Archive for June, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Read-Around Groups

In Kelly Gallagher’s high school English classroom in Anaheim, California, students not only turn to books and magazines for models of effective writing, they also turn to each other. Kelly uses Read-Around Groups or RAGs where students read and evaluate their classmates’ work. In this week’s Quick Tip, Kelly shares some of the basic rules for RAGs, described in his book Teaching Adolescent Writers.

Read-Around Groups: Real-World Peer Models
Though students benefit immensely by examining professional writing, there is also another opportunity for students to learn by reading other writers, and that opportunity presents itself in our classrooms daily. I am speaking of the benefit that arises when we have students read each other’s writing. Getting students to willingly share their writing with one another, however, is not always an easy task given the fact that sharing writing involves risk.

How do I get my students over this fear of sharing their drafts? I tell them that every time I send a new chapter I have written to my editor, I cringe. I tell them that when I work with college-educated adults, they often have the same level of anxiousness when it comes to sharing their writing. In short, I tell them, this feeling is normal and the sooner we can work our way past it the sooner we will begin improving as writers.

One way I have students work through the nervousness of sharing their writing with one another is to set up read-around-groups, in which students are given the opportunity to read each other’s papers anonymously. There are various versions of RAGs out there; here are the rules for my classes:
Rules for RAGs
1. Students bring clean drafts to the RAGs. They do not put their names on the paper. Instead, they identify themselves by writing five-digit numbers or code words at the top of their papers.
2. Students are randomly placed in groups of four or five. The papers are collected in one pile for each group. It is better to not have all the best (or worst) writers at the same table.
3. At the start, on the teacher’s signal, the papers are passed from one group to the next. Students do not read papers by members of their own group. Each student receives one paper and reads it for one minute. Not all students will finish all papers, but in one minute they have an opportunity to get a strong feel for the paper.
4. At the teacher’s signal, papers are passed clockwise within the groups. Each student now has a new paper and has one minute to read the paper. This process is continued until everyone in the group has read all four or five papers.
5. Once everyone in the group has read the set, each group is charged with the task of determining which paper is the “best.” They have two minutes to do so. The hope is that this will produce arguments, because it is through these arguments that students think deeply about the merits of good writing.
6. One student in each group is designated as the recorder. This student records the five-digit number or code word of the winning paper.
7. Once the winner is recorded, the papers get passed again and the process repeats itself. This is continued until all students have read all papers. Remember, each group is not to score their own papers.

Once these seven steps are complete, the teacher asks the recorders for the winning entries and charts all the winning numbers (or code words) for the students to see. Generally, two or three papers in the class will receive the most votes. These papers are read aloud (again, no names are identified). As they are being read, students are asked to take bullet notes as to what made the papers the “best.” The lesson is completed by students sharing their bullet notes through a whole-class discussion, thus giving everyone in the class a clear idea of what features made these good essays.

I have found that RAGs are more beneficial to students if they do them before their final drafts are due. What good does it do them to identify features of good writing if they do not have an immediate opportunity to implement some of these discovered features into their own writing? Often I will collect essays on the due date (without names on the papers), but instead of taking them home, I will place students in RAGs. Once they have completed the process and have seen some examples of good writing, I give their papers back to them and allow one additional night for them to revise with the features of good writing fresh in their minds.

Once my students have begun sharing their writing in RAGs, I find they are more willing to begin sharing their writing in other settings as well.

Add comment June 30th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Peace

First, a poetry contest: Write and submit a poem about your teaching life and we will feature you in our upcoming Poetry Friday posts. The best five poems, selected by Stenhouse editor Bill Varner, our regular Poetry Friday poem picker, will win a free Stenhouse book! Send entries to Contest ends Sept. 1 and poems will be posted as we receive them each week throughout the summer. The winners will be announced Sept. 5. Get writing!

This week’s poem is from Ellen, a second grader in Mary Cowhey’s Peace Class in Northampton, MA. Mary is the author of Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades. Mary uses Vladimir Radunsky’s book What Does Peace Feel Like? as a springboard for creative writing about peace. Ellen’s poem is the result of that exercise:

Peace smells like tulips, Spring, and the morning
Peace looks like a dove flying through the air, a winter day, and friends
Peace sounds like a bird chirping, sheep in a field, and the ocean
Peace tastes like water, pine branches, pepperming
Peace feels like air, climbing a tree, riding a horse
Peace moves like the river, the trees, and the sea

3 comments June 26th, 2009

Writing contest

In his new book, What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop,  Mark Overmeyer discusses how a writing prompt that might seem limiting actually helps students focus their writing. He talks about a second-grade classroom where students were excited to write about the following topic: “Your baby brother is inside the house and you are locked out and need to figure out a way to get back in.”

Your challenge is to write a quick piece in 500 words or less for that prompt. Mark will select the winner, who will receive a free, signed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us. Submit your entries by July 15 to The best entries will be posted on the Stenhouse blog and website.

1 comment June 24th, 2009

Study Group Discussion – Of Primary Importance, Part IV

The group of teachers at Riverside Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio wrapped up their book study for the year, but not before sending along reflections from three  teachers about how they implemented some of the strategies and ideas. The group will meet again in the fall to continue the discussion and to ask author Ann Marie Corgill some questions about her book, Of Primary Importance. Catch up on what the group discussed earlier.

From McKenzie, 3rd Grade Teacher
Corgill spends a lot of time during her writing workshop studying the genre before getting students started with a writing piece.  One of the focus studies for third grade is for students to spend time learning about and writing literary non-fiction.

I tried to spend more time with students observing and examining the genre before we started writing within the genre of literary nonfiction.  I began this study in my reading workshop by introducing and reading books that fit this genre.  I spent a lot more time choosing mentor texts than I have in the past.  After some time reading this genre in my reading workshop, I moved the study into my writing workshop.  We looked at many books that fit the genre and began a chart in our writer’s notebook.  The chart contained four columns:  The title and author, the organization of the book (ie. Question/answer, ABC, etc.), how the author engages the reader, and finally an example of one of the previous two columns.  This helped the students focus on how authors present factual information in an interesting way.  As students started thinking about their own writing, they were able to identify what they wanted to do in their writing that really caught the readers’ attention while providing factual information.

Next year, I would like to look through our learning targets and identify two or three genres for students to study and write during writing workshop.  I am going to try using Corgill’s template for her unit of study curriculum map.  In this curriculum map, Corgill identifies what students should have, understand, and be able to do.  She has also compiled a list of mentor texts for each unit of study.   The last piece of her curriculum map is how she will assess students.  Corgill doesn’t just assess one piece of writing from the unit of study.  She looks at many writing samples, she documents student writing conferences, and looks at the reflections of her students as they have gone through their writing journey.  I found the sample reflections to be very informative when determining each students learning within the unit of study.

From Debbie, Reading Teacher
Although I am not a classroom teacher doing writing workshop, Of  Primary Importance helped with greater understanding of how I can  further develop and build those important connections between reading and writing.  “When students are consistently exposed to different types of literature it increases student’s motivation to write the kinds of books they read” was one quote that meant a lot to me as a reading support teacher.  I can continue to encourage and support them to read a variety of genres.

Another area that I found  of interest was the section on  nonfiction.  To avoid copying from the test when writing nonfiction, struggling readers will need additional practice with putting their reading into their own words.  I will reflect on  more ways that I can help them with this so that they can make the “slow and steady” progress in their writing.

From Laura, 2nd Grade Teacher
After reading the book Of Primary Importance, I have a lot of new ideas for my writing workshop next year, as well as how I am going to connect reading and writing workshop with my required content areas.  One great idea I plan to implement next year is the idea of dividing the year into 3 areas of focus, fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  I had to rethink how I would incorporate all I need to teach into these areas, and I have a good plan in place to try out next year.  After reading the book, I also see the importance of taking time to set up your workshop and not just jump right into it.  I will take the first 6-8 weeks to set up and talk about expectations etc.  I think I will have a better outcome for my writing workshop if my students know exactly what the next step is in their writing, where everything is, ,and what to do when they finish.  It will save me a lot of explaining the same things over and over again!

1 comment June 24th, 2009

Blog tour now underway

You can still ask questions and post comments about Mark Overmeyer’s new book, What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop. Check out the great Q&A with Mark on Creative Literacy and there’s still time to ask questions on Teaching That Sticks and The Two Writing Teachers blogs.

Tomorrow, June 25, Mark will be answering questions on The Reading Zone blog.

Browse Mark’s book online and then join the discussion!

Add comment June 23rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: The Ongoing Pursuit of Knowledge

In Growing Readers, author Kathy Collins helps teachers lay a foundation on which children can build rich and purposeful reading lives. But to be able to support that foundation, Kathy says that teachers have to continually learn about themselves and about their students. In this week’s Quick Tip she talks about how she continues to observe and learn about her students and how she uses the support of her fellow teachers and school principal to learn about and improve her own teaching.

We teachers have a huge responsibility to know our subject matter, our students, and our teaching. These three things are always evolving, and it’s our job to keep up with the changes.

As teachers of reading, we need to know what’s going on in the field of reading beyond our district’s prevailing model. This means we have to continue to educate ourselves about the reading process and learning issues. We need to be sure our knowledge base about reading is ever-growing and that it leads us to more inquiries in our teaching. The best teachers I know never feel like they’ve mastered it, and so they keep trying to figure things out. It’s as if there’s a carrot forever dangling in front of them.

It’s helpful to talk to colleagues about our teaching. Although it may feel more comfortable and affirming to talk to like-minded colleagues, it’s also important to talk to teachers who might do things differently. Listening to those who have different ideas keeps us open-minded, and it can help us clarify, strengthen, and amend our own beliefs and practice.

I can’t emphasize enough the power of being part of a supportive network of teachers. I’ve been fortunate to be involved with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project throughout my teaching life. Lucy Calkins, the founding director, provides many different venues for teachers to come together to share ideas, study with experts, confront difficulties, and perhaps most important, to know we’re not alone.

This idea of continuing to learn about our subject matter and learning from our colleagues, of course, extends to learning about our students. I listen closely to everything my students say, especially when they don’t know I’m listening. I watch my students’ interactions with classmates and other adults throughout the day in order to add more details to the picture I have of each child. When we closely observe our students, we learn about them, of course, but we can also learn about our teaching. One of my former students was also one of my most important teachers. I noticed that Shakeem seemed reluctant to participate during lessons and class discussions. I didn’t consider him to be shy, and he was a strong student, so it seemed sort of strange that I rarely heard his voice. I talked to Shakeem’s parents about how quiet he was and how I was trying to get him to participate more. They were surprised to hear this. “He’s usually very outgoing and doesn’t seem intimidated by groups,” his parents told me, as they recounted different situations in which he had participated with enthusiasm. We were puzzled, so I began to watch closely for times when Shakeem did express his ideas in class.

I noticed that he often participated during math lessons. During literacy work, however, Shakeem was silent. He rarely contributed to a book talk or offered insight during a writing lesson. My theory was that Shakeem didn’t feel as comfortable stating his opinions on more amorphous topics as he did answering questions that had a definite right or wrong answer. My theory was that he liked the security in knowing that he was right. I felt as if I had uncovered a little project to work on in my classroom.

The project required that I not only think about Shakeem and his participation but also reflect on my teaching. If I were to encourage Shakeem and other learners like him to participate more, I would need to fine-tune certain aspects of my teaching. I realized that instead of having whole-class discussions during book talks in which the same handful of children tended to participate, I needed to provide more opportunities for my students to “turn and talk” to a partner.

For children like Shakeem, it’s not as threatening to share an opinion with a friend as it is to do so in front of the whole class, and talking to a partner also provides a venue (as well as an expectation) for children to share their thinking about books. When I have my students turn and talk, I can scoot around and listen to what they are saying, so I hear more ideas than I generally would in a whole-group discussion.

In addition to watching students as a way of reflecting on our teaching, it can be very informative to watch our teaching on videotape. As miserable as it is to see and hear myself on videotape, I try to take the high road and focus more on my teaching than my bad haircut or fashion faux pas. I look for places in my teaching where I could be more explicit or concise. I’ve also found that it can be just as informative to focus the video camera on the students in order to watch their reactions, responses, and levels of engagement as we teach.

I often ask those with more expertise to observe my teaching so that I grow as a teacher. I remember struggling with transitions with one particular class. It felt and looked like Grand Central Station when my students were going from one thing to another. There were materials everywhere, a noise level that rivaled rush hour, and more tattling than I care to remember. I decided to slow down the transitions into their smallest pieces to calm things down. After a few days, I knew it wasn’t working. I needed another pair of eyes, so I asked Liz Phillips, my principal, to help me out. (I realize how lucky I was to have the kind of principal whom I could trust to watch me in action during what I considered one of my weakest classroom moments.) Liz helped me see that in my effort to create calmer transitions by slowing them down, I was actually increasing the tension. “Pick up the pace a bit and don’t wait for stragglers. Just get the next thing started, and they’ll begin to move faster when they know you won’t be waiting for them,” she suggested. What a difference in my class in just a couple of days!

The beauty of a job like teaching is that there are so many opportunities to learn and change. Our job reinvents itself when we get a new class each fall, change grades, or develop a new curriculum. We model all day long as we teach, but perhaps the most important thing we can model is how to learn. I believe that we teachers have to be the most insatiable learners out there.

Add comment June 23rd, 2009

Meet the Author: Herb Broda

Herb Broda, author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning, has been traveling the country for the past couple of months, visiting schools and documenting the creative ways teachers extend their classrooms into the outdoors. He made a stop in Portland, Maine, a few weeks ago for a meeting and lunch with (from right to left) Stenhouse editor Bill Varner, marketing manager Rebecca Eaton, and web coordinator Zsofi McMullin. You can retrace Herb’s steps on his journey here.
Herb Broda at Stenhouse

Add comment June 22nd, 2009

Poetry Friday: On the Beach at Night

Here is a poem to celebrate Father’s Day this weekend by Walt Whitman.

On the Beach at Night
by Walt Whitman

On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

Read the rest of the poem here

3 comments June 19th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: How do you use our tips?

We’ve been bringing you Quick Tips for six months now, covering topics from the basics of Socratic Circles, to bringing tweens back to reading, to finding your storytelling voice.

We’d like to know how you’ve been using these quick tips, whether you find them helpful, or if you’ve implemented any of the strategies in your classroom. Do you have suggestions for what tips you’d like to see? Browse past Quick Tips and then leave us a comment. The first five commenters who tell us how they used one of our Tips will receive a free Stenhouse book of their choice.

We’ll be back next week with another Quick Tip Tuesday!

5 comments June 16th, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Fish

I noticed a post on A Year of Reading by Mary Lee Hahn, author of Reconsidering Read-Aloud, about a charity fishing event. In honor of her catching that huge bluegill, I offer one of my favorite poems by one of America’s greatest poets:

The Fish
by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.

Read the rest of the poem here

1 comment June 12th, 2009

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