moment of soul searching and shared wisdom driving down the parkway was immediately followed up by a lighthearted family singalong to DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean.” I dare you to listen to that song and not loudly join in on the chorus of “ah ya ya ya ya ya.” It’s the catchiest song of the season and justly so; it’s the counter-story to Graham’s song. Rather than engage in deep questions about the meaning of life, sometimes we have to hope for the ridiculous, the unusual—cake by the ocean, perhaps.

This summer, I will attend literacy conferences and I plan on digging into a pile of books and articles to reenergize my literacy life and be inspired by the work and wisdom of others. Yet I also think we fuel our literacy souls, especially in the summer, by attending to the stories that surround us every day in all of their forms, ranging from the deep to the somewhat absurd. To be wide awake to stories may be the best form of self-development we can give ourselves. This summer, I want to notice what catches my eyes, ears, and attention. I want to encourage my children to do the same—to be wide awake. Most of all, I want us to share those noticings with one another as a family.

How do we do that for ourselves?

Be wide-awake to the stories you see. Sit in the grass. Take notice of the sun at dusk. Watch children invent games and fictional worlds on the playground. Observe the life of city streets, full of new energy after a long winter and cool spring. Notice your friends’ facial expressions as they tell stories at barbecues and summer gatherings.

Be wide awake to the stories you hear. Tune in to song lyrics and sounds that make you feel something—allow yourself the chance to feel something strongly even if it evokes buried emotions or makes you laugh out loud in a crowd of people. Listen to the night song of crickets, frogs, and owls in the country. Hear the hum of the subway beneath the street grates. Be inspired by the voices of others through outlets like Storycorps. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while and decide to listen more than speak.

Be wide awake to the stories that grab your attention. View the summer film that makes you gasp or well up or hang on the edge of your seat. Notice the media post that makes you think more deeply or that leaves you full of questions. Read blog entries that urge readers not only to notice but to take action.

Be willing to dig up stories worthy of your time and attention. Take the time this summer to scroll through old family photos and postcards. Who are those people? What did they care about? What are the family stories to be shared that you don’t know yet? Who should you ask about those stories now, because there is no better time? Start a summer journal as a place to reflect on your past, present, and future. My favorite is the Five-Minute Journal for its simplicity and its consistent approach to self-reflection. Find out things about yourself and your loved ones you never knew before.

Finally, create new stories. Savor the moment. Capture it or decide not to. Share your stories with the people you love. Most of all, be wide awake, open, and willing to attend to the stories around you. Then consider how to tap into the power of stories in your classroom next year. You may find yourself more wide awake to your students and their stories when you take the time this summer to notice the stories in your own life. It will be time well spent.

24 comments June 14th, 2016

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