The Editor’s Shelf: Of Primary Importance

This week we kick off a new occasional series on the Stenhouse blog called The Editor’s Shelf. Written by Stenhouse editor extraordinaire Bill Varner, the series will reveal the history and background of some of our books and give you a chance to revisit some oldie but goodie Stenhouse titles from the past few years. We kick off the series with a look at how Ann Marie Corgill’s book Of Primary Importance came to life.

I’m a bibliophile. Or, you could say, I’m a book geek. I love everything about them—from authors and their lives, to cover designs, to publishing lore. I can still smell the ink, paper, and glue from my first job in a book bindery. For most people outside the book business, how an idea becomes a book is a mystery. With “The Editor’s Bookshelf,” I thought we’d give you a snapshot of some of our books—the stories behind them, and why we love them.

When I first joined Stenhouse, I was told by our friends and distributors in Alabama, Toni Shay and William Hagood, about a fantastic teacher named Ann Marie Corgill—or, as I’ve come to call her, AMC. She’d taught Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s son in Alabama, and also at the renowned Manhattan New School. I first met AMC at the Mid-South Literacy Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Her presentation was terrific, and she wanted to write a book. “Great,” I said. “Let’s get started.” We started and stopped. We started and stopped. Most authors can’t churn them out like Patricia Cornwell. Since a lot of Stenhouse authors are full-time teachers, everything has to align just “write.” Or, to paraphrase John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans to write.” But thanks to AMC’s dogged determination to make the book a reality, several years after I first met her Of Primary Importance arrived from the printer, fresh with the smells of the bindery.

Ever since writing workshop burst onto the scene in the early to mid-eighties, it has fought a constant battle against prepackaged curriculum. Like fast food, prepackaged writing programs are quick and easy. But fifteen minutes after eating an easy meal, I always feel the weight of saturated fat and chemical additives weighing down my mind and body. Students feel the learning equivalent after working a program. Though it may take more time and effort, a healthy, handmade meal leaves one alert, energized, and sustained. Of Primary Importance is the writing curriculum equivalent.

AMC’s book gives you everything you need to create your own writing workshop for primary writers. From establishing the learning environment and developing units on poetry, nonfiction, and narrative writing, to publishing and assessment—it has it all. It’s written in an inspiring voice that says, “Yes, you can do this.” If you haven’t heard of it, or haven’t yet discovered its classroom-tested ideas, you really should. In the world of professional books on teaching writing, it’s a precious gem.

Don Graves used to say about administrators (and anyone who told others what to teach), “Just shut the door and teach.” That’s often easier said than done, but so is everything else worth doing.

3 comments March 12th, 2014

Now Online: Intentional Talk

Classroom conversations are crucial to mathematics learning. How do you respond effectively to student ideas, keep students engaged, and use discussions to support your educational objectives?

In their new book Intentional Talk, Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz show teachers how to direct discussions with a goal in mind, whether it be to generate lots of problem-solving strategies or to target a particular idea. Through numerous classroom vignettes and practical examples, you’ll see how to teach all students to participate in meaningful ways and support their thinking using effective questioning and teacher “talk moves.”

Different types of goals require planning and leading discussions differently. Elham and Allison show you how to do this, with printable planning templates and chapters focusing on:

  • defining & clarifying key mathematical concepts and terms;
  • comparing similarities and differences among strategies;
  • justifying why specific strategies work;
  • determining the best solution strategy; and
  • thinking through errors and building on partial understanding.

You can now pre-order and preview Intentional Talk online, in its entirety.

Add comment March 10th, 2014

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Washington State

We continue our series on effective PD initiatives using Stenhouse books week with a visit to Washington State, where teachers working with the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss are using Word Nerds to help their students become more proficient readers and writers. 

Teaching Students the Language to Learn

As soon as Cathy Corrado finished reading Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary (Stenhouse, 2013), she knew it would be a great resource for teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing. Among other things, the book stresses the importance of using visual and physical cues for word practice and building students’ recognition of word relationships so they can confidently approach unfamiliar terms.

“It’s hard to say to a profoundly deaf kid, ‘What sounds do you hear?’ Everything has to be visual,” says Corrado, who provides literacy and academic support for teachers in Washington State through the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss (CDHL). “Things like reading mastery are really hard for struggling deaf kids. It has to be in-your-face obvious. Deaf kids have a phonetic system; it’s just not the same as ours. In building fluency, we have to show them the pattern of the rhyme but not make it entirely sound based.”

Similar to many students who have learning disabilities, children who are deaf or hard of hearing often don’t know the “language” of reading, Corrado says. They don’t have the same reference points as hearing students and may lack what’s known in special education as executive functioning, which includes the ability to select appropriate strategies for solving problems.

“We know that executive functioning skills depend on language ability. If they want to work on executive functioning, they need to work on language. And if they want to work on language, they have to work on vocabulary. That’s why the book is so good.”

Corrado says special education coordinators and teachers of the deaf in Washington State are spread out among nine geographically distant educational service districts and rarely get the opportunity to meet in person to engage in professional learning. So she decided to set up an online book study of Word Nerds, using videoconferencing.
“People volunteered to read a chapter and then we reported back at the next meeting two months later,” Corrado says. “Some people did a list of what they learned. Some people did a spreadsheet. Everybody’s notes were different, what they learned from the chapters. It was a good way to get attention to the book. It really summarized everything in a nice way.”

One participant created a graphic organizer to share key points, using the headings Information That Affirmed Current Practices, Information That Gives Us New Ideas, and Information That Needs More Follow-Up. Another participant linked the main ideas in Chapter 4 to literacy strands addressed in the Common Core State Standards.

Julia Fritz, a teacher of the deaf at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, says she was struck by the importance of the authors’ message that the Common Core expects students, beginning in first grade, to use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

“My thought was, ‘Teachers of the deaf know this is an ongoing need for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids, but now it is being forced on us to raise the bar even higher with more of those kids in the general education classrooms,’” Fritz says.
Vocabulary is probably the weakest area of literacy development for most deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Fritz says. They share many of the common learning gaps that cause children from high-poverty and language-deficient homes to struggle in school, because families of deaf students often cannot communicate fluently and directly in their children’s preferred mode of sign language. Fritz says she was glad that the Word Nerds authors shared successful strategies for addressing the needs of at-risk populations. The book’s emphasis on Tier Two words—high-frequency words students will likely encounter in their school reading yet probably don’t know well—was an important reminder to make language nuances clear to students and explicitly teach them word-attack strategies for subject-specific terms.

“I have a student right now, and I realized on his standardized test that he’s great at math and science, but he doesn’t have a lot of words for things,” Fritz says. She’s using Word Nerds to make sure she addresses his academic vocabulary when completing his Individual Education Plan.

Developing vocabulary knowledge can be especially challenging for students who use sign language, because one sign can represent multiple meanings and synonyms. For example, the same sign is used for discontented and its synonyms aggravated, dissatisfied, and disgusted. Likewise, some words may have multiple signs—there are at least eleven different ways to sign the word run.

“You have to have specially designed vocabulary, and it needs to be very intentional,” Fritz says. For multiple meanings of words, she uses graphic organizers to explain some of the variations so students will learn to look for context clues in reading to determine the precise use and signs for words.

Word Nerds includes examples of graphic organizers, such as the adapted Frayer Model and the Graphic Organizer for Crystal Ball Words , which the authors use with students to help them think through word choices when reading, writing, and speaking. The book also recommends giving students practice using cloze sentences to understand how context clues can uncover shades of meaning, as well as finding synonyms, antonyms, and analogies to further clarify the correct terms.

Fritz says she also took many notes on Chapter 7, which stresses the importance of teaching students about prefixes and suffixes and Greek and Latin roots to help them understand word relationships and decipher longer, unfamiliar words.
“I loved this idea,” she says. “I think it’s such a huge, missing gap. We’ve gotten rid of studying Greek and Latin parts as a requirement for schools.”

Spreading the Word About Vocabulary Instruction

At the time she set up the collaborative book study for her Washington State colleagues, Corrado says she did not know about the study guide that Word Nerds coauthors Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith had prepared to help educators implement the strategies discussed in the book. She later alerted her colleagues to the resource. Corrado also plans to continue discussing Word Nerds through a listserv for state teachers of the deaf.
“We all share the listserv as a common place where we can go and throw a question out and people can respond to it,” she says. “Or if they need something, I might say, ‘Try this.’ What I will do this coming year is share information about great strategies for teaching vocabulary from the book. Then you start generating a conversation about the recommendations: ‘What did you think? How did it work?’”

Corrado and Fritz say they learned a great deal from the online book study and recommend the approach to others. They also have some suggestions for maximizing the results:

  • Insist on a collegial dialogue, not just sharing notes or summaries of books under review. “The ‘cheat sheets’ are nice,” Fritz says, “but you don’t know what they mean until you have the conversation. The conversation solidifies it and makes it alive for you.”
  • Make sure all participants can access notes and important charts and visuals from the books, particularly if they are meeting at remote locations. In Washington State, not all of the educators participating in the videoconference about Word Nerds had seen the book prior to the discussion. When conversation turned to some of the useful forms included in the book’s appendix, for example, not everyone understood the references. In hindsight, organizers wished they had thought to capture some of the images on screen to refer to during key points in the conversation.
  • Do a test run before the videoconference to ensure that school or school district technology departments can troubleshoot potential problems. “Make sure everyone knows how to call back in should they get disconnected during the conference,” Fritz says. “Make sure you know how to mute your microphone because of interruptions. Make sure you’re not in a room where direct sunlight is shining on the screen, because you won’t be able to see the people or documents.”

Add comment March 4th, 2014

The Sisters talk about Math Daily 3

“The Common Core Standards require students to think and learn in a much deeper way in all subject areas, all the time, and the Math Daily 3 meets this expectation.” (From Linda Biondi, MiddleWeb reviewer)

One of the new features in the second edition of The Daily 5, is a chapter dedicated to math. In our new video conversation with Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, they discuss how the Math Daily 3 structure can be used to foster independence in students during math time.

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Add comment February 27th, 2014

Now Online: Let’s Find Out!

In my own teaching, I have struggled to integrate content area concepts with literacy instruction. I have worried, along with every other teacher I’ve known, about how little time we have to teach all we want children to know. Here it all was, right before me, in Sue’s classroom.
—Ellin Oliver Keene

lets-find-outIn her new book, Let’s Find Out!, Sue Kempton invites readers into her kindergarten classroom where she incorporates music, art, movement, drama, research, and the natural world as she learns alongside her students. You’ll discover how to help children create background knowledge (schema) as they are learning to read and write.

Teachers will gain a solid understanding of why schema is so important and how they can help students develop it. The heart of the book presents stories from Sue’s classroom, illustrating how to use 20 key teaching tools—such as observation, dramatization, talking, and movement—strategically to ensure that kids develop schema for reading, writing, and other subject areas.

45 minutes of accompanying online video give you an in-depth look at Sue’s classroom—how kids support each other, use drama to enhance reading comprehension, learn effective word choice, and more.

Filled with student-teacher dialogue and writing samples, Let’s Find Out! guides primary teachers to enhance their comprehension instruction and give all of their students what they need to become proficient readers. The book will be published next month, and you can preview the entire text online now and then take a tour of Sue’s classroom in this short video

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Add comment February 24th, 2014

In the Classroom with Jen: Conferring with young writers

We are excited to start a new blog series this month with Stenhouse author (A Place for Wonder with Georgia Heard) and first-grade teacher Jen McDonough. Jen will share stories and strategies from her classroom every couple of weeks, so be sure to check back often. We’ll start off the series with some ideas for streamlining writing conferences using the 3 F’s: frequency, focus, and follow-up.

Conferring with Young Writers

jenmcdonoughIt can be overwhelming at times when we sit down with kids to talk about their writing. So much to say, so many different directions we can go. One thing I know for sure is that too much teaching in a conference leads to an overwhelmed writer. As I go about working with young writers now, I try to keep what I call the “3 Fs” in mind: frequency, focus, and follow-up. These three things have streamlined my writing conferences with kids and helped make them more successful. So, what are the “3 Fs”?


I am constantly trying to come up with ways to make sure I meet with my young writers more frequently. What I have found is that in order for me to do so, I have to make sure certain things are in place during writing workshop. Management has to be in place. The kids need to know what is expected of them during writing time. We create a class expectations chart together at the beginning of the year and leave it up all year long as a reference for anyone who might be off task. When the kids are on task, I can get working with small groups or individual students.

The classroom also has to be organized. The materials the children will need to get writing work done need to be organized and accessible. I want to spend my time working with writers, not helping kids find a new pencil if one breaks. Keeping conferences short and on point also helps me see more kids, which leads me to the second F.


It is important, when meeting with young writers, not to overwhelm them with too many suggestions about how to improve their writing. Teaching too many strategies at once can leave a child struggling to do any of them independently once I walk away. One way I focus my conferences is to think about the qualities of good writing: structure, conventions, focus, voice, and elaboration. No matter what genre the writer is working on, I can always go back to these qualities to help lift the level of the writing. Instead of teaching one strategy one day and then another the next time we meet, I can help the writer set goals using one of the qualities and work on that for a bit before moving on to something else. For example, a child can set a goal for trying to elaborate more, and I can teach strategies for doing that no matter what the writer is writing about the day we meet. By staying focused on quality for a while, the conferences are more focused, move quicker, and allow the student more practice before moving on to something else.


The third F I think about when it comes to conferring is follow-up. Using the idea of frequency, I want to see writers as often as possible. When I follow up with a writer, I am always sure to compliment what is going well since our last meeting and then quickly talk about the big goal the writer has set. I ask the child to show me places in the writing where goals are being met to hold him or her accountable for what is being taught. If it is not there, I know I need to go back and reteach the strategy. If the writer is making progress, we can move on to another strategy that will help the child reach his or her writing goal. It is important to follow up and make sure that the teaching is sticking and the child is growing as a writer.

By using the “3 Fs” as overarching goals for myself as I confer with young writers, I have found that I feel more confident. The writers in my classroom know what will happen when I sit down with them and therefore feel more comfortable to discuss and work on their writing pieces.

Add comment February 19th, 2014

Are you ready for a writing challenge?


solIf you need some writing inspiration in these last, dark days of winter or if you need something to jump-start your writing routine, you are in luck! The Two Writing Teachers (Stenhouse author Stacey Shubitz and her group of bloggers) will begin their Slice of Life Writing Challenge March 1, 2014, and everyone is invited to participate.

Just like last year, there is an individual challenge open for everyone who has a blog, and a classroom challenge for teachers and their students. The most important part is that you sit down and write every day, for 31 days. And who knows? This might become a habit that will be hard to kick after March.

For more information, visit the Two Writing Teachers blog. There you will find information on how to start your own blog, how to participate in Slice of Life Tuesdays as well as the month-long challenge, and guidelines for classroom participation.

Add comment February 17th, 2014

The 2 Sisters on “barometer children”

In a new video, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser discuss how to support “barometer” children, those kids who dictate the weather in the classroom. They also explain the “Daily 3 Math” structure, new to the second edition of The Daily 5:

Add comment February 4th, 2014

Feeding the Social Animal: How Much Discussion is Too Much?

Sarah Cooper teaches U.S. history at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. In her latest blog post she talks about how she guides classrooms discussions in her eighth-grade classroom to make sure that students have a chance to hear all perspectives, but also to build a sense of community and give students a long-lasting takeaway from their time in the classroom. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9.

Feeding the Social Animal: How Much Discussion Is Too Much?

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionBy Sarah Cooper                

I don’t know what it’s like in your classroom, but the eighth graders in my U.S. history class often can’t stop talking.

They digress about pajama day and chicken fingers and video games. And, on good days, they also want to talk about history—not necessarily how a bill becomes a law, but how controversial topics such as affirmative action, press censorship, and privacy rights affect their lives.

Of course, I love their enthusiasm. But I also wonder: Where does the balance lie between full-class discussion and other activities that build content or skills? Can we have too much conversation that crowds out other meaningful pursuits?

Here’s an example:

We’ve hopscotched away from the text for a day to read an essay about Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves in Alan L. Lockwood and David E. Harris’s Reasoning with Democratic Values: Ethical Problems in United States History. Students often ask for more of these kinds of “stories”—anything that gives detail about people’s lives and avoids the fact-heavy textbook.

Over two nights they have read the piece for homework and responded in one-hundred-plus words to the question: “Can an action be morally right at one time in history and wrong in another?”

Students pair and share their homework responses for two minutes, and I ask them to give specific, positive feedback so their partners know they were actually listening. When we come together to talk about their views, I write a chart on the board showing both sides: morals are morals, regardless of time period or morals change with time.

The discussion wends its way through the room for fifteen minutes. Some students speak just to speak, whereas others respond to each other’s points. Five minutes in, ten hands are still waiting for airtime. Ten minutes in, five hands remain, and then three more pop up after a controversial comment.

Do I let everyone talk? Is it better to hear fifteen opinions—and for so many to voice their ideas—than for everyone to hear five opinions and then interact with those perspectives in some way? In the zero-sum game of classroom time management, in the confines of a school year, I think about this question a lot.

Interaction with the discussion, in pairs or individually, could mean picking a favorite argument from the chart, using it as a topic sentence for a theoretical paragraph, and listing three facts to support it. Or it could mean browsing a newspaper, hard copy or online, to find an article that discusses morality, then deciding how the article’s theme is similar to or different from Jefferson’s problem. This kind of follow-up assignment feels real to me, in some ways more valuable than watching discussion play itself out.

Yet the days I’ve let discussion go longer, sometimes twenty minutes or more, are often the moments students remember best. They refer to the intensity of the conversation months later and clearly understand the points raised.

So, what is the ideal way to teach?

One answer may lie in asking what students hold onto in the long term. I remembered this recently when I came face-to-face with my eighth-grade self over winter vacation (braces and all).

Visiting my dad, I started digging through boxes of old schoolwork. The first box contained papers from U.S. history when I was in middle school: a neatly handwritten chart of American explorers, a packet of worksheets on the Revolution, a stack of color-coded note cards from research projects.

All of this I had no memory of. None.

What did I remember from eighth-grade history, before I ever opened that box?

  1.  A passion for current events that led to loud arguments on the way out the door to lunch. It was 1988, and we all dug trenches for or against George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
  2. A Model United Nations conference in which we took China’s perspective.
  3. The friends I made in that class, many of whom I still talk with today.

All of these memories clearly involved people and discussion. Research and reading and writing also were important, but we used these tools to engage with other people’s views and ideas, often vociferously. We felt that we were talking about adult issues like adults, that we were serious contenders in the intellectual life of the country. And, in the process, we did learn “invisible” skills that I used through high school and beyond to continue to contribute to the discussions around me.

1 comment February 3rd, 2014

Is a Stenhouse author coming your way?

What better way to extend your learning from Stenhouse books and videos than to participate in a workshop by a Stenhouse author? Browse the list below for an event near you and make plans to enjoy high-quality PD in the coming months.

Choice Literacy Workshops
• Franki Sibberson: “The Tech-Savvy Literacy Teacher,” online course, January 29-February 9
• Franki Sibberson: “Text Complexity in Grades 3-5: Minilessons, Nonfiction Text Sets, and Independent Reading,” online course, April 2-13
• Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan, and Jennifer Allen: “Coaching the Common Core,” Wrentham, MA, July 16-17

Reading Recovery National Conference
• Columbus, OH, February 1-3
• Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan, Brenda Overturf, Linda Dorn, and Max Brand

Colorado Council IRA Annual Conference
• Denver, February 5-8
• Peter Johnston, Harvey Daniels, Bruce Lesh, Mark Overmeyer, and Julie Ramsay

Wisconsin State Reading Association Annual Conference
• Milwaukee, February 6-8
• Jeff Anderson, Aimee Buckner, Max Brand, Patrick Allen, Debbie Miller, Peter Johnston, Kathy Collins, Harvey Daniels, and Diane Sweeney

Kelowna Summit: “When Vulnerable Readers Thrive”
• Kelowna, BC, February 21-22
• Peter Johnston and Debbie Diller

Debbie Diller Richmond Institute
• February 27-28
How to organize space and time, how to manage independent learning through literacy and math work stations, how to use standards to plan for and implement work stations, and much more.

Missouri Write to Learn Conference
• Osage Beach, MO, February 27-March 1
• Brenda Overturf, Ruth Ayres, and Steven Layne

Oregon Council of Teachers of English Regional Conference
• Portland, OR, March 1-2
• Tim Gillespie, Lee Ann Tysseling, Ruth Shagoury, Andie Cunningham, and Kim Campbell

The 2 Sisters Daily 5 and CAFE Workshops
Gail Boushey & Joan Moser
• Chicago, March 29-30
• Washington, DC, April 12-13
• St. Louis, May 17-18
• Tacoma, June 26-27
• Minneapolis, July 24-25
• Atlanta, August 9-10
• San Antonio, August 23-24

National Science Teachers Association National Conference
• Boston, April 3-6
• David Sobel, Marcia Edson, and Melissa Stewart

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting
• New Orleans, April 9-12
• Jessica Shumway, Chris Confer, Marco Ramirez, Linda Dacey, Allison Hintz, Elham Kazemi, and Kassia Omohundro Wedekind

International Reading Association Annual Conference
• New Orleans, May 9-12
• Gail Boushey & Joan Moser, Kelly Gallagher, Debbie Diller, Diane Barone, Carol Bedard, Jan Burkins, Rose Cappelli, Kathy Collins, Harvey Daniels, Lynne Dorfman, Charles Fuhrken, Kathy Ganske, Anne Goudvis, Stephanie Harvey, Georgia Heard, Peter Johnston, Sara Kajder, Sue Kempton, Clare Landrigan, Steven Layne, Mary McMackin, Debbie Miller, Lesley Morrow, Tammy Mulligan, Julie Ramsay, Kathy Short, Lee Ann Spillane, Tony Stead, Terry Thompson, Kathy Whitmore, and Kim Yaris

Comprehension Times Three (CX3) Summer Institute
• Stephanie Harvey, Debbie Miller, and Cris Tovani
• Madison, WI, August 5-7
Includes expanding comprehension across the curriculum, differentiating instruction, learning targets, assessment, small groups, integrating with the Common Core, and much more.

Add comment January 29th, 2014

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