Blogstitute Week 9: Designing Interdisciplinary Units with Literature

To say farewell to summer and to the Blogstitute, we bring you one last post in our series. This one comes from Steven Wolk, author of Caring Hearts & Critical Minds: Literature, Inquiry and Social Responsibility. In his post Steve talks about the powerful resurgence of interdisciplinary learning and its benefits to students and teachers alike.

Powerful Connections: Designing Interdisciplinary Units with Literature

Way back around 1900, John Dewey delivered a series of lectures that went on to become a famous book titled The School and Society. It’s worth quoting him:

I have attempted to indicate how the school may be connected with life so that the experience gained by the child in a familiar, commonplace way is carried over and made use of there, and what the child learns in the school is carried back and applied in everyday life, making the school an organic whole, instead of a composite of isolated parts. The isolation of studies as well as of parts of the school system disappears. Experience has its geographical aspect, its artistic and its literary, its scientific and its historical sides. All studies arise from aspects of the one earth and the one life lived upon it. We do not have a series of stratified earths, one of which is mathematical, another physical, another historical, and so on. We should not live very long in any one taken by itself. We live in a world where all sides are bound together. All studies grow out of relations in the one great common world.

I would like to say that Dewey’s charge to teach through an integrated curriculum is back. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was really here in the first place. Yes, many teachers during the past century took Dewey’s inspiration and designed integrated instructional units, but as a paradigm of teaching and curriculum—especially in any formal capacity in the middle and high school grades—it is fair to say that school subjects have stubbornly remained within their own disciplinary walls. A few years ago, when my family visited my son’s high school orientation day before he started as a freshman, we spent a little time in a history classroom. I privately asked the teacher if, when students studied history in his class, they might also read a novel about that history, perhaps in their English or literature classroom. He looked at me conspiratorially and let it be known that that would not be happening: the teachers would never agree to do it.

Though the practice of interdisciplinary teaching was never really adopted, the idea is in the midst of a powerful resurgence, fueled in part by the interest in project-based learning, inquiry-based teaching, using technology across the curriculum, and making school and curriculum truly interesting and relevant for students. Many people today see an interdisciplinary curriculum as a foundation for twenty-first-century schooling. To see some exciting and inspirational examples of this in action, check out the projects being done by the High Tech High schools in San Diego ( and the school-community connections being made by Studio H (

One especially exciting piece of the interdisciplinary puzzle is the use of middle-grades and young adult literature as part of integrated units. Imagine the power of students conducting research on the Vietnam War in social studies while analyzing the results of a survey on war that they created and gave in math class, creating a symbolic piece of art about the war (and their opinions about the war) in art class, and delving into Walter Dean Myers’s gritty young adult novel of the Vietnam War, Fallen Angels, in language arts.

Interdisciplinary teaching simply means to design a unit with more than one discipline. At its best, integrated curriculum is coupled with an inquiry-based and project-based approach to teaching. This means designing a unit around an essential question or a set of guiding questions (or theme) that includes at least one in-depth project. For example, that Vietnam War unit could be titled “Was the Vietnam War Necessary?” Ideally, an inquiry-based interdisciplinary unit turns a classroom into a true community of learners who are exploring real questions about the real world by doing real work and reading real texts. Teachers who teach more than one subject can do this in their own classroom, or—and this is often more of a challenge—teachers who are part of a grade-level team can design an integrated unit together. This is what I would like to encourage middle school (and high school) teachers to do: collaborate to design vibrant units that make John Dewey’s “one great common world” come alive.

Twenty-five years ago, when I began my career in education, it was implied that middle school teachers needed to get all of their grade-level team members to participate in order to make interdisciplinary teaching work. Sadly, this probably kept more teachers from trying the idea because, as any educator can tell you, it is truly a Herculean task to get everyone to agree to anything. Rather than fight those battles, many teachers just kept to their own subjects. But teachers certainly do not need all of their team members on board. Collaborating with just one other teacher can open up exciting possibilities for designing dynamic and creative learning experiences. What’s more, many unit topics simply are not suited for all school subjects. Rather than figure out a way to force science into a unit where it does not authentically belong, teachers are better off choosing the disciplines that truly work well for the given topic or theme.

As John Dewey wrote, life is integrated; school separated it. The only reason teachers need to design interdisciplinary units is because they teach in schools that divided the knowledge into separate classes in the first place. Life does not separate knowledge into neat categories walled off from each other. Even when experts work in their field, they aren’t limited to just their discipline of expertise. Scientists write, bakers read, every teacher engages with math, naturalists working in the field use art, and we see science every time we check the weather report. Life is far more interesting when it is integrated.

Bringing different disciplines together helps students make powerful connections. They see how knowledge and ideas and information relate to one another and how we can use different knowledge to see the same idea or topic or question from different perspectives, which cultivates critical thinking. Interdisciplinary teaching also opens up wonderful possibilities for creative teaching and learning. No longer are teachers limited to just one school subject. Once we connect a good novel to science, entirely new teaching and curriculum ideas open up. And, on an extremely practical level, interdisciplinary teaching creates new (and interesting!) options for satisfying the Common Core State Standards. Imagine students reading Operation Redwood in language arts and reading informational texts, such as a National Geographic article, in science about the science of trees and a New York Times article in social studies on the politics of the logging industry and environmental conservation.

Interdisciplinary teaching allows students—who have widely differing interests and strengths—to connect to topics they may not have an initial interest in. One student who loves to read fiction but has little interest in history can be motivated to learn about the Vietnam War by reading Fallen Angels, while another student passionate about visual art makes those connections through the art project, and yet another student connects to the war through his or her love of math and the survey project.                                

There is a unique power to using literature as part of an interdisciplinary unit. Far too often students see books—and especially novels—as strictly a “language arts” or “English” or “reading” thing. Although teachers would not want to risk hindering the enjoyment of a good story or turning a good book into an endless array of school “exercises,” they can most definitely use an integrated curriculum to help students make powerful connections from a book across content areas. Good literature connects to life, and one interdisciplinary unit designed with a book situates that life into the story of a handful of people, helping readers to climb into our interconnected world.

The quality, breadth, and diversity of middle-grades and young adult books teachers can use as part of interdisciplinary units are extraordinary. Never before have teachers had so many astonishing historical novels to connect to social studies, such as Never Fall Down, One Crazy Summer, Between Shades of Gray, Daniel Half Human, Chains, Milkweed, Jefferson’s Sons, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and The Lions of Little Rock. Language arts teachers can collaborate with a science teacher using books such as Half Brother, BZRK, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Life As We Knew It, The Carbon Diaries 2015, Operation Redwood, Exodus, and Carl Hiaasen’s novels such as Hoot and Flush. Some books, such as Ellen Klages’s The Green Glass Sea—which is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the building of the first atomic bomb—could be connected to both social studies and science. It can also be connected to reading nonfiction, such as Steve Sheinkin’s recent and outstanding award-winning book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.                   

Just about any book can be connected to art by designing a good art project in response to it, which also allows (and challenges) each student to communicate his or her unique meaning and connection to a book. We can connect books to music too by pulling themes and issues from literature and having students listen to related music. For example, in my Social Studies Methods course I’ve had my students read Gary Paulsen’s harrowing short novel about slavery, Nightjohn, and then watch the emotional video of the jazz great Billie Holiday singing the famous song “Strange Fruit” about lynching in America.

A group of my graduate students designed an integrated inquiry unit for our class about the Middle East that brought together social studies and literature as well as music. One of the first unit activities was having students read the lyrics and then watch the music video for the song “War Again” by the popular Israeli musicians Balkan Beat Box. For literature, they read Deborah Ellis’s powerful nonfiction book of interviews she did with Israeli and Palestinian children, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. After reading the book, they had students literally connect with children in the Middle East through

One final suggestion for creating interdisciplinary experiences is using realistic fiction to make connections across the curriculum—which really means we are connecting that book to life. For example, when I’ve had middle school students read Paul Volponi’s novel Black and White and Walter Dean Myers’s Monster—both books involving our criminal justice system—students looked at data, graphs, and mathematical infographics on the incarceration rate in the United States and other countries. We also looked at data and graphs on teenage pregnancy when we read Virginia Euwer Wolff’s exceptional novel in verse, Make Lemonade.

Each good book creates its own world that we can use to create dynamic connections to the real world and across the curriculum. That “one great common world” awaits.

We hope you enjoyed this year’s Blogstitute. This week’s winner of a free book is Jessica. You can still receive 20% off and free shipping on any Stenhouse book by using code BLOG at checkout. See you again next year!

2 comments August 14th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 8: Planning for inquiry

As our Blogstitute — and summer — wind down, we bring you a post by Marcia Talhelm Edson that will help you as you think about your classroom for the coming school year. Her post is packed full of practical ideas for making each square foot of your classroom inviting to children to observe, question, learn. Marcia is the author of Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry.

It’s August in New England, and that means it’s time for tomatoes ripening in the garden and the return of the Perseid meteor showers. For teachers it’s also time for back-to-school circulars and time to make plans for the new school year, plans for revising curriculum and assessments, and plans for reconfiguring the physical environment of the classroom. Designing classroom space can be especially challenging for pre-K, kindergarten, first-, and second-grade teachers who want an inviting, inspiring, and well-organized space for learning. There are so many materials, so many tables, and so many learning centers—where to begin?

As you settle into ruminations about classroom layout, why not start with your science center?  Have you ever thought about expanding the idea of a science center? Instead of having a table labeled “Science Center,” what if you set up your classroom so that science happens throughout the room:  in the book area, in the meeting area, near the sign-in table, and on the work tables? What would it be like to infuse science throughout the room?

That’s right: infuse science throughout the classroom, much like you already do with literacy opportunities. Think about the way children encounter science in their everyday lives. It isn’t limited to a singular place; rather, it surrounds them indoors and outdoors. For example, think of random summertime science experiences: following the beam of light during a game of flashlight tag in the yard, noticing the way popsicles melt on a hot day, watching the worms that emerge from backyard dirt and the way puddles disappear after an afternoon rain shower. Children may not extract the scientific theories behind these occurrences, but these situations confirm that science is part of our everyday lives. That disposition is something we can also promote in our classrooms. If we expand science beyond the science center, we can tap into a more authentic way of organizing science for children. By intentionally placing interesting objects, books, and experiences around the classroom, not just in the science area, we can develop children’s awareness of science and their expectation that science happens just about anywhere. It will also make science accessible to more children throughout the day.

This isn’t to say that a science center is a bad thing, but it can be limiting if it is the only place to look at interesting things and do science. Think about the way museums organize their artifacts. There are many exhibits, but often there is space for only two or three people at each exhibit. Rather than limiting science to the six seats at the science table, what if we had “smaller bites” of science throughout the room like the museum does—in other words, several spaces to look at interesting things with one or two friends. Picture a hornet’s nest and two magnifying lenses on the windowsill, a book on guppies propped up next to the fish tank, a flashlight on a tray with a question card asking “How does this work?,” an indoor/outdoor thermometer mounted low on the wall next to a graph of the month’s temperatures, a scientist’s backpack to take out to the playground, and nonfiction books on construction and simple machines in the block area. You probably already have some of these in your room, but because they aren’t in the science center you may have overlooked the rich potential for children to observe, question, predict, collaborate, and share their scientific theories about these interesting organisms or objects. Think about spreading some of these ideas around your room to make that push out of the science center. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you have windows, use colorful tape to block off an area for cloud watching and mount a cloud identification chart on the windowsill. Tape a simple question on the window to catch the children’s attention, such as “What clouds do you see?” A pencil and a cloud notebook could also be placed on the windowsill for children’s observations.
  • Instead of having one plant on the windowsill, put a few smaller plants around the room on tables. Small pots of thyme and mint have interesting leaves and smells to observe and talk about.
  • Place classroom pet cages in a variety of spots around the classroom so children will notice them and stop to watch. Prop a nonfiction book next to the cage, open to an interesting section about the organism.
  • Include a science backpack with the balls and jump ropes you take outside. Fill it with some magnifying lenses, a bug box, small clipboards, and field guides.
  • Set out items from nature chosen for the variety of their texture, shape, or size, such as seedpods, bark, cross-sections of trees, and uprooted plants with exposed roots.
  • Designate a special place—your classroom science museum—for displaying items children bring to school to share. It shouldn’t take up a lot of space. A tray on a bookshelf or small table works, with a clipboard for comments and a frame to hold a description written by the child. Work with the children to establish guidelines for managing and maintaining the exhibit.
  • Display topical nonfiction books along with the organism, object, or phenomenon they describe. For example, in the blocks, include books on architecture, construction, and simple machines; near the water table, include books on flow, dams, and glaciers.
  • Set up a tray for color mixing on a shelf in the art area with two eyedroppers and two small ice cube trays, food coloring, and a small pitcher for water. Two friends can play here when they have time.

Some exhibits may be part of an inquiry unit you are teaching, but even if you aren’t teaching a science unit, your classroom should have many opportunities for children to act as scientists. The idea is to provide children with a variety of interesting phenomena they can work with using the skills of science: observing, predicting, testing, questioning, collaborating, and sharing ideas and theories. It’s important to keep these exhibits simple and small, as well as relevant to the children’s interest. Keep an eye on their engagement. If you notice they aren’t interested in the hornet’s nest, refresh the display with something to rekindle their interest, such as a laptop or tablet with a link to an active hive. Or replace it with something new—something seasonal, a selection of rocks, your son’s turtle, something the children have asked about, and so on.

You can employ simple organizational techniques to ensure that the materials and display are taken care of by the children. You probably use these in other areas of the classroom already:

  • Trays for display of materials
  • Labels and outlines that give children a clear understanding of how materials are put away
  • Small throw rugs that can be rolled out to establish an observation space for two children and then rolled back up
  • A couple of magnifying lenses placed next to organisms or things that are worth a close look

Most of all, take time to join the children in their observations. Savor their curiosity and wonder. Listen to their comments and questions, bring those comments to group meetings, or use them as a source for writing workshop. You’ll be amazed at the connections you can make to science, literacy, and mathematics. By expanding science from the science center into the mainstream classroom space, we as teachers will experience a keener awareness of the kinds of materials and displays that can incite inquiry, interest, and immersion in science.

Leave a comment on this post and win a free Stenhouse books! Last week’s winner is Tracy. You can also use code BLOG on the Stenhouse website to receive 20% off your purchase, only while the Blogstitute lasts!

8 comments August 7th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 7: Book choice and vocabulary instruction

This week on the Blogstitute, author Lee Ann Tysseling talks about how picking the right books for the right readers, as well using the appropriate digital tools, can enhance vocabulary instruction. Lee Ann is the author of Word Travelers: Using Digital Tools to Explore Vocabulary and Develop Independent Learners.

I’m celebrating the successes that we’ve had this spring in comprehension, vocabulary, and improving student motivation to read. I’ve just sent our spring crop of Literacy Lab participants out the door. (Literacy Lab is the tutoring service provided by teachers enrolled in reading diagnosis and intervention courses at my university.) This spring the majority of students we saw had significant comprehension difficulties despite good oral reading accuracy. Most also claimed that they did not like to read. I expect this pattern is a side-effect of our state’s assessment system, which emphasizes words correct per minute in the primary grades. We achieved solid success with most of these students by finding the right book, working on vocabulary that the students chose, and introducing some attractive technology.

As we face the Common Core State Standards, I am paying more attention to book selection. Many teachers are reporting that they are being directed away from children’s or young adult literature because it isn’t “complex” enough. My personal experience is that we need to begin with the students’ interests and build from there. The students who come to Literacy Lab reinforce this stance. One sixth grader, Stephen (a pseudonym), finished reading an entire novel for the first time in his school career. His teacher helped him become engaged with Gary Paulsen’s book Hatchet by appealing to Stephen’s personal interest in becoming a pilot. One high school junior, Peter, was wildly enthusiastic about an essay from The Best American Nonrequired Reading collection about the effects of a police reality show and political forces that led to the death of a child. Peter had set a goal to begin working on his college-level reading skills and selected the essay himself from the table of contents. Our resistant ninth grader, Maxine, reread Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games—her English teacher was teaching the book to the entire class. Maxine was delighted to read the chapters again, in part because in the classroom she had trouble paying attention to the reading. Her class was reading most of the book aloud due to a shortage of books. Maxine, still in contact with her Literacy Lab teacher, has now finished the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire. In each of these cases our Literacy Lab students discovered they could be readers and enjoy reading for their own personal interests and enjoyment. I believe a big part of this happened by focusing on self-directed comprehension strategies, working on vocabulary, and finding books that appealed to their interests.

Instruction for these students included vocabulary study using digital vocabulary resources. Thinking about Maxine’s reaction to Visual Thesaurus still makes me smile. She loved the format and dove into researching what this dictionary had to say about words related to her passion, Justin Bieber. She was disappointed that they didn’t really define his name, but she learned quite a bit about many other words related to this musician. We did have to encourage her a bit to use the app as a tool while reading The Hunger Games. Maxine was quite firm in letting us know she had already studied the vocabulary during her English class at school. As we begin using the Reciprocal Teaching or prediction log strategies with her, she began to uncover the bits of the book that she had not understood as her class read it and completed assignments. I recognized many of these comprehension problems as being related to vocabulary knowledge. As she and her Literacy Lab teacher worked together, Maxine learned to own the parts that challenged her. When we first began working with her, Maxine systematically covered up anything that she didn’t understand. I think that, many times, she did not even really recognize these lapses. In her mind, as long as she could say a word, she had done her work as a reader. Combined with the reading strategies, this attention to vocabulary resulted in very satisfying gains in comprehension of other materials.

Another of our Literacy Lab students, Arnold, loved both Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik. He used both regularly as he read Jaguar by Roland Smith. Arnold’s primary need was spelling. By encouraging Arnold to find interesting words in Jaguar and look them up on the Visual Thesaurus or Wordnik sites, his teacher was able to create a positive response to word study. Arnold was reluctant about working on spelling; he much preferred reading fantasy books. By finding a realistic fiction book that engaged him, combined with the technology draw of Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, the teacher was able to pull him into word study—including spelling development.

We saw similar improvements in engagement and comprehension with two seventh-grade girls whom I would classify as “hostile readers.” Both were failing most of their classes and did not participate in their reading class (often spending much of the class time looking around the room or at their fingernails). I often had to grind my teeth as the Literacy Lab teacher used Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard with one of the girls, Serena. (I take issue with the commercialism and emphasis on name-brand designer clothing and accessories in this series.) But it worked!  Serena came to her tutoring sessions each week eager to open the book and start reading. Serena was a devoted follower of the television series and was amazed by how different the books were from the shows she had been watching. The other seventh grader enjoyed Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters by Gail Giles—a book that I enjoyed rereading as I responded to lesson plans. Both girls found that uncovering their own words for vocabulary study and the use of their Literacy Lab teacher’s cell phone dictionary helped them understand their reading and develop an interest in words (the Internet access at this site did not permit the use of mobile devices or computers). The vocabulary study combined with the use of student-directed comprehension strategies, such as prediction logs and comparison charts, paid great dividends in both comprehension and interest in reading.

Vocabulary study in our Literacy Lab always includes words that our students select from their reading. In some cases the words they choose are unfamiliar to them. Other students like to collect interesting words. This spring, in addition to using Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, our students have also enjoyed Free Rice,, and the Moleskine app for iPads. The iPads we were using came with this app preloaded. If I were setting up my own iPad I would use Evernote instead. Both of these apps can also be replaced with a simple word study notebook. However, our Literacy Lab students’ eyes light up when we offer these technologies instead of the composition notebooks we have used in the past.

We had great success with other digital vocabulary resources as well. Storybird continues to be a favorite. Once we introduce this website to our students and their families, quite often they return to the next session having written a story or two. We are also beginning to experiment with Haiku Deck as a writing resource. Our literacy learners are motivated by the “eye candy” available on these sites and also are scaffolded in their writing by having some of the plot, setting, or character development eased so that they can focus on writing fluency—getting words and sentences out.

As you take some time off this summer and read a few good books, you might consider exploring some of these digital resources yourself. If you need reading ideas, you can follow my book blog at

Check out last week’s blog post on a similar topic and then leave a comment this week to win a free Stenhouse book! This week’s winner is Dana. Receive 20% off on your order of any Stenhouse book by visiting the Stenhouse website or calling 800-988-9812.

6 comments July 31st, 2013

Blogstitute Week 6: Capture student thinking and learning with a classroom blog

If you’ve been thinking about starting a classroom blog, but wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, then this week’s post is for you. Carol Bedard and Charles Fuhrken, the authors of When Writing with Technology Matters, share some of the reasons teachers might want to consider starting a classroom blog in their literacy classrooms.

Traditionally in literacy classrooms, students participate in literature circles to share their thinking about the books they are reading; they might also respond in journals to capture their ideas and express their puzzlements. Setting up a classroom blog can add to these experiences in a number of ways:

  • A blog gives students a wider audience. Two literature groups reading the same text can share and compare their thinking. All students, regardless of their text selection, can read the blog to see what’s happening in other literature circles.
  • A blog affords students more “think time” than is possible in face-to-face discussions.
  • A blog makes students’ thinking public, which tends to cause the bloggers to be purposeful and thoughtful about their ideas and opinions before (and while) putting them in writing.
  • A blog invites all students to share; no “talk hogs” are allowed, and no one is silenced—not even introverted students.
  • A blog is open 24/7; students are not restricted by classroom schedules, because bloggers need not respond at a particular time of day or a particular pace.

Given this kind of space, students can take their responses in a number of directions. What we found is that, although the writing in students’ journals sometimes consists only of recording major plot events, the students’ blog postings began shifting toward sharing deeper and more personal connections as well as showing higher-order thinking. For example, a student named Marie, deeply invested in the lives of the characters in her book, had an emotional reaction when one of the characters died:

Gregor the Overlander is kind of sad, but it’s cool. I wonder why a good character had to die!!! (I cried a lot when a good “thing” died.) You should read it. Get your tissues ready!!!

Another student, Caleb, after discussing Lunch Money with his literature circle group, decided to continue his “review” of the novel later that day. At 7:00 p.m., Caleb signed on to the class blog to write the following:

I read Lunch Money and I think it is even better than Frindle! The story is solid, like all of his books. The thing that separates it from his other books is the way the characters are. My rating is Story: 10/10 Characters: 10/10 Art: 8/10 Drama: 6/10 Overall:  9/10.

In this post, Caleb showed evaluative thinking by making a judgment: Lunch Money is better than Frindle. He also drew on the features of a movie review to rate some of the story elements. (Author Andrew Clements should be pleased with a 9—Caleb was a notoriously tough critic.) Students who came across Caleb’s post saw a new way of thinking about and responding to books that they could incorporate into their own blog postings.

The blog can be a tool for students to utilize with any number of assignments and projects in a literacy classroom, not just for responding to literature. During a moviemaking project, elementary students went to the blog to ask peers for help with ideas, to report their progress, to plan next steps, and, yes, even to blow off some steam. Alonso was feeling the pressure of creating “something awesome” that would soon be shown not only in front of his peers but also to family and friends:

We’re barely on the second & third scene with making props, and we’re practically all over the place doing all sorts of stuff. I only slept 4 like, 3 HOURS and NO MORE.

As the day of the movie premiere approached, the blog once again united the community of learners—scores of bloggers related to Alonso’s anxiety and expressed their own last-minute jitters.

The blog, though, is not just for students. Blogs are a rich data source for teachers to mine. Teachers can assess acquisition of academic language, content knowledge, readership, writing styles and conventions, and student interest and engagement, for starters. How often do teachers really have access to what students are thinking?

The elementary students learning about moviemaking told teachers plainly—via the blog—what they were learning. This is what Leslie had to say one day:

Today we’re doing scriptwriting and at first it was easy but then it got hard. Now I understand that the more details you put in the story the better it is!

Leslie’s words—“Now I understand”—unmistakably indicated that she believed she had gained an important insight into what makes writing good. She had discovered, in working with her group on their movie, that more details make a story better.

Julian also reflected on what he was learning and, in doing so, showcased his acquisition of academic vocabulary:

Today we finished the narrative and now we are doing a storyboard. In storyboarding we are doing a picture and we are writing the most important parts of the movie we’re going to do. We start at the rising action, then we go to the climax, then we go to the falling action. That’s the last part.

Julian competently related the important parts of story structure—first rising action, then climax—and even clarified for his peers that falling action is “the last part.”  From reading this post, the teacher knows that his or her lesson that day about using a storyboard to capture the story structure stuck with Julian.

What students reveal they have learned—or not learned—can inform teachers’ instructional planning in the future. The blog becomes a record of students’ thinking, and, over time, the pages tell the story of how their thinking and learning have evolved. Because a blog steps up the level of access that is afforded, teachers can sweep in at any time and see what’s on students’ minds. With close inspection, they can be witnesses to new understandings, lightbulb moments, and valued feelings.

Just imagine, over the course of a year, the amount of writing that students would do on a blog.


Charles Fuhrken and Carol Bedard are the authors of When Writing with Technology Matters. You can buy their book — or any other Stenhouse book — 20% off when you use code BLOG on the Stenhouse website. This week’s winner of a free book is Gloria Wilson. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a free Stenhouse book of your choice!

12 comments July 24th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 5: Schoolwide vocabulary instruction

Authors photoIn this week’s Blogstitute post the authors of Word Nerds (Leslie Montgomery, Brenda Overturf, and Margot Holmes Smith) expand their vision of vocabulary instruction and share why they think the entire school needs to be involved in vocabulary development. “Though we are excited about the success stories our colleagues have shared with us about their students’ improvements in reading, we think another payoff is the sense of community that schoolwide vocabulary has created within the entire school building.”

Sometimes a good idea spreads like wildfire. Other times, it smolders until it catches on. When we wrote Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary, we described instruction in our own classrooms. One of the things we learned when working on the book is that many students, especially those growing up in poverty and students learning English, benefit from a schoolwide focus on vocabulary instruction. Our school has made that transition—vocabulary instruction has extended to a schoolwide plan that includes kindergarten through grade five. However, whole-school vocabulary development didn’t happen overnight.

Our own initial venture into strategic vocabulary instruction began several years ago with a simple thought: “We have taught this content for the past several weeks. We don’t understand why our students continue to struggle on assessments. We know that they know it. What could possibly be holding them back?”

This question was something that we (Margot and Leslie) pondered as we reflected on our first year of teaching. After attending a workshop on vocabulary development, we suddenly realized that inadequate knowledge of academic vocabulary might be one reason our students were struggling. We immediately took the information and created a strategic vocabulary plan to fit our students and the way they learn. We hit the ground running that following school year by implementing our new vocabulary plan.

During our second year of teaching we were fortunate enough to be on the same team, which made implementing our vocabulary plan much easier. Throughout that year we were able to choose the words to teach, create materials together, and bounce ideas off of each other—a real team effort. Our literacy professor (Brenda) began to visit our classrooms and played an integral role in helping to improve our vocabulary instruction and practices. Not only did she help us develop new ideas based on research, but she also provided an outside perspective about what we were doing and helped us to reflect on our instruction and to know if the students are truly achieving. As the year progressed, we began to notice an increase not only in our students’ vocabulary knowledge but also in their comprehension and fluency. Our students’ reading levels began to improve tremendously, and they were also experiencing better success rates with their performance on school, local, and state assessments. As we reflected on our second year of teaching, we felt much more confident about the way that we had taught vocabulary and reading versus our first year. We definitely were aware that our work was still cut out for us, but the academic and personal gains that we saw for our students gave us the fuel we needed to continue with this plan.

As we entered our third school year, a few other teachers in our building were intrigued and began to join us on this vocabulary journey. Many of these teachers began to experience some of the same successes with their students that we had experienced. However, other teachers were not yet convinced. When we were asked by our principal to formally present our vocabulary plan to the rest of the faculty, we tried to help our colleagues see the benefits not only for the students but for themselves as well. For example, we shared how helping students learn to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words engages them in deeper discussions about texts, which in turn helps teachers increase their level of questioning in order to help students engage in these types of discussions.

As we continued to implement and refine our vocabulary plan and support other teachers, more of our colleagues began to adopt the plan and became excited about the possibilities. The idea of schoolwide vocabulary instruction began to glow! We were asked to help other teachers adapt strategic vocabulary instruction for their students, especially in the primary grades. The kindergarten teachers were apprehensive at first because our vocabulary plan was definitely much different than the way they had previously taught words, and it was hard for them to picture their students engaging in this type of instruction. Yet they were convinced when they saw how proud their students were when they learned new words. Kindergarten teachers now tell us they have just as much fun teaching vocabulary as the kids have learning new words! And a second-grade teacher recently admitted that she doesn’t really like change and then thanked us for being patient as we helped her implement strategic vocabulary instruction in her classroom. The success of her students has convinced her that this is the right path to take.

The idea of schoolwide vocabulary development has now really caught fire, and it has become an accepted practice at our school that students in every class will engage in active instruction to learn new words. Though we are excited about the success stories our colleagues have shared with us about their students’ improvements in reading, we think another payoff is the sense of community that schoolwide vocabulary has created within the entire school building. Students feel safe to use new words that they have learned in their conversations with peers, teachers, and other staff members. They also enjoy having a routine for learning new words and now know that they can expect to learn vocabulary in a similar way from grade to grade. Teachers have grown more confident in their abilities to teach vocabulary and have shared new ideas that they have tried in their classrooms. We truly believe that a schoolwide vocabulary plan has sparked stronger relationships among our school community, as well as increased word confidence at every grade.

Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith are the authors of Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary. You can get 20% off your order if you buy the book on the Stenhouse website with coupon code BLOG. This week’s winner of a free book is Ariel Glasman. Make sure to leave a comment this week for a chance to win a free book!

11 comments July 17th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 4: Lee Ann Spillane on getting fearless with technology

Welcome back to another great post in our 2013 Summer Blogstitute series, this time from Lee Ann Spillane who admits that at one time she was afraid of “breaking the computer” while playing around with technology. The good new is, you can’t really break the computer. In this post Lee Ann shares some ideas for using the summer as your time to explore technology and how you can use it in your classroom.

Summer’s golden hours are here. I am going to spend my diamond minutes lavishly learning what I want to learn. To prepare for summer and the extravagance of time, I stockpile books to read, bookmark tutorials, browse Pinterest, and gather supplies. This summer I’m considering moving my classroom web page. The software I’ve been using to create it keeps crashing, and I want to shift from a static page to a page students can create with me. My students and I have been able to collaborate in our Bear English Ning space, but it’s getting expensive. I know a wiki would allow me to cocreate resources with students, but I’m not sure it will satisfy my design desires. I have a lot to learn, and I’m excited about the adventure ahead.

There was a time, though, when I hesitated. I was afraid I’d mess up the computer. I didn’t want to break it, so I didn’t play around too much.

Making It Work: Getting Beyond “I’m Afraid I’ll Break It”

11-diamond_minutesCleaning up my computer’s desktop one day, I right-clicked on the recycle bin. Right-click. Delete. I did it without thinking. I wanted to empty the recycle bin and free up some memory. Instead I deleted the entire recycle bin. It disappeared from my desktop. Once I realized what I had done, I was frustrated. How do you resurrect a recycle bin? I couldn’t just do without one, so I Googled a solution and found an answer on a discussion board. I followed the steps and replaced my recycle bin on my desktop, no harm done. Mistakes happen.

When I first started learning how to use the computer, I was nervous. Scared to break an expensive machine, I would freeze or sometimes avoid a task if I wasn’t sure which programs to use or how to use them. I was so afraid of breaking the computer that I couldn’t learn. Eventually, I realized that unless I threw the computer out the window or on the floor, my fumbling around in programs wasn’t going to break the machine. That freed me. To learn new technologies or tools, we have to set aside our fears—we have to be willing to try things, seek solutions, test, and ask for help. We have to play. We will make mistakes. We will probably delete things we shouldn’t. Failure is part of learning. Getting lost in the new landscape will happen. Reframe your thinking and let yourself explore.

It’s About the Teaching, Not the Tool

Integrating technology into your instructional routines changes teaching and learning. Technology fundamentally changes what we can do in the classroom. Innovating technology changes how you teach. Using a document camera and a laptop makes sharing or publishing student work immediate and accessible. Imagine crafting a mini-lesson on effective transitions between ideas in a personal essay using a draft a student has written just moments before. Or creating and publishing a short video to review a skill or concept students need, in under five minutes in the middle of class. That kind of teaching—the kind of teaching that assesses and adjusts to students’ needs in the midst of learning—becomes much easier through the use of technology. Be innovative. Figure out ways to empower yourself and your students.

Try One Thing

Set a goal and mark a course to a new place. My family is about to head out on a long road trip. We’ve updated the GPS. We have smartphone backup and maps packed. We want to learn how to geocache. My twelve-year-old is bringing a handheld GPS to use on the trip. Inspired by Hank Green, my son is looking forward to some fun. Learning is part of that fun. He could use a geocaching app on his iTouch or on a retired iPhone we inherited, but he wants to use the handheld. He and my husband are planning to learn how to use it while we drive north. They’re not afraid to break the tool; they’re excited to find the treasure—a hidden cache they can add to and log.

When my students reflected on our year together, they wrote about lessons learned. I wrote about their reflections here. On the exam, I asked students to write about one lesson they learned when using technology this year. Some wrote about royalty-free images, some about help videos I posted online, some about writing publicly on their blogs. Many wrote about the difference Google Drive made in their academic lives. My school is on the cusp of Title I classification. More than seventy percent of our students receive free and or reduced lunch benefits. Not one of my students came to my class knowing how to create, edit, save, or print documents (or presentations or spreadsheets or . . .) using Google Drive. Many did not have printers at home, and flash drives were often shared among friends. I am continually amazed at what students do not know, but my students don’t need amazement or complaint. Students need us to act, to teach. We all need different lessons. Using Google Drive—formerly Google documents—seemed so yesterday. Not to my students. Maybe not to you either.

Learning new tools or technologies is a road trip—some are planned, some spontaneous. When I want to learn, I set a goal, a destination. To get there, I explore and follow the road signs—bookmarking tutorials, attending trainings, or downloading podcasts that explain processes I want to learn. I learn the landscape and take note of the landmarks.

As you learn this summer, don’t worry about getting lost. Enjoy the learning along the way.

Lee Ann Spillane is the author of the Read & Watch book Reading Amplified.
Last week’s winner of a free book is Jenny. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a free Stenhouse book! Also, you can use code BLOG on the Stenhouse website to receive 20% off and free shipping on your order.

12 comments July 10th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 3: Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan on creating a culture of meaningful assessment

At the end of each year we take time to reflect on the things that went well and the things that we want to change the following year. This reflection helps us think about the classroom community we want to establish in the year ahead and prepare for implementing these changes in the first six weeks of school. We find the first six weeks of school to be pivotal in creating the systems and structures that will support our instructional models all year. We establish the culture and climate for our classroom community. In Reading with Meaning, Debbie Miller says, “When our vision of community expands to create a culture and climate for thinking (Perkins 1993)—when rigor, inquiry, and intimacy become key components of our definition—it’s essential that we work first to build genuine relationships, establish mutual trust, and create working literate environments” (2013, 21). We believe we need to use these first six weeks to set the tone for assessment in our classrooms. Assessment is key to rigor and inquiry, and it can only be used productively if it is part of a trusting, authentic, literate environment. Assessment needs to part of this vision of community. How do we define assessment for our students so that they do not see it as evaluative? How do we help students understand their role in the process of assessment? How do we show students that we believe that assessment is inseparable from instruction?

For us, the first step is taking the time to think about why we assess and how we view the role of assessment in our classroom community. We think it is important to share these reasons with our students so they know why we are assessing and how this process will help us as teachers and them as learners. We assess for a variety of reasons: to establish a beginning benchmark for each student; to identify students who may need additional support in reading; to understand the strengths and learning needs of our readers; to learn about the passions, interests, and frustrations of our readers; and to plan whole-class, small-group, and individual instruction. For us, assessment is more than a number. It is the information we need to get to know our readers and to create a climate of learning that will engage each of them.

In the past, we did not “go public” with our beliefs around assessment with our students. In fact, we may have even tried to sneak the assessments in, hoping not to stress our students out. This ran contrary to how we established all other aspects of our learning community in the first six weeks of school. Now we open the dialogue about assessment right away and establish a different tone. We take the time to listen to our students’ thoughts and questions about the assessment process. This gives us the opportunity to discuss their past experiences with the assessment process, clear up any misconceptions, and alleviate any worries they may have. We hope that by listening and talking with our readers, we will help them understand their role in assessment and the importance of the insightful information they share with us.

As we sit down with students to begin administering an assessment, we pay attention to their questions, comments, and even body language (shoulder shrugs, mumbled answers, or silent stares) to learn how they are feeling about the process. When we ask them about their thoughts on assessment, we hear a range of responses:

Why are we doing this?

I already know all of this.

Why did I have to leave the block area?

Why doesn’t Suzy have to do this?

Are you going to do this with everyone?

What is the timer for?

When will I be done?

What are you writing?

We think it is important to let the students know what they will be doing during the assessment and why they will be doing these things:

We are going to work together for the next twenty minutes so that I can get to know you a little better as a reader. You will read a text aloud, and then we will talk about the text and you will write about it. When you are reading, I will be listening to help determine some good next steps for you.

This assessment will help me support you in choosing books that will be interesting and will help you meet your goals. I will be taking notes during this process so that I can remember the things you share with me and the things I notice about you as a reader. This assessment isn’t about you getting things right or wrong. It is about us working together to figure out our jobs: my job as a teacher and your job as a learner.

After we are done I am going to ask you what you think would help you as a reader. We will look at the assessment together and choose some goals for us to work on together. Are you ready to begin?

Assessment is the heart of our instruction. We need our students to understand that assessment is more than one test or a few formal cycles per year. Assessment is what happens every day when we listen to our students and watch them as they learn. Peter Johnston reminds us that “Formative assessment isn’t only the teacher’s responsibility . . . [h]owever, it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the students know how and are disposed to take up their responsibilities for formative assessment” (2012, 49–50). When we include the role of assessment in our culture of thinking and learning, our students understand why we are assessing and how it will help them set goals and grow as readers.


Johnston, Peter. 2012. Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Miller, Debbie. 2013. Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. 2nd edition. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Tammy and Clare are the authors of Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question. Last week’s winner of a free book is Lori Napier.

14 comments July 2nd, 2013

Blogstitute Week 2: Erik Palmer on practicing speech

Do you ever ask to hear the rough draft?

Yes, you read that correctly. I want to hear my students’ rough drafts. Every day, students are speaking in class. Often, teachers assign some talks with higher stakes than the daily discussions, answers of questions, and the like. We assign the quarterly book report in front of the entire class, the biography project final where students dress up as some historical figure, the report on smoking’s effects in health class, the presentation of the science project, the participation in a mock Congressional hearing, the talk at the DECA competition, and many more. At all grade levels in all subjects, at some point students will be giving a talk to a group. Before we expose the audience of students and/or parents and/or judges to these talks, we need to make sure that the talk is ready for prime time. I tell students to practice several times before presentation day, but occasionally some students do not in fact practice. I am sure this is just an issue I face, and you never have this problem. To avoid that problem, though, I want to hear the rough draft before my students give the final talk. I ask students to send me the rough draft of their talk so I can listen to it and offer advice. Do you ever do that?

Checking the rough draft is common for many writing assignments. The cynical among us may suggest checking the rough draft as a way to make sure students are doing the work they are supposed to be doing. The fear that the paper may not be started until the evening before the six-week assignment is due is real. Less cynical teachers may look at the rough draft as a formative assessment. Discovering mistakes and giving feedback before the final paper is due is more valuable than writing comments on the finished paper. For both reasons, I always asked students to do a rough draft before they handed in a major writing assignment. I collected and commented on the drafts and warned students that I would get quite miffed if those comments were ignored. I want the same thinking to apply to oral assignments—but with a twist. Don’t have students hand in a paper with the words they are planning on saying; require a recording of the talk instead.

There are many ways to record the rough draft. All of them contribute to preparation for the Common Core State Standards, by the way. Speaking standard 5 requires students to use multimedia in presentations. Beginning in second grade, students are expected to make audio recordings of talks; by fifth grade, students should be including multimedia components in presentations. This requirement is probably more daunting to teachers than to students. Far more of them than you realize are already quite adept at various ways of recording and posting audio and video. Today, I want to share some of the simpler ways we can record, and show you how to use digital tools to practice talks. Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse, 2012) is the source for those wanting to do more.

Every computer/netbook/tablet has built-in audio and video recording. PCs have some version of a webcam—the Dell computer I am using now opens a video recorder by accessing “Dell Webcam Central”— and your students will have no trouble finding it. If students have a computer at home, they can record themselves and attach the movie to an e-mail to send to you. If you have one computer in your class, students can take turns making videos of their rough drafts and leave the files on the desktop of that computer for you to check later. PCs also have Sound Recorder. Windows puts an “Accessories” folder on every PC. It contains a calculator, a snipping tool that allows you take screenshots, and Sound Recorder, among other things. Double-click on Sound Recorder, and a small box appears on the desktop. The red button labeled “Start Recording” couldn’t be more obvious. The blue “Stop Recording” button is impossible to miss, too. As soon as you stop, a screen opens and gives you the option to name and save the recording: “Muffin’s rough draft,” for example. Students who record at home can attach the file to an e-mail to you. Students using the class computer can leave the file on the desktop.

Devices using a Mac operating system have Photo Booth built in. Click on the icon on the dock, and you are ready to record. One option allows you to take a snapshot, but we care about the option that lets you record video. One click and—after a “3-2-1” countdown—you are recording. The recording is automatically saved. More tech-savvy kids may use GarageBand, also on the dock of every Mac device. It is a bit trickier to use, but if they know how, let them use it.

I read that 80% of high school students have smartphones. I downloaded a free app (Easy Voice Recorder) for my phone after a student of mine did a favor for me. I asked him to record something for Digitally Speaking, thinking he would go home to his computer and use a tool I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Instead, he pulled out his phone, spoke, hit a button, and e-mailed me the recording. It’s in the book. Ask students to send you a spoken rough draft, and they will have ways to do it that we don’t know about. That’s fine with me. I just want to hear the practices.

Can your students get to the Internet at home or at school? Visit There’s no sign-up, no password, no cost—the home page has a big red button that starts the audio recording. When students finish, they can “Listen” to the recording. If the recording is not good enough, they can hit “Retry”; if they like it, they can copy the URL address to send to other listeners or hit a button that lets them e-mail the recording to someone . . . a teacher, for instance.

Think of the possibilities. Students can watch/listen to the recordings, critique themselves using a PVLEGS rubric, make adjustments, and improve. Audio and video can be shared in a group: each group member shows his or her rough draft and gets feedback from other group members. Recordings can be viewed by a teacher who can give important tips to improve a presentation before the due date. A Reader’s Theater team could record parts and send them to teammates as a way to improve before performing the book selection in class. The Poetry Café presenters can listen to themselves before getting up in front of classmates and parents. The recordings of a “This I Believe” speech could be useful formative assessments on the way to the final talk. And, of course, you have your own great ideas.

Why wouldn’t you want to do this? Improving speaking skills, avoiding dull presentations, updating instruction, and meeting Common Core State Standards can all be accomplished by asking to hear the rough drafts.

Erik is the author of Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology and Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students.

Check out last week’s post by Debbie Miller and don’t forget to leave a comment. Last week’s winner of a free book is Katie Whisner. 

26 comments June 26th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 1: Debbie Miller on letting kids “dig in”

A few reminders as we kick off our third annual Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute: A new post will appear every Wednesday morning for the next 9 weeks. No need to register or sign up, just return to this space for your weekly online learning. Visit and comment every week — we will raffle off a free Stenhouse book each week. Use code BLOG on the Stenhouse website to receive 20% off your purchase during the Blogstitute.

Ready? Here we go….

Planning with kids in mind

In Reading with Meaning (2013) I identified ten principles and practices that guide me in my daily work with children. Let’s take a closer look at this one:

Because I believe children need time to practice what I’m working so hard to teach them . . . every day you’ll see them engaged in workshops with a one-third/two-thirds balance of time: one-third of the time for me to teach and two-thirds of the time for them to work.

It’s easy to understand why things can morph into just the opposite, with two-thirds of the time for teaching and only one-third of the time for kids to have at it. Our job, after all, is to teach, and children have so much to learn! But when we over-scaffold children—when we model over and over and over again—we diminish student engagement, curiosity, agency, and independence. We also increase student conformity and compliance.

Instead of teachers doing all of the work, shouldn’t kids be the ones digging in, working hard, and figuring things out? Shouldn’t they be the ones who are growing as readers and getting smarter?

When we’re committed to workshops where students are the ones doing most of the reading, writing, and talking, what does this mean for planning? How do we go about it? These five big ideas guide me (see the planning guide that follows).

Planning Guide


So, what do you notice?

It used to be that, once I’d determined the focus of children’s reading work for the following day, I’d spend most of my time planning the lesson. I’d find that “just right” book, figure out where I’d think aloud and what I’d say, and identify places where I’d ask children to talk with each other about something specific.

Nothing wrong there—but here’s the shift: Now, once I identify our learning target, I no longer dive into planning the mini-lesson. Instead, I plan what students will do during work time to grow as readers and get smarter. What will they read, write, and talk about? How can I engage them so that they will be able to increase their stamina and sense of agency, independence, and grit? How will they demonstrate their understanding of the learning target?

Once I know what kids will be doing during their work time, planning the lesson falls right into place. I ask myself the following questions:

*What will students need most from me in order to do their best during the work time?

*How will I show them?

*What resources will I need?

To get a glimpse of how this might look in the classroom, take a look at the planning circle that follows. This lesson was for a group of first graders who were working on asking questions in their reading.

Planning Circle


I also regularly use a matching assessment to help keep track of student learning.

Matching Assessment


There are two parts to this matching assessment:

  1. Children record their questions on sticky notes as they read.
  2. Near the end of the workshop, children simply transfer their questions from their books to the think sheet. (This way I can spread their think sheets out, take a look, identify who is doing—and not doing—what, and consider implications for the next day’s teaching and learning).

There is no doubt that conferring is the most important way to find out where kids are and what they need. Let’s say that, on a really good day, we’re able to confer with four or five children. That’s significant, but what about the fifteen or so others? Assessments like this one give us at least some information about where the other fifteen children are when it comes to the learning target, helping us plan effectively for the next day. And that helps ensure that no child falls through the cracks.

54 comments June 20th, 2013

Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute 2013 coming soon!

PrintI know school has just ended or is in the midst of winding down for all of you. I know you are exhausted. I know you just want to sit by the pool/park/beach/backyard and think about… well, nothing.

But summer is short and while you are sitting by the pool/park/beach/backyard, you can also take care of your summer PD reading right here on the Stenhouse Blog. Our Summer Blogstitute kicks off June 20 and will continue for 9 weeks — all the way through mid-August. Each week we’ll bring you a short video and an article by some of our best and newest authors:

Debbie Miller
Charles Fuhrken and Carol Bedard
Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan
Erik Palmer
Lee Ann Spillane
Steven Wolk
Marcia Edson
Lee Ann Tysseling
Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith

This is a great time to revisit our Blogstitute from last year and also to think about how you are going to use the awesome discount of 20% off and free shipping to stock up on PD books. Just use code BLOG starting now through the end of the Blogstitute.

We are looking forward to another summer of great — and short and sweet! — PD reading. I hope you will read along with us, ask questions, and share your thoughts in the comments section after each article. We are going to select a winner each week from the comments who will receive a free Stenhouse book.

See you June 20!

10 comments June 5th, 2013

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