Using real-world prompts in teaching writing

Take a bite out of the Better Answer Sandwich with this article from author Ardith Cole, who argues that “sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards” and shares her ideas for teaching students to write authentic, real-world responses. Her book, Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart is full of methods, references, prompts, and other resources. The Better Answers process is easy to grasp and uses a gradual-release instructional framework that begins with teacher modeling, invites increasing amounts of student participation, and eventually moves students into independent response writing.

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Is it possible to eliminate our national testing system? Maybe. In the meantime, let’s find some sugar and make lemonade!

Believe it or not, sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For instance, ELA guidelines say response writing is a needed skill. Is it? Students do need response experiences to participate in a democratic society, don’t they? After all, if we eliminate all experiences in response writing, we’ll contribute to silencing our next generation’s voices. Why not replace testing’s lifeless prompts with authentic living prompts. Don’t even mention the word tests until an important one is looming!

Consider this ELA guideline: “Standards call on students to practice applying mathematical [or scientific, artistic, literary] ways of thinking to real-world issues and challenges.” Standards such as this one feel less fake, more akin to the “organic sugar” that we’d prefer to use. When curriculum is organic, it doesn’t pollute the classroom or the world. However, it does have the potential to effect change.

So let’s do it! Let’s invite students into projects where they will use written response inside an authentic task. My book Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart, Second Edition (Stenhouse, 2009) was initially developed by referencing those living responses and their prompts. The accompanying CD is full of such references, live links, methods, and structures. You’ll find prompt-and-response examples from newspapers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ira Flatow’s NPR interviews with scientists, World Wildlife Fund’s website, and so many others. Wouldn’t Common Core want students to make those inspiring world connections?

It’s good to know that the organizational structure of Common Core’s Writing Standards is in synch with my book’s protocols, steps, and lesson plans. Yet missing from Common Core, but included in Better Answers, are an abundance of explicit methods, strategies, and examples.

My book even offers a key prewriting step that CCSS omitted! It’s a step that those of us inside the real world—including most employees—know is an absolute must. I discuss that overlooked step at the end of this article.

The Better Answers protocol supports writers who are responding to a friend’s request for directions, an opinion on a blog site, their boss’s e-mails, an Amazon book review, dissatisfaction with merchandise purchased, as well as test prompts. Do any of those writing experiences sound familiar? Many of us compose some kind of response several times a week! So why not begin right there? Use a real response that you or one of your students recently needed to write.

Suppose you’ve been asked to write a newspaper ad for your local community garage sale or maybe an ad to encourage adoption for a homeless dog. Would you know where to begin? What would you say? Would you worry about how it would be perceived by friends and family? What would you do first?

I’d ask myself, “Now where would I find this kind of written response? What does it sound like, look like?” It seems best to experience one. Brain researchers say that’s how we learn: we mirror. Whose real-world responses would you like your students to mirror? You’ll find some inside Better Answers. Share some of those text-based and self-based responses with your students using my book’s CD. The Internet, too, overflows with examples—but select carefully.

Common Core’s Writing Guidelines suggest we teach informative, persuasive, and opinion texts and writing. Better Answers shows how. For example, to begin a response, CCSS advises writers should “introduce the topic or text . . . and create an organizational structure.” This CCSS structure matches that of the Better Answer Sandwich, whose first step (the top bun) is: “Introduction: Restate the question or prompt and add a gist.” Restating guides students toward a prompt’s acceptable answer. The gist sums up the details into one main idea. Those details are explained in the middle layers of the sandwich. This structure helps writers to assemble the pieces of their thinking into a cogent whole.

The Better Answer Sandwich


For their next step, CCSS says response writers need to “provide reasons that support the opinion [or gist].” Accordingly, Better Answers directs writers to “provide detailed evidence for your answer.” This section describes how to do this.

CCSS tells writers to “use linking words and phrases to connect” sentences and paragraphs. My book and CD have charted lists of all the transitional or linking words/phrases (e.g., conjunctions). The handy Transitions Sandwich even groups these linking words to their most appropriate placement within a response structure. For example, some transitions call the reader into the introduction (e.g., first, a major factor, in the beginning). Others connect the middle layers more fluently to one another (e.g., next, then, whereas, on the other hand). Still others transition the reader of the response toward a finalized-sounding conclusion (e.g., finally, therefore, in conclusion).


Common Core’s final suggestion for informative, informational, and opinion writing is to “provide concluding statement or section,” which is identical to Better Answers’ bottom bun. Lesson plans for all sections are included on the book’s jam-packed CD. PowerPoint slides, visuals, lists, and other references support teachers and their students along the way.

CCSS does add one more genre, narratives, “to develop real and imagined experiences.” Some parts of Better Answers will be applicable to some narratives—for example, narrative nonfiction. Within this subgenre, “research, real world, and review all come together perfectly” advises Lee Gutkind. However, narratives often involve a more creative approach in which writers follow their imaginations rather than a map or a tight structure.

And what of that newly soured subject, assessment? Better Answers includes that, too. It offers assessment rubrics with easily understood descriptors, as well as student/writer self-assessments, such as Sign-off Response Checklists for each response section. It also has Class Monitoring Spreadsheets, indicating whole-group progress in each area. And the entire implementation is steeped in group and partner sharing—and remains rooted in the real world.

Responding to teachers’ cries for help, I’ve added an entire section to the books’ second edition, aptly titled “What to Do When . . .” So if you run out of support ideas, try this section.

Now, what about that important piece CCSS omitted? Marsha Ratzel, a middle-grades math and science teacher who reviewed Better Answers, Second Edition for the Teacher Leaders Network, described it this way: “Here is where Better Answers really shines. Students in the first step tear apart the prompt so they can figure out what it is asking . . . This step transforms the prewriting stage into an analysis stage that helps students understand what kind of response they need to produce and gives them strategies for crafting the beginning part of their answer.” Whether it’s an e-mail from our boss or a challenge from our teacher, we should always do one thing before beginning our response: analyze the prompt. It’s so crucial for response success that I devote an entire chapter to it.

Some of that same sugar we constructivist teachers have used for decades to sweeten our curriculum can be found in the CCSS Standards. So let’s continue to invite small groups and partner collaboration, project learning, writing for a variety of purposes, reading all kinds of exemplary writing, and researching exciting ideas—but let’s use living prompts from the real world. I bet CCSS would celebrate right alongside us as students self-publish, offer passionate responses to leaders, present TED videos, and even use this genre to submit successful patent grants. It’s amazing what we can learn from our students themselves! Let go and invite the kids into the real world of prompts and responses. Let them help sweeten those sour lemons we’ve been handed.


1 comment July 30th, 2014

Nonfiction writing teaching tips from Adrienne Gear

Writing a story is very complex…you need to have the character, the setting, the problem, the solution, the beginning, the middle, the end—it’s a complicated structure. But nonfiction writing is so much easier to do. It’s so much easier to teach, and it’s a lot easier for children to feel success in.

Adrienne Gear, author of four books including Nonfiction Writing Power, offers a useful analogy for teaching paragraph writing, explains how to tie your writing lessons to two key goals, and shares a tip for elevating students’ nonfiction writing vocabulary in these two short videos:

Add comment July 29th, 2014

Stenhouse Editorial Director Philippa Stratton Steps Down

July 15, 2014 — Philippa Stratton, co-founder of Stenhouse Publishers, announced today that she will be stepping down as editorial director at the end of the year and assuming a new role as special projects editor and editorial advisor. Bill Varner has been promoted to managing editor for literacy and Toby Gordon has been promoted to managing editor for math and science.

Stenhouse also announced that Tori Bachman will be joining the editorial staff as an acquisitions and development editor focusing on literacy. Tori comes to Stenhouse after 15 years at the International Reading Association, where she held managerial positions in both the editorial and marketing departments.

“There’s no way to replace Philippa and all that she brings to the company in terms of editorial vision and knowledge of the field—not to mention energy and humor,” said Stenhouse President Dan Tobin. “We’re happy that she will continue to work with us on special projects. And we feel fortunate to have such an incredibly talented and experienced group of editors, led by Toby and Bill along with Holly Holland, Maureen Barbieri, and now Tori. Tori brings a wealth of connections and tremendous creativity and enthusiasm.”

Stratton and Tom Seavey co-founded Stenhouse in 1993 as a subsidiary of Highlights for Children’s Education Group. In 2010, Philippa was named Outstanding Educator by the National Council for Teachers of English for the pioneering work she has done in publishing practical, research-based books for teachers.

“Philippa and Tom founded Stenhouse with a strong vision of promoting excellent, innovative teaching and active learning,” said Kent Johnson, CEO of Highlights for Children. “We are very proud of the way Stenhouse continues to build upon that vision and to attract some of the best people in educational publishing—including editors, authors, production, and marketing professionals.”

Varner joined Stenhouse as an editor in 2001 following eight years as an editor at Heinemann. Gordon joined Stenhouse in 2008 following 20 years as an editor at Heinemann and publishing director at Math Solutions.

2 comments July 15th, 2014

Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute Wrap-Up


Thank you for spending the last four weeks with our Summer Blogstitute! We hope it was a great way to get some PD into your summer break! In case you missed a post, here are all of them in order:

Aimee Buckner on Teaching Grammar
Shirl McPhillips on Poems Waiting to Be Found
Dorothy Barnhouse on Closely Reading Our Students
Jeff Zwiers on Academic Language and the Common Core
Kassia Omohundro Wedekind on Being a Mathematician
Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz on Teaching For and Through Discussion
Laurie Rubin on Nurturing Future Stewards of the Earth
Sue Kempton on the Importance of Play in the Classroom

The winners of our weekly drawing for eight free Stenhouse books are: Patricia Maia, Terri R., Alex Fausett, and Amber Garbe. I will be getting in touch with you all!

Thanks again and have a happy summer!

2 comments July 14th, 2014

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 7: Nurturing Future Stewards of the Earth

This is the last week of our Blogstitute and we end our summer PD event with this great post by Laurie Rubin, author of To Look Closely: Science and Literacy in the Natural World. Laurie provides a great list of resources about animals, nature, and scientists to inspire all budding readers to take a closer look at our environment and to find peace and inspiration under every rock. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of 8 free Stenhouse books! Last week’s winner is Patricia Maia.

Last week I noticed an old rock pile on my way back from a birding walk near our country home. Feeling lucky to find a new supply of flat rocks for my perennial garden, I picked one up to carry back with me. When I turned it over, I was even more delighted to discover two light-brown furry cocoons. Eager to know what kind of insect would emerge (I was thinking moth), I positioned the rock at the edge of the deck, planning to examine it every day.

I wish I could report that I have been turning over rocks from a young and tender age. Not so. Instead it was only in my fifties that I embraced the natural world with all my senses, alert to the ever-changing landscape of trees, flowers, insects, and birds in my neighborhood. Perhaps that is why I became passionate about connecting my second-grade students to this same world, hoping to give them the head start I never had.

As I watched my students’ connection to the natural world gradually transform into concern, I looked for opportunities to nurture future stewards of our planet. When I searched for biographies for an annual study of peacemakers, I included books about conservationists and environmental activists. I wanted to provide models of real people working to preserve our natural heritage. I read aloud picture books about Rachel Carson, Harriet Hemenway, and Marion Stoddart, who worked, respectively, to ban DDT, outlaw trade in wild bird feathers, and stop paper mills from polluting our nation’s rivers.

Recently I was looking for a picture book to read to my five-year-old granddaughter about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who—after witnessing the deforestation of her homeland—launched the Green Belt Movement, which mobilized women to plant trees. I discovered many more stories about women scientists and activists, which in addition to promoting respect for the natural world provide a powerful resource to inspire girls to enter careers in science.

Two books about Maathai emphasize her activism. Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008; grades K–2) tells her story in simple text while Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low Books, 2010; grades 2–5) recounts a more detailed portrayal that highlights her extraordinary path to education and activism as a woman. Both have colorful, engaging illustrations. Read these books to inspire stewardship of the natural world and peacemaking.

“‘Once you are aware of the wonder and beauty of the earth,’ she scribbled in her journal, ‘you will want to learn about it.’” This is one of the many direct quotes Laurie Lawlor includes in her book Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (Holiday House, 2012; grades 3–5). Carson’s book Silent Spring exposed the detrimental effect of pesticides and inspired our modern environmental movement. The warm tempera and ink illustrations by Laura Beingessner will draw your students into the wonders of the deep sea and the authenticity of soup kitchens and DDT trucks. Read this book to inspire persuasive writing and stewardship of the natural world or to illustrate the use of primary source documents.

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, by Margarita Engle with pictures by Julie Paschkis (Henry Holt & Company, 2010; grades 1–3), is written in the first person and tells the story of how Maria Sybilla Merian, born in Germany in 1647, used her observations of insects, flowers, and amphibians to reveal the natural process of metamorphosis. She helped disprove the prevailing belief in “spontaneous generation”—that butterflies (called summer birds), moths, and frogs were formed from mud. Ahead of her time, through her notes, sketches, and vibrant paintings, she became a significant contributor to the field of entomology. Read this book to accompany a unit on insect life cycles or to introduce nature journaling or the inquiry skills of observation and questioning.

Another book about a woman ahead of her times is The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in southern California and became the first woman to graduate with a degree in science at the University of California in 1881. She researched trees that can grow in the desert and developed a plant nursery that ultimately established San Diego’s Balboa Park, known today for its enormous variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Read this book for a unit on trees or deserts, or a companion read with Wangari’s Trees of Peace. (Beach Lane Books, New York. 2013. Grades 1-3.)

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists, written by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Paula Conner (Dawn Publications, 2000; grades 4–8), is a chapter book that chronicles the lives of Anna Botsford Comstock, Frances Hamerstrom, Miriam Rothschild, and Jane Goodall, as well as the aforementioned Carson and Merian. Comstock started a movement to bring nature study into public schools when she wrote The Handbook of Nature Study. Hamerstrom’s studies of prairie chickens showed that the conservation of habitats was crucial to the survival of animal species. Rothschild was a world authority on fleas and planted 120 species of wildflowers to bring back the butterflies that were dying out. Goodall, known for her work with primates, still lectures around the world in support of animals and their habitats. This is an important read, especially for girls, about women throughout the ages who have made significant contributions to science and conservation. Use this book for literature groups focusing on biography or environmental activism.

P.S. Pleased as I was to join the community of “girls who look under rocks,” by day two my precious cocoons were gone, most likely eaten by one of the many birds that come to our feeder each day. What was I thinking? The more I learn about the natural world, the more there is to know!

13 comments July 7th, 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.



30 comments June 23rd, 2014

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