Archive for June, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: How Well Do You Know Your Students?

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

How Well Do You Know Your Students?
By Jake Wizner

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

She laughs nervously.

“I’m sure that beer’s nonalcoholic.”

“Oh, definitely.”

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

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


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

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

7 comments June 30th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Unleashing the Power of Games

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

Unleashing the Power of Games

Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch

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

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

Play in Partners

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

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

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

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

Elly: It’s that distribution thing.

Quinn: Huh?

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

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

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

Increase Time on Task

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

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

Include Assessment

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

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

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

9 comments June 28th, 2016

How a Summer Writing Institute Inspired a Book for Teachers

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

How a Summer Writing Institute Inspired a Book for Teachers

By Dave Somoza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5 comments June 22nd, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

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

The Electric Slide Effect: Explaining Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

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

How Learning to Read Is Like Learning to Dance

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


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

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

Jan and Kim 2014Shared Reading

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

Guided Reading

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

Independent Reading

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

Becoming a Cool Cat

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

See you on the dance floor!

Jan & Kim

14 comments June 21st, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Getting Started with Close Writing

The next post in our #Blogstitute16 series comes from Paula Bourque (@LitCoachLady), author of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6. Paula shares her strategies for creating a habit of close reading — the first step in developing close writers. Be sure to leave a comment or tweet about this post using #Blogstitute16 for a chance to win some amazing new Stenhouse books!

Getting Started with Close WritingClose Writing approved cover
Paule Bourque

I love coaching in classrooms during writing workshop. I love to watch students take ideas from their heads and magically transfer them to paper. I love listening to the talk that floats above the flurry of writing. It was from these opportunities that I noticed the varying range of connectedness students had to their writing. The most successful writers seemed to be very connected to their written work, while those who struggled more were often quite disconnected. This translated into some students frequently rereading and revisiting their writing and others who saw writing as a one-way process: get it down and done.

I started observing the most accomplished writers to analyze which behaviors and habits supported their success. The thing that jumped out at me in almost every instance was that these writers were close readers of their own writing. They reread their work with purpose and focus, and they did so frequently. I thought about how we have been teaching students to closely read the work of other authors but not how to apply those strategies to their own pieces of text. That was the genesis for my book Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2–6 (2016).

What started as a book about teaching students close reading strategies for their own work evolved into a plethora of approaches for creating stronger relationships between writers and their writing and building awareness of their writing identities. That process was a genuine path of discovery for me, and it continues to this day.

I am now frequently asked by teachers who have looked at the collection of ideas and strategies in Close Writing, “Where should I start?” I think that’s such a relevant question because teachers sometimes find writing instruction “messy.” Writers’ needs are so varied, and their styles are so individual. One size rarely fits all. I usually suggest that they start where I did—encouraging writers to create a habit of close reading.

The premise for Close Writing is that writers reread, reflect, and revise with a variety of purposes and lenses. Writers cannot reflect or revise if they aren’t aware of what IS and what IS POSSIBLE, and that can happen most effectively when they first reread what is in front of them. So I now emphasize teaching students to reread (closely read) their writing to raise that awareness as the first step in becoming a Close Writer.

Three Aspects of this Initial Process

  • Awareness
  • Purpose
  • Practice


Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. —Thich Nhat Hanh

You can’t be intentional without awareness. You can’t purposefully change a behavior you aren’t aware of. So how can we raise this awareness?

How Do Other Authors Do It?

We can start by sharing with our students audio or video of published authors reading their work. These are obviously successful close writers! Some of my favorites are Neil Gaiman, Eric Carle, Mercer Mayer, and Suzanne Collins. We can ask students to describe what they notice about how they read their work and why they made certain choices. I found many of the techniques could fall into one of these categories:

  • Pace—How quickly or slowly authors read
  • Pause—Where authors stop at various points
  • Punch—What words or phrases authors choose to emphasize
  • Play—The dramatic quality or style of authors’ voices

I then invite students to try these techniques in their own writing and to think about their purpose to help them share—as well as reflect on—their writing.

How to Read Your Writing

Once students are aware of techniques and purposes for reading their work, we can reread with a variety of lenses. Close reading often answers a question for the reader. You change your lens or focus to answer questions. We can ask questions of our own writing that can be answered with a close read, such as these:

  • How do I show transitions of time or place to my reader?
  • How natural does my dialogue sound?
  • How varied are my sentences?
  • Which verbs are my strongest? My weakest?

The questions are limitless. Whatever craft element, technique, or convention you are working on can be monitored and strengthened by close reading.


“Children work very hard in their purposeful endeavors in the world, when they have ends they want to accomplish themselves.” —Frank Smith

Almost all of the students I know want to get better at what they do. Most recognize that this requires work. When we understand the purpose and can see how that work could pay off, it is much easier to invest time and energy.

  • Why is close reading important? I contrast a “fast forward” style of reading (quick, mumbled, inattentive) with a purposeful “writer reading” (intentional pace, pause, punch, play techniques) and discuss the difference between “getting through” a piece of writing and really “getting into” a piece of writing. I invite students to consider which style will help them to be more aware and purposeful with their writing. I believe that if they don’t understand the purpose behind a skill, it doesn’t become a strategy.
  • How does this close reading help me? The idea isn’t that they can turn their writing into readers’ theater. The focus is on the purposeful choices they make to interpret and convey the meaning of their writing more precisely. Slowing down, thinking about what is important, and listening to how those written words sound when spoken aloud can help readers to better reflect on what they have written.
    • One of my favorite lessons to demonstrate the effectiveness of rereading is “Rewind and Find.” I ask students go back and read a piece of their work for just two minutes to see what they might find to revise or edit that their teacher would find if he or she read it. We then list everything they notice, and those lists are often quite extensive. I say, “Look at what we were able to find in just two minutes. Do you think if you took two minutes each day to go back and reread your work that you would become a stronger writer?” At this point, most students are convinced!


“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you are good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” —Malcolm Gladwell

We can’t just tell our students to reread their writing and expect them to be more attentive and intentional. How often have kids told us they have reread their work only for us to discover a myriad of errors, incomplete sentences, or gaps? They may have reread it, but they weren’t sure what to look for.

  • Teach it. I don’t assume that this comes naturally to students. I model how it looks and sounds using my own writing and then give them plenty of opportunities to practice it themselves with feedback and reinforcement.
  • Prompt for it. Once I teach a technique such as Flash Editing, Rewind and Find, or Listen and Learn, I can then quickly prompt for it so that students can practice independently without a lengthy lesson. If every time students said or thought “I’m done!” they heard a prompt for closely reading their work, they would very quickly begin to develop that approach as a classroom expectation.
  • Make it a habit. If we put structures and routines in place that foster close reading, it will more easily become habituated. We need to make it easy for our students to develop these close writing behaviors.

There are so many more strategies and approaches that I have written about that can help our students become Close Writers, but if we can begin by making them aware, helping them to understand its purpose, and giving them opportunities to practice closely reading their writing, I am confident that they will become much more accomplished writers. I welcome you to continue this exploration with me on Twitter @LitCoachLady, on Facebook, or at my website. You can find resources for my book Close Writing at the accompanying Stenhouse website.

13 comments June 16th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Wide Awake to Stories

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



Wide Awake to Stories
Katie Egan Cunningham

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

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

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

How do we do that for ourselves?

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

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

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

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

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

24 comments June 14th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016 kicks off next week!


Pull up a beach chair and join us for our annual online PD event. Blogstitute 2016 kicks off Tuesday, June 14, with many of your favorite Stenhouse authors.

This year’s lineup includes posts from Katie Egan Cunningham, Jake Wizner, Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty, Linda Dacey, Paula Bourque, Lucy West, Erik Palmer, Ralph Fletcher, Kate Roth and Joan Dabrowski, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, and Stacey Shubitz.

Like what you are reading? Tweet using #blogstitute and at the end of the summer we’ll raffle off a package of all of our new Fall 2016 titles to a lucky winner. (That’s 10 books!)

See you on the blog.

On Twitter:

6 comments June 9th, 2016

Now available: Craft Moves

CraftMovesIf you want to help your students improve the quality of their writing—and who doesn’t?—you’ll find Craft Moves a must-have resource.
—Ralph Fletcher

In Craft Moves, Stacey Shubitz, cofounder of the Two Writing Teachers website, does the heavy lifting of choosing mentor texts and mining them for craft lessons you want your students to learn.

Using 20 recently published picture books, she creates more than 180 lessons to teach various craft moves that will help your students become better writers.

Each of the lessons in the book includes a publisher’s summary, a rationale or explanation of the craft move demonstrated in the book, and a procedure that takes teachers and students back into the mentor text to deepen their understanding of the selected craft move. A step-by-step guide demonstrates how to analyze a picture book for multiple craft moves.

Stacey discusses picture books as teaching tools and offers ways to integrate them into your curriculum and classroom discussions. She also shares routines and classroom procedures to help students focus on their writing during the independent portion of writing workshop and helps teachers prepare for small-group instruction.

Preview the book online now!

Add comment June 1st, 2016

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