Welcome to Read – Write – Connect, Inc.

the Internet home of Leah Mermelstein.

Best Writing consultant 002 copyLeah is an internationally recognized literacy consultant who specializes in K-5 Reading and Writing Workshop. She is the President and CEO of Read-Write-Connect, INC. She is also the author of Reading/​​Writing Connections in the K-2 Classroom, (Allyn & Bacon), Don’t Forget to Share (Heinemann) and the co-author of Launching the Writing Workshop (with Lucy Calkins) (Heinemann).


Selected Works

DVD

Quality Writing Instruction
This brand new DVD will assist teachers with high quality writing instruction.

Non-fiction

Don’t Forget to Share: The Crucial Last Step in the Writing Workshop
This brand new book will show you how to make your share sessions more instructional.

Nonfiction

Reading/Writing Connections in the K-2 Classroom: Find the Clarity and Then Blur the Lines
This book demonstrates how through careful, explicit assessing, planning, and teaching every student can understand and use the reading/writing connection to become stronger readers and writers at the same time.

Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum: Launching the Writing Workshop
This book shows teachers how to launch a joyful and rigorous Writing Workshop in their classrooms.

QUICK LINKS

E-mail the author

Authors Guild

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Leah Mermelstein
536 Grand Street, Ste. 501,
Hoboken, NJ 07030
(917) 503-1947

leahmermelstein@earthlink.net

1Leah best writing consultant 1.4 copy

Blog Posts are Below:

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Balancing Planning and Listening

 

Happy school year to some and almost new school year to others!

 

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between two vital parts of teaching:

1.  Creating thoughtful plans for a year, a month and a day of teaching

2.  Conducting daily assessments of your kids and then using these assessments to teach in a more organic/less planned out way.

What have I learned? In a nutshell, it’s hard to find the right balance between these two vital parts of being a good teacher.

Planning for a reading and writing workshop is essential.  I find that when teachers don’t do any long term planning they have a difficult time knowing where they are going and/or reaching any sort of agreed upon outcomes.  Planning is especially important now for many of my schools because they are  trying to align their unit plans with the Common Core Standards.  On the other hand, even when you have a cohesive plan you don’t really  (or you shouldn’t) know what you’ll be teaching in reading and writing workshop on any given day because what kids say or do in your classroom will reveal understandings and confusions that may not be included in your already existing plan.

 

I have found that when teachers teach from a plan that is too scripted they often forget to watch their kids and they are less aware of what their students are learning or not learning. Even if they do notice confusions or understandings, at times they’re more focused on ‘getting through the planned lessons’ than addressing what they see.

 

 

It really is so hard to find the right balance!

I learned firsthand how difficult finding this was a few years while I was working with Millie’s first grade classroom. Millie and I had carefully created a plan for her small moment unit of study. We had not only planned out every lesson for every day, but we had also planned our exact methods for how we would teach each lesson.  On that particular day I had done a lesson off our plan on how good writers think about what part of the story is important and add more to that page. Even though the lesson was very clear, many kids still seemed confused and didn’t know what else to say about the important part. When I conferred with Angus things got even more frustrating. Angus told me that the most important part of his story was when he collected shells on the beach with his mom.  When I tried to get Angus to add more to that important page, he point blank told me no. I kept repeating the teaching point from the lesson over and over again and he kept telling me I was wrong.  Finally, when I stopped trying to keep to my plan and listened to him he told me that he didn’t need to add more to the ‘collecting shells’ page.  Rather, he needed to add another page to the end of his story because at the end of the day he took all of the shells he had found on the beach home with him.  What I realized from listening to him was that he was right. He didn’t need to add more to the shell page. He could show that collecting the shells was important by ending his book with taking the shells home.

 

 

 

I realized from our interaction that adding more about the important part was more complicated than my writing lesson had suggested.  I couldn’t have planned for that. I could only figure that out by working with students and listening to what they said.

Thankfully, I took a detour from the carefully laid out plan and did a few more days on how to add more to the important parts of your story—one of those lessons being that you can circle back to the important part at the end and I used Angus’s small moment story to teach that.

There you see it…the tension between planning and listening. I had a plan for my small moment unit that looked good on paper but that plan was not enough to grow my students as writers. I had to listen to my students and realize that what I had planned was inappropriate and not enough for many of them and certainly much more complicated than I had originally thought.

As we enter into another exciting school year, I want to offer four tips on how to create unit plans and organize your class for writing and reading, while at the same time watching and listening to your students.

1.  Plan some teaching ideas, but don’t over plan

When I conduct planning sessions with teachers I do not suggest a day-by-day plan nor do I suggest that you plan 28 minilessons for 28 days. Why? When planning, you might think that it will take just one day to address a particular concept. You might end up being right, but there is just as good of a chance that once you watch your kids interacting with the concept you’ll realize that they need more instruction.  You’ll want your plan to easily accommodate for that.

 

Also, just as you saw with Angus sometimes you come up with lessons that weren’t part of your original plan based upon listening to your students.

 

2. In your planning sessions, anticipate problems that might arise

 

I think it’s helpful to not just plan your minilessons, but to also think about possible pitfalls and problems. Once you’ve considered what problems might come up, you can then try to be proactive and imagine possible conferences and small group work that you could do during the study that might address these issues.

 

Will those problems definitely occur? Of course not, but if they do you have come up with ways to differentiate throughout the unit.

 

3. Plan collaboratively

 

 

Four heads is better than one head.  One of the things that has improved my teaching the most is the realization that everybody’s brain thinks differently and that everyone in a planning session has something interesting to offer. For example, I’m a very big idea person so in a planning session I can often help with that. My mind doesn’t however naturally consider details so it’s always great for me to be in a planning session with someone who does because they remind me of some of the details that I would have forgotten if I were planning on my own.

 

I also suggest that you plan reading and writing units with people that you might not typically work with.  When I worked with Lucy Calkins at the Reading and Writing Project, she always suggested that we plan and teach with unexpected people.  It’s easy to plan with only like-minded people. It’s more challenging (and usually worthwhile) to plan with people who go about things in a slightly different manner.  I live by the mantra that most teachers want to do what’s right for kids even if we disagree with what that actually is.

 

Just like it’s important to listen and learn from our students, I find that when I listen closely to people who think differently from me I usually learn something as well and it definitely enhances my unit plans

 

4. Observe your class at the start and end of Writing/Reading Workshop

Don’t forget to plan for time to watch your kids throughout the unit. I suggest that teachers begin and end their writing and reading workshop with a few minutes of just watching the kids. I let the kids know that I am not talking to them during this time but just watching how they work and how they solve their problems on their own. This careful listening and watching gives me lots of food for thought because I can see what they mastered and what confusions I still need to untangle.

 

I would love to hear from you. What types of planning do you find helpful? How do you ensure that you plan in a way that allows for flexibility and assessment?

 

Leah
Copyright, 2011

19 Responses to Balancing Planning and Listening
  1. Michelle
    August 19, 2011 | 11:22 pm

    Excellent points – illustrates one major problem with packaged curriculum units of study too.

    Teachers are lucky to have you to support them in this work because listening and planning on the go requires a good deal of knowledge and confidence.

    • Leah Mermelstein
      August 19, 2011 | 11:32 pm

      Thanks, Michelle. It’s great to hear from you!!! I agree, this can be one problem with packaged curriculum, but even packaged curriculum can work if there is an understanding that it’s a resource. People need resources but most importantly they need support as you pointed out. I think that teachers can often support each other in wonderful ways. I try really hard in my schools to ensure that teachers have time to plan and collaborate when I’m there and when I’m NOT there. Keep in touch!!!!!,

  2. Rose Chodos
    August 20, 2011 | 12:05 am

    Hi Leah,

    Your ideas on flexible planning, teacher collaboration, problem anticipation, and class observation is so important! It is a good reminder for teachers as we begin the school year.

    Something we did last year that proved useful, was placing our units of study on a calendar (pacing) so we could have an overview of how the unit could progress. This overview let us decide if the minilessons were building upon each other well, where it made sense to probe for understanding (informative feedback), and how to move forward toward end of unit assessment. We (group of teachers) met weekly to review and discuss what went well and what needed to be revised. We also had a monthly planning day to plan, gather, and review materials.

    Our team enjoyed working together and felt empowered by the collaboration!

    My best to you!
    Regards,
    Rose

    • Leah Mermelstein
      August 20, 2011 | 12:10 am

      Hi Rose,
      That sounds fantastic especially the part about meeting on a regular basis –that collaboration is sooo essential! I truly think it’s what makes or breaks unit planning! It’s great to hear from you and I hope to see you soon!
      Leah

      • Rose Chodos
        August 20, 2011 | 1:27 am

        Hope to see you soon, too! 🙂

  3. Rose Chodos
    August 20, 2011 | 12:15 am

    Hi Leah,

    Your ideas on flexible planning, teacher collaboration, problem anticipation, and class observation is so important! It is a good reminder for teachers as we begin the school year.

    Something we did last year that proved useful, was placing our units of study on a calendar (pacing) so we could have an overview of how the unit could progress (we created a preassessment to help us with planning). This overview let us decide if the minilessons were building upon each other well, where it made sense to probe for understanding (formative feedback), and how to move forward toward end of unit, and then we created a summative assessment that we compared to the preassessment. We (group of teachers) met weekly to review and discuss what went well and what needed to be revised. We also had a monthly planning day to plan, gather, and review materials.

    Our team enjoyed working together and felt empowered by the collaboration!

    My best to you!
    Regards,
    Rose

  4. Joanna Palumbo
    August 20, 2011 | 8:16 am

    While I can get very cranky with the whole “focus on the data” thing, the idea of the teacher-as-researcher in terms of planning is actually important. At PS230 we require that teachers take conference notes – the “data.” In each child’s conference notebook, we jot down what we see in the writing, what we hear the kids expressing about themselves as writers, and their struggles and what we suggest/model/teach in these situations. I love to just bring stacks of conference notebooks to grade meetings and read through them with a group of teachers researching: looking for strands that repeat, trends, change/progress, similarities (good for small group teaching)and evidence of our teaching or lack of evidence that recent minilessons have “taken hold.” The lists of minilessons we have in advance are only a scaffold for the unit – a starting point. The minilessons and small group lessons we devise during the unit, while researching with the conference notebooks and student work side-by-side, are so much more targeted…almost “custom designed” for kids. With 9 classes on a grade we find that what goes on in each room can be soooooooo different. Thank heavens we don’t insist on everyone following the planned minilessons verbatim. In one room, for instance, kids really were struggling with topics, having trouble making progress because their topic was too broad and they were overwhelming themselves. In another room kids were on topic, but there seemed to be a cluster who were having trouble really writing in sentences. Clearly what needs to happen next would be quite different in each room. My favorite question to ask teachers is “So what do you think you should teach next?” What they answer really informs me about whether they are overly dependent on the made-in-advance plan or able to teach responsively, teach into needs, teach organically. It is so cool to see teachers realizing the power they have to teach their kids instead of teaching their plan.

    • Rose Chodos
      August 20, 2011 | 12:31 pm

      Hi Joanna,

      How are your conference notebooks organized in collecting student data?

      Thanks,
      Rose

      • Joanna Palumbo
        August 20, 2011 | 6:01 pm

        Our conference notebooks are little manilla notebooks (something like 6″ by 8″) that we order in bulk. We put each kid’s name on the cover and we record reading conferences in the front and writing conferences in the back. There’s no required format: just the date, what we did with the child, sometimes running record notations in reading, or some other quick assessment, sometimes issues we notice when the child is reading/writing, sometimes listing the skills we are noticing and the skills we don’t see ot that aren’t secure. We note if we see evidenced that the child is not reading at home. If it’s small group work we write in the reason the child was chosen for the group and what was covered, and the child’s engagementand success during the lesson. The notations are narrative – the teachers quickly write as much as they can about what happened during the conference. These notebooks are all kept in a basket. The ELL teacher, the SETSS teacher, the AIS teacher, the Speech teacher are all free to study them and to also write in what they are doing. The only format requirement is date and teacher’s name for every notation. It’s such a gold-mine of information when we really try to study a child. If we see that the teacher has conferred with the child 1:1 four mornings a week in extended time, weekly during class, and that the ELL teacher has worked on the same skills and the AIS teacher has also tried to support the goals, and no improvement is seen, that is important information to have in one central place when deciding what further interventions are called for, including meeting with parents and possibly referring the child. If we notice over and over that we are writing the same things for a lot of different kids, that’s a red flag about our teaching that we need to zoom in on. For example, one Grade 1 teacher was writing in nearly every kid’s conference notebook that the students weren’t secure in reading their sight words in their books. Clearly that has word study implications for the entire class. We suggested that the teacher slow down the rate at which she was assigning new sight words (twice as many per week as some other teachers). These books are great to have at parent teacher conferences. When parents see all the writing from so many teachers on so many occasions they tend to trust more what we’re telling them.

        • Rose Chodos
          August 20, 2011 | 7:30 pm

          Thanks so much for your description! It reminds me of Sharon Taberski’s idea in her book, On Solid Ground. I am a literacy coach and I always want to know what is working for teachers and teams of teachers. Conferring notes seem to always be something that seems difficult, yet they are so important in order to really know students and plan accordingly.
          I like that they are in a central place that can be accessed by any teacher who works with the child.

  5. Leah Mermelstein
    August 20, 2011 | 11:07 am

    Hi Joanna,
    I’m so glad that you responded to my blog as the lesson I have learned from you over the years is the importance of not only making a plan, but then looking at that plan alongside your assessments of kids. Not only does that type of work help kids, but I also believe it builds teachers’ content knowledge of reading and writing workshop. Reading a more scripted plan is a very passive activity and typically teacher learning from that type of activity is minimal. Having a less fleshed out plan, and holding that alongside classroom experiences, and engaging in conversations with diverse colleagues is much more active. Not only will kids learn more when curriculum is planned this way, but so will teachers.

    I look forward to seeing you very soon!
    Leah

  6. Karen Haag
    August 20, 2011 | 7:28 pm

    The golden line for me in your blog is, “I have found that when teachers teach from a plan that is too scripted they often forget to watch their kids and they are less aware of what their students are learning or not learning.” It is really easy to keep going, eye the clock, watch the kids who are squiggling, think about what’s coming next, and forget to listen. It’s the messy part. The ambiguous part that catches us off guard. You captured that perfectly in your shell story. I think this would be a great piece to use in my PLC. Thanks for sharing ♥

  7. Leah Mermelstein
    August 20, 2011 | 7:38 pm

    Karen,
    I’m so glad that this might be helpful to you in your work. Listening and watching your kids is the messy and hard part. Messy isn’t always fun and it can stress you out but the end result is significantly higher quality teaching and learning. To me, it’s worth it. 🙂

    Have a great start to your year and I look forward to our continued conversation.
    Leah

  8. Sharon E. Davison
    August 21, 2011 | 12:51 pm

    Thanks so much for this! For me pacing is my biggest challenge. I loved your points about collaborating, balance, anticipation and the idea of observing. Teaching is just amazing and for me your post was a nice reminder to plan, but not to over plan and to reach out to others for sharing the planning to inspire collaboration.

  9. Leah Mermelstein
    August 21, 2011 | 1:05 pm

    Hi Sharon,
    I’m glad this was helpful. It feels weird at times to caution teachers against over planning since that is part of our job. I have just found that when people over plan they at times just forge ahead with their plans without noticing as much about what is going on with the kids. Also, I find if groups of people come together to talk about a plan that is too scripted, they talk more about the plan and less about the kids. It brings a less collaborative feeling to the group.

    On the other hand if there is no plan it’s hard to get anywhere. 🙂

    Finding that balance between a having a plan and listening to your kids every day–I believe —is vital and more complicated than one might think.

    Let me know how it goes for you this year1
    Leah

  10. Ronnie Katz
    August 21, 2011 | 1:14 pm

    Hi Leah, They finally did what they have been threatening for years. They cut the iteracy coaches and made them half time in each school. That means the bottom of the list had to go to the classroom. I will be teaching kindergarten in a new school and I am looking forward to some kinder ideas. Ronnie

  11. Leah Mermelstein
    August 21, 2011 | 1:22 pm

    Hi Ronnie,
    It’s great to hear from you. They are some AMAZING kindergarten teachers who read this blog and also interact on my professional Facebook page, Read-Write-Connect, INC. I will for sure try and blog about some Kindergarten topics this year, but I encourage you to ‘like’ my Facebook page Read-Write-Connect, INC and pose some questions there. You could really get a great Kindergarten conversation going.
    Best of luck …Kindergarten is ALWAYS exciting!
    Leah

  12. Regina Smoler
    August 22, 2011 | 11:56 am

    I try to practice what the yogis practice.

    Stay in the moment.

    Stay in the moment with a plan.

    Stay in the moment without a plan.

    And when I slip, my mind wanders, I’m distracted, I’m worried, I’m not doing the lesson right, I’m not where I should be….

    Pause. Breathe.

    Stay in the moment.

    Regina 🙂

    • Leah Mermelstein
      August 22, 2011 | 12:01 pm

      I love it, Regina! We can’t let a plan take us away from staying in the moment with our kids! It always amazing how real life examples often hold true for our teaching. 🙂
      I hope you had a wonderful summer and have a great start to your year.
      Leah

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