the Internet home of Leah Mermelstein.
Leah 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).
Quality Writing Instruction
This brand new DVD will assist teachers with high quality writing instruction.
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.
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.
E-mail the author
During the summer, I spend my days running week long summer courses for teachers that address both Reading and Writing Workshop. One of the things I do during these courses is to help teachers plan cohesive curriculum calendars for both reading and writing. This year, many of the teachers are asking me how to plan a curriculum calendar that takes into account the common core standards.
Next, I want to share two quick tips I give teachers during these courses.
Start with conversation: It’s often tempting, especially with all of the buzz surrounding the common core standards, to begin a planning session by looking at the common core standards and then creating a curriculum based upon them. I don’t think this is a good idea. Rather, I believe it’s important to start with conversations about what your hopes and dreams are for kids in the area of reading and writing. Once you’ve had that conversation, I would then create a curriculum calendar that reflected those beliefs. Next, I would compare the curriculum calendars you created to the common core standards. Finally, I would make revisions if there were things mentioned in the common core standards that were not reflected in your present curriculum calendars. This process works well for Reading and Writing Workshop teachers for a number of reasons. First, when teachers have a conversation and then create a curriculum calendar based upon that conversation, they often create a plan that covers many of the common core standards without even realizing it. Not only that, but I have found when teachers plan in this manner they often create a plan that exceeds what is asked for in the common core standards. I have also found that looking at the common core standards as the final step deepens the actual conversation around this document. Rather than just read the document quickly, teachers bring their prior experiences, their previous conversations and their drafted curriculum calendars to the table. All of these artifacts enables teachers to talk better about what they are already doing and how to how to integrate what’s missing.
Think Outside the Box: Many schools have asked me if they should remove poetry from their writing curriculum calendars since poetry is not part of the common core standards in writing. My answer is a resounding no. I have seen so many kids find their way into writing through poetry but I do understand the dilemma that schools are in because they are feeling the pressure to align their work with the common core standards. This is when I believe that people have to be creative and look for ‘out of the box ways’ to align important curriculum with the common core standards. As I look through the writing section of the common core standards, I see words such as description, opinion, narrative, explanatory, etc. Even though the genre of poetry isn’t mentioned, I can teach many qualities of writing such as the ones stated above through poetry. I know that I could teach a great poetry unit that excited and motivated kids, as well as aligned with the common standards
I would love to hear any tips or questions you have about planning using the common core standards.
As June rolls in, it’s a great time to reflect upon your years work in the area of reading and writing. When reflecting, we often think about what we want to improve upon in our literacy work, but it’s just as important to think about what went well with the hopes of making it even bigger in the following year. Next, I’m going to share some of what I was excited about in my work this year. I hope that all of you will use this blog to do the same. Here are my five.
1. Planning Writing Workshop Units of Study in Such a Way that Allows for Plenty of Assessment. I had such fun this year planning writing units of studies with teachers. Rather than plan in a day- to- day way, which we found didn’t work because it didn’t allow for assessment we planned by looking at writing samples and then thinking some through some goals and some possible teaching ideas based upon these samples. We then spent a lot of time continuing to look at student writing samples to anticipate the types of conferences and small groups that might occur during the unit. Although we had a solid plan for the study, we also left plenty of room in this plan to watch the kids in midst of the study and create lessons, conferences and small group work based upon what we saw.
2. Immersing Kids at the Start of a Writing Unit of Study I have always known that immersion at the start of a study is essential, but my work this year really brought that idea home. When teachers delay drafting and show kids examples of the type of genre they are going to write in before they actually write in it, their first drafts are so much stronger! Not only that, but it gives kids time to imagine, and plan for the drafts. This belief of delaying drafting through immersion has made a big shift in how I teach Writing Workshop both in the lower and upper grades.
3. Teacher Immersion This year I began a lot of planning sessions with teachers not by jumping in and planning the writing unit of study for the kids, but rather asking teachers to first study and write in the genre themselves. Although it took time, it was time well spent because the teachers then planned the writing unit of study with a much more thorough understanding of the content of that genre, as well as a sense of the strengths and challenges that accompanied writing in that genre.
4. Know a Few Texts Well This year, I noticed that not as many teachers as I would like were using mentor texts in their conferences. I realized that many of these teachers wanted to use mentor texts but just didn’t know enough about these texts to feel comfortable using them spontaneously in a conference. I spent more time than ever this year helping teachers to get to know a few texts well so that they could use them with kids in spontaneous and various ways during a writing conference.
5. Cross Grade Visitations Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to work with some amazing second grade teachers at PS 230. We went to visit the amazing first grade teachers at this same school. These first grade teachers had just finished working on 2 units of study for writing workshop that aligned with the Common Core Standards. By visiting these classrooms and looking at both the charts and the writing samples we were able to see what kids knew and had a much better understanding of how to plan units of study for the following year that would spiral back to what they learned, but also challenge them in new ways. By visiting the classroom it made this work feel seamless. I hope I get to do more of that next year.
Although I am excited for the summer, I am really excited to explore all of these ideas further in the 211/2012 school year. I would love to hear from all of you! Let me know what worked for you this year.
Many of the schools I work with are trying to create units of study in both Writing and Reading Workshop that align with the Common Core Standards (For more information on the Common Core Standards go to https://www.corestandards.org/). In this blog I want to showcase the wonderful work of the first grade teachers at PS 230 in New York City. They have used this year to pilot, create, reflect, and revise units of study in writing that align with the Common Core Standards. They created these units specifically for W 1.1 in the Common Core Standards. This standard states that children should be able to “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure. Additionally, they wanted these new units of studies to be engaging, authentic and improve both their kids’ writing processes and products.
I was floored by the units that these first grade teachers created and even more floored by the writing that the kids produced.
Next, I want to share these two units with you with the hopes that you will ask further questions and make comments about these writing units of study, as well as share some of your own units.
Unit 1: Writing About Special Places
Description of the Unit: In this unit of study, the teachers asked the children to choose a place that they loved to visit and create a concept book that convinced others of how great that place was. It was wonderful to see the range of places that children chose to write about. Most of the places they chose required no research whatsoever as it was a place they went often such as the park or the beauty parlor. Children drafted these concept books in little booklets and on each page of their book they gave another reason that their place was great.
Some Important Teaching Points: The teachers showed the children how to brainstorm different places they could write about, as well as brainstorm different things they could say about each of the places. They also worked with the children on coming up with more than one reason that their place was great and writing those reasons across multiple pages. The teachers also taught kids to write leads that revealed their opinion. Finally, they worked on endings that brought closure to their concept books.
What the teachers discovered: The kids loved this unit and had great fun trying to convince others to visit these special places. The teaches discovered that some kids who were not interested in other kinds of writing (such as narrative writing) were very much engaged and interested in this unit.
Unit 2: Persuasive Letters
Description of the Unit: In this unit, the teachers asked kids to take an idea that they felt strongly about and write a letter to someone trying to make change. Once again, what the children in these first grade classrooms chose to write about was simply amazing. Some chose school topics such as trying to convince the principal for more playtime, while others chose world topics such as trying to get President Obama to stop the war.
Some Important Teaching Points: The teachers helped the kids think about the important of audience in persuasive writing and asked children to choose an appropriate person to send their persuasive letter to. They also taught specific vocabulary on how to get from one argument to the next (One reason why we should have more playtime, Another reason why). They also showed them how expand their arguments by including a personal anecdote. Additionally, the teachers showed them different ways to organize their entire persuasive letter IE (State your idea, tell a personal story, give one reason you’re right, say another reason you’re right, have an exciting ending) and suggested that they used these structures if it helped them. Once again, they worked on beginnings and endings that let their reader know what their opinion was about their particular idea.
What the teachers discovered: Once again, the kids loved this unit and had great fun writing letters about important ideas to adults. Because the audience was so clear, children were more open than ever to revising and editing these letters. The teachers also found that providing the kids with some organizational structures such as the one I explained above helped some kids to state their unique ideas in clear and effective ways.
Chances are if you’re reading this blog, Writing Workshop happens in your classroom or in your school. You probably know and follow the structure of Writing Workshop (mini-lesson, work time, share) and strive to ensure that your teaching during Writing Workshop is focused and clear each day. You probably teach different qualities of writing in your classroom and then assess your students to see if they use these qualities while writing.
While it’s important to follow the structure of Writing Workshop and to teach qualities of writing within that structure, it’s also important to not become robotic and know when you need to take a detour from your typical Writing Workshop. Sometimes it’s not the structure of Writing Workshop or one particular quality of writing that a student needs in order to reach their writing potential.
I was reminded of this when I was visiting Paige Elementary School in Schenectady, New York. I was working with a wonderful team of third grade teachers. Together we were looking at the students’ poems before we went into the classroom to teach Writing Workshop. These children clearly had worked hard on their poems and the teacher had clearly been teaching them how to write well. Their poems were filled with similes, metaphors description language and repeating lines. You name it. They had it, but something still wasn’t right. The only word that kept circling in my mind was that the poems weren’t honest. They were so busy trying to make their writing sound good that they weren’t writing what was honestly in their hearts and minds.
It reminded me of a day a few years back when I was conferring with a 5th grade girl in Edison, New Jersey. She had written a personal story about a time when she went to an amusement park and wasn’t sure if she was going to be allowed on the ride because of her small size. Alas, when they measured her she was tall enough and they allowed her to go on the ride. In her story she wrote well about her excitement to go on this ride and indeed her story was filled with the qualities of a good narrative but something still didn’t feel right. In my conference I asked her if excitement was the only emotion she had that day. She paused and then said that although she was in fact excited, she was also nervous because she had just made the size requirement for the ride and was worried that she would get hurt on the ride. It’s harder she admitted to try and show both of those feelings in her story. After she said that we had a conversation about writing honestly even when it’s hard. I challenged her to try and write that story describing the mixed emotions that she felt that day. The end result was a much higher quality piece of writing.
These kids in Schenectady were having the same issues that this 5th grade girl had. These third grade students in Schenectady were in fact using what they had learned about qualities of writing to write poems but they weren’t writing honestly so their poems sounded a bit like someone trying too hard. I knew I wanted to talk to the students about honesty in their writing, but teaching kids to be honest in their writing didn’t fit neatly into the structure of a focused minilesson. I knew that in order to teach them this we needed to have an honest, heartfelt conversation.
So I gathered these 3rd grade kids together. We talked about what the word honesty meant and I read them a few poems that I thought were really honest and the kids agreed. I talked to the kids about the importance of trying to write honestly and not worrying as much as about how many qualities of writing they had used. I looked at their faces and wondered if they were taking this in. I then sent them off to write.
What they came back with was simply amazing! One little girl wrote a poem about going to Central Park when she was three. She remembered how at that early age she thought the clouds were people and she talked to the clouds inside her head. Another little girl wrote about the sadness she felt when she set her pet turtle free in a river. Originally, she had thought she no longer wanted a pet turtle, but the moment she saw her turtle swimming away she regretted her decision.
The kids gathered back together at the end for a share. There were a lot of quiet moments of awe as kids read their poems aloud. I didn’t try and teach too much into them. I just kept saying to them, “Wow, what an honest poem!”
The teachers and I met again at the end of the day and we marveled at the students’ writing and what an improvement it was from their previous poems. We also noted the slightly unconventional nature of Writing Workshop that day. My minilesson was longer than usual and my share didn’t have a tangible teaching point but I know they learned! Honesty in writing, we decided, was hard to teach within the official structure of Writing Workshop. I had to let go and trust that the students would learn about honesty by hearing beautifully written poems and engaging in a heartfelt conversation.
Do I think it’s important to have a structured Writing Workshop? Of course I do and on most days my teaching fits into that structure. Should we teach students the qualities of writing? Of course and I am often teaching these qualities in my minilessons and conferences. We must be careful though that we don’t get so caught up in what Writing Workshop is supposed to look and sound like that we don’t look at student writing and talk honestly about wise ways to address their strengths and needs. Sometimes these ways will fit in with how you normally teach, but sometimes they won’t. Be brave and unconventional and I’m sure you’ll be blown away by what your students produce.
March has been a crazy but wonderful month of learning with teachers, principals, coaches and most importantly kids. Many of the teachers I work with have recently been conducting non-fiction units of study in writing workshop. This has given me the opportunity to reflect upon some of the essential elements needed in order to lift the level of student writing. Thanks to all of the principals, teachers, and coaches who have recently explored this topic with me.
Essential Element 1: Kids should know at the start of a writing unit of study who their audience will be.
Mem Fox, when speaking at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, once said, “readers are what make writing matter.” When kids consider who their audience will be at the start of a study, they are much more engaged in the writing process because they do their writing work with their potential reader or readers in mind. Considering audience is always important for writers, but it’s especially important in non-fiction writing. Because the purpose of nonfiction writing is to teach, children can imagine more clearly the readers who might be interested in learning about their topics. If a student was writing a book about dogs, for example, he could decide that he wanted to read his finished book to kids who either had dogs or were thinking about getting a dog. Similarly, kids could write a brochure that teaches about their school knowing that they were going to eventually give the finished brochure to the principal so that she could share it with prospective parents and kids. Recently I watched 4th grade kids writing informational books that they were eventually bringing to a Kindergarten class to read. The 4th grade kids were thoughtful and engaged and went through the writing process with these kids in their minds. They wanted their books to be clear, enjoyable and informative for their young readers and they were willing to work hard to make that happen.
Essential Element 2: Kids need to understand the difference between a topic they like and a topic they know something about.
Many teachers, during a non-fiction writing unit of study, encourage kids to write about a topic that they already know about rather than researching an unknown topic. For example, if a child plays baseball every week, he could easily write an article about baseball without having to do much research at all. Teachers do this so that they can focus their instruction on the qualities of good writing rather than on research skills. One issue that teachers have run into is that once their kids start drafting some of them don’t know enough about their topics. Here are two things you can do at the start of a unit of study (before kids draft) to try and avoid this problem. One, you can talk to the kids about the difference between a topic that they like and a topic that they know a lot about. They might like horses, but not know enough about horses to write a detailed informational piece about it. You can also have them test out their topics by talking to a friend or brainstorming about their topics in their writers’ notebook. If they can talk or write a lot about it, it’s a good sign that it’s a good topic. If not, they probably need to rethink what they’ll write about.
Essential Element 3: Teachers need to differentiate between non-fiction reading and non-fiction writing.
Earlier I spoke about how some teachers encourage children to choose writing topics they know a lot about and therefore don’t have to do much research. Other teachers decide that they in fact want kids to research a new topic and then turn that research into a non-fiction writing piece. If this the direction you want to go in, it’s important to slow down and realize that there are two distinct parts of this work: the reading work where you teach kids comprehension strategies for learning about a new topic and the writing work where you teach kids to write well about a topic. Both parts need time and instruction in order for kids to succeed. When kids are reading, taking notes, talking to friends about their topics that is the reading work and it belongs in reading workshop. When you’re teaching kids craft elements about a particular nonfiction genre, this is writing work and that belongs in writing workshop. The problem I see in some classrooms is that sometimes both the reading work and the writing work are clumped together in writing workshop and the teacher spends more time teaching kids how to take notes and less time on teaching kids how to write well. If you want kids to do research than I strongly suggest that you do the research part during reading workshop. I would also suggest that you do the research a little bit ahead of the non-fiction writing unit of study so kids have time to get comfortable with the information they are learning.
|Some Types of Non-Fiction Writing|
|1. Informational Book2. Procedural Book
3. Informational Article
4. Feature Article
5. News Article
Essential Element 4: Teachers should use mentor texts in writing workshop for craft (not only content).
Many of you reading this already use mentor texts during writing workshop to help teach kids different craft techniques. This is especially vital during a non-fiction study because often kids think (especially if they’re doing research on a topic) that the only way to use non-fiction texts is for research purposes. Often when I go into classrooms during non-fiction units, kids only have books on the topic that they are writing about. You’ll want to make sure that your kids understand that they can look at texts/books on a variety of topics and look at those texts/books not only for the content presented, but also for the craft. For example, a kid could be writing a book about baseball and notice how in a book about dogs the author has a caption that describes one thing that dogs do. Even though the child is writing about baseball and the book is about dogs, I want him/her to be able to notice how the caption in the dog book teaches one thing that dogs do and then realize that he can include a caption in his baseball book that describes one thing that baseball players do.
Essential Element 5: During writing workshop, teachers should teach more than just text features.
During a non-fiction writing unit of study, teachers will often teach kids how to include features such as captions, labels, table of contents and diagrams in their writing. While these features are important to teach, it’s also important not to lose sight of the idea that we still want to teach kids to compose well-written nonfiction texts and including features in your writing is just not enough to reach that goal. There are many qualities of writing that lend themselves beautifully to nonfiction. For example, non-fiction writing units are wonderful places to teach kids how to write facts that are descriptive in nature. Also, it’s a great time to teach kids to organize their writing including both big idea sentences (topic sentences) with supporting details. The best non-fiction writing units of study have a nice balance between teaching features and qualities of writing.
I hope these essential elements not only help you while teaching your non-fiction units, but also help you reflect upon past units. I would love to hear from you on what other elements you consider to be essential when conducting non-fiction writing units of study.
In my travels many teachers have asked me how to get all kids to be able to work independently during Writing Workshop. Because a story can teach so much I’m going to share the story of one 4th grade classroom I recently visited where this type of independence was occurring. The day I was there, the kids were in the midst of a news article study. The teacher did a minilesson showing kids one way to use their notebooks to get ready to draft. She then sent them off to write. As I looked around, every kid was doing great work. Some were doing the minilesson. Some were trying other notebook strategies and some were already moving onto their drafts. Even though kids were doing many different things they were all doing good work. They were not raising their hands, calling out, saying they were finished, or simply staring into space. They were all doing something towards the end goal of producing a well-written news article. While the kids were working independently, the teachers was able to confer with four children without interruption and then called the entire group back together for a share.
Seems somewhat magical, no?
Actually the teacher carefully orchestrated it. There were three big things that she did that created a classroom of independent writers.
Immersion: Before the kids began collecting in their notebooks or drafting news articles, she gave them plenty of time to study different types of news articles. During the immersion phase of the study, the kids noticed many craft techniques that the experts used that they could implement into their own news articles. Many of the kids actually took notes in their Writers’ Notebooks on which craft techniques they thought they wanted to try. Also, while studying these news articles, they discussed the type of Writers’ Notebooks these authors may have kept in order to produce this kind of writing. They literally were ‘shopping for ideas’. Later in the unit this came in handy because the kids had other things they could do during Writing Workshop besides what the teacher had taught in the minilesson that day. Also, during the immersion phase the class had written a news article as yet another way to deepen their understanding of that genre.
Charts: The teacher had a few charts around the room that documented the immersion. The first chart was a chart of everything the kids had noticed about the craft of news articles. The second was a chart that captured the conversations that the kids had about what they thought these authors might have collected in their notebooks. Both of these charts reminded kids of all that they could do both in their notebooks and their drafts. It once again reinforced the idea that Writing Workshop was much more than a time when you just did what the teacher taught in the minilesson. Rather, it’s a time when you work on a project and make independent decisions about what strategies and craft techniques you need to do to move towards producing that final product.
Language: It was interesting to listen to the exact words this teacher said. During her minilesson, she was teaching students one specific notebook strategy to help them get ready to draft. After she showed the strategy and they practiced it together, she then said, “Now this strategy may help you today to get ready to draft or there might be another strategy that you think would be more helpful to you. You’ll have to make that decision.” What she said was really important. It held the kids accountable to making this decision on their own. Many kids ended up using her strategy, but some didn’t and were able to chose a different strategy off the charts around the room and then explain why they chose what they chose. At the end of the lesson, this teacher said one more thing that really contributed to their independence. Here is what she said: “Now I know different people are in slightly different places. We are having our publishing celebration in seven days so pace yourself wisely. Also, don’t forget that as you move to drafting you can try anything in your news articles that you noticed in other news articles. You may want to keep them out on top of your desk so you remember to refer to them.”(Each child had her own copy of the news article for easy reference.) Once again, she reminded them that their responsibility was not just to do the lesson of the day, but also to continue using everything they knew to help move towards the goal of publishing a news article.
These 3 key components: immersion, charts, and language are not just components that help kids become more independent during a news article study, but they are also key components for any writing unit of study.
Any other tips folks have in helping kids to work independently during Writing Workshop?
That’s what we did but here comes the important part…what we learned!
1. Book introductions are not just for guided reading! Book introductions are often thought of as part of a guided reading lesson, but watching these two boys I was reminded of the power of book introductions at other times of the day as well. The book introduction that I gave to the two boys was short but it dramatically changed how they talked later on. Here is what I said, “ This book is called Young Cam and the Ice Skate Mystery. I know that both of you have read other Cam Jansen books, as well as other mystery books so you know something about how mystery books tend to go. What do you think might happen in this book? Rather than guessing what this book was about they were able to predict based upon what they know about mysteries. After than book introduction, they predicted that something would get lost and there would be clues as to what had actually happened.
After they shared, I told them that they were, in fact, correct and specifically in this book a key was lost and that the rest of the book was about trying to figure out what had happened to the key. Then I sent them off to read. Later on when we listened to them talk, they had great fun pointing out what they thought were clues as to what had happened to the key. Their conversation was on target and definitely deepened their understanding of the book. I think that they talked about the clues in their book because my book introduction brought that idea to the surface.
2. Natural conversations about books are a great starting point. When I begin reading partnerships with kids my very first lesson is a simple one. I just tell kids that it’s helpful and fun to read books and then talk about them with a friend. I let them know that often they’ll understand a book differently after hearing what their partner says. Then I send them off to read and later I give them time to talk in partnerships. This lesson surprises teachers because they think I’m going to start by teaching the kids one specific way to talk. There is nothing wrong with teaching kids how to talk about texts, but I usually start with seeing what kids naturally do when chatting with one another. A really extraordinary thing happened when we listened to these two boys talk naturally about the book. At the end of my book introduction when I asked what they knew about mysteries one of the little boys said that in mysteries the problem is usually solved. The other boy disagreed and the two boys (They literally forget that we were watching them) started talking about previous mysteries they had read and how in those books the problems were always solved. At the end of the conversation, the boy who had originally disagreed said, “Oh yeah you’re right. They are usually solved.”
That one quick encounter had so much teaching potential. I often tell kids that you know you’ve had a good book talk when your mind is changed by something your partner said to you. It sounds like a complicated idea but it became seamless when these two boys did it naturally and authentically.
3. Noticing strengths fuels your teaching. Watching these two boys for a few minutes we noticed that they did some really smart things. For example, as you saw earlier, one of them let a conversation change his mind. We also noticed that while reading both of them would often flip back to earlier pages to see if they could confirm their idea or if they changed their mind after looking back. We could deepen these strengths by simply highlighting what they did and suggesting that they do it more often.
4. Noticing needs fuels your teaching. One of the things that we noticed is that although the two boys we worked with were noticing great things in the book, they weren’t connecting to each other ideas as much as we would like them to. We realized from watching them we could show them some language prompts that would help. For example we could teach them language such as. I agree with you because…I disagree with you because. …..Let me show you a place in the book that does this. Can you show me a place in the book that does this?
We spent just a short time with these two boys but once again I was amazed at how much fun it was to watch them and how watching them fueled our teaching and their learning.
What classroom stories can you share and how have they informed your teaching?
Teaching is so different now than it was when I was teaching in the classroom (I feel like I am 145 after saying a comment like that.) When I taught, there were no district curriculum calendars, no scripted lessons, no unit plans laid out for me. Rather, I had to watch my kids and carefully execute lessons based upon what I saw, and then assess the effectiveness of those lessons by once again watching my kids and seeing what lessons to do next. I wish that when I was teaching I had the wonderful resources that many teachers have now. There is a downside to these resources, though. If teachers are not careful they can use these materials and assume that because they taught the lesson, students have learned and that is not always the case.
When I wasn’t trapped at home this week because of the snow, I had the pleasure of demonstrating Writing Workshop in a few different classrooms. These teachers were lucky enough to have a district that supplied them with wonderful teaching materials. Writing Workshop will only be effective if teachers use these effective teaching materials in conjunction with keeping a close eye on their students’ learning. When I go into classrooms I focus not only on how to use the teaching materials, but also how to ensure that powerful learning occurs. Throughout all of my conversations this week, a quote by Thomas Gordon kept running through my mind. He states that, “Teaching is a process that is carried out by one person, while the process of learning goes on inside another.” This quote and my classroom work this week led me to re-explore the question: What do effective teachers do regardless of their teaching materials to turn good teaching into powerful learning?
1. Effective teachers care about their students. This week I was working in Danbury, CT. I had been there about 6 weeks earlier so I had a chance to get to know some of the kids. When I got to work with Mason, a Kindergarten student, for a second time, I let him know that I remembered the story he wrote about his Dad being late for work. Mason listened differently and learned more in our writing conference and I attribute that to our conversation about his previous story. The little things do matter! Remembering a story, being excited about a new achievement, being strict but kind when you know a student isn’t living up to his/her potential—all of those things show that you care and aren’t simply going through the motions of your day. All of these things contribute to whether or not kids will learn in your classroom.
2. Effective teachers question everything and assume nothing. This week, I was working with a kindergarten student who was writing a book about going to a dog show. At first glance, it looked as though her story had a great beginning and a great middle but didn’t really have much closure. I was just about to teach her about endings when it hit me that maybe the reason why her story didn’t go anywhere was that the paper choice that we had given her limited her to 3 pages. I took another booklet and held it next to her original one and asked her a question: If I stapled this booklet to your book what would you put on these pages? After I asked that question and listened to her answer there was no doubt that the paper choice was in fact getting in her way of writing an effective story. We showed Lauren how she could either take blank pieces of paper and then staple it together once she knew how much longer her story was going to be or she could put a few booklets together. My questioning in this instance ensured that I didn’t teach her something that she already knew. We were also surprised that Lauren didn’t realize that she could simply get another booklet or pages if she discovered the story in her head was longer than the amount of pages that she had. Marie Clay, before she passed away, used to always say how important it was to put yourselves in the shoes of the students that you work with and think about things the way that they would, rather than the way that you would. Effective teachers always try to put themselves in the minds of the students that are learning from them. As an adult, we get that if your story is longer you get more paper, but when you are 5 and all of this is new to you you don’t always know that
3. Effective teachers don’t overwhelm their students. Rocco was another student I had the pleasure of working with this week. Rocco had certainly grown as a writer since I had seen him last. He was now comfortably attempting to write by writing the sight words he knew, as well as stretching the sounds out in words and putting down the initial letters. He was ready to be pushed a bit to listen and record end sounds as well. Rather than working with him on this across his entire 5-page story, we went back to two places and tried to together listen and record the end sounds. After we did this together, I asked him to continue working on end sounds on his own. He eagerly agreed and away he went. I have sometimes watched teachers, in an effort to be thorough, overwhelm a child by having him practice the new concept for too long or in too complicated of a way. This can shut a student down and make further learning difficult. Although Rocco has to practice a lot more before he masters end sounds, he won’t learn it by practicing it all in one day. He’ll learn it by practicing it in small ways over time.
4. Effective teachers are flexible. In my stormiest of teaching moments, when I notice that something isn’t working with a child, I keep teaching the same concept hoping that if I repeat myself one more time, the student will get it. I’ll never forget once watching a teacher do a guided reading lesson. After 2 minutes into the lesson, it was clear from the kids that they weren’t learning. She took the books from them and said, “You know what, I want to think more about this before I do it with you. I’m going to talk to my teaching friends and see what ideas they have about this book.” We then met and together we came up with some ideas. I was impressed with her willingness to abandon a teaching moment when she saw it wasn’t going well and to rethink it so it would go well. I’m not suggesting that we take books away from kids every time a lesson isn’t going perfectly, but I do suggest that while we’re teaching we pay attention to whether our students are learning and if find they are not, we are flexible enough to either change our teaching point or alter our method of delivering it.
Many of you are like the teachers that I worked with this week. You have great materials to use to support your Writing Workshop. I hope that as you use those materials that you remember that these materials are resources but they don’t guarantee that your students learn. You do that!!! If you’re a teacher, I hope that you’ll bring these thoughts with you as you teach your students. If you’re a principal literacy coach or reading specialist, I hope that you’ll coach, model and provide feedback to teachers with these in mind.
I know there are many more aspects of effective teaching and I look forward to hearing what you would add to this list.
I work with amazing teachers who not only do incredible things with their students, but also reflect upon what is not working in their classrooms. Recently teachers have been asking a lot of questions about reading partnerships and their questions have brought about even more learning for their kids.
Here are a few of their questions/answers/solutions. Although I hope this is helpful for all teachers, these questions specifically came from first, second and third grade teachers.
Question 1: What is the purpose of reading partnerships? The primary purpose of reading partnerships is for kids to talk about books in a way that deepens their comprehension. In order for this to work, kids have to be reading and talking about the same book. If they are not reading the same text, they can’t have a meaningful conversation because they won’t be able to react to what their partner said.
Many teachers, before our conversations, believed the purpose of reading partnerships was to ensure that kids were accountable to what they had read during the independent portion of Reading Workshop. One teacher recently said to me: Accountability is a bonus that comes out of reading partnerships but comprehension/talk is what it is all about.
Question 2: How do I get my kids to read and talk about the same books if I don’t have double copies of these texts? Many of the teachers I work with loved the idea of kids talking about the same books, but they only had single copies of books in their classrooms so were unsure about how to proceed. Of course, the best scenario is to look at your school budget and see if you can buy double copies of these books, but I want to share a reading schedule that some of the teachers I work with came up with when they didn’t have double copies of books:
Monday: Partners go shopping for books together. They choose at least two books that they both agree they’ll read over the next few days during Reading Workshop. Each partner takes at least one of the books they chose together and reads it.
Tuesday: They continue reading the same books during Reading Workshop that they chose with their reading partner.
Wednesday: Partners switch books. Now Partner A is reading the book Partner B had previously been reading and Partner B is reading the book Partner A had previously been reading.
Thursday: They continue reading the same books. As you can see, even though there were no double copies partners have read at least two texts together.
Friday: During Reading Workshop, partners talk about the two books they both read.
Question 3: How do I get my kids to have better conversations about their books? I have two thoughts about this question. Some teachers have found it helpful for kids to read shorter texts and then talk about those shorter texts with a reading partner. They have used texts such as picture books, poems and newspaper articles. Because the kids could finish the text in one sitting, they found that the kids were more focused and the conversations went better. I also think that especially with the younger kids we have to recognize the small successes that kids have and build upon those successes. Recently, I watched two second grade girls talking about books. One of the little girls said, “Should we start with your book?” They took that book and talked a bit about it. Then, the other girl said, “Should we talk about your book now?” They then took that book and talked about it. Although there is a lot for those two girls to learn about what/how to talk, they understood the books more because of their brief conversation. Also, what they were learning about taking turns and listening to each other was vital. After watching this, the teachers and I realized that we had to be okay with the partnership work being a bit messy in the beginning and that we had to trust that good things were happening.
If kids talk about books on a regular basis and we regularly teach into them they will get better!
What are some of your successes and challenges with reading partnerships?
Often when I visit schools to help teachers with Reading and Writing Workshop, they assume that because I believe in Reading and Writing Workshop I am not a big advocate of play. I am always surprised to hear that because I am a HUGE advocate of play and choice time in the elementary classroom. This assumption has left me wondering about the images that people have of play and choice time and the images that people have of Reading and Writing Workshop. Obviously, there are differences between the two, but I do want to suggest that what we know about play/choice time should influence Reading and Writing Workshop, and what we know about Reading and Writing Workshop should influence choice time and play. I want to talk next about how this idea might play out in the classroom.
I believe that every genre unit of study in Writing Workshop should begin with immersion. Rather than teachers starting a unit by delivering lessons, I believe units should begin by giving kids extended time (about a week) to explore the genre by looking at examples and talking about what they notice. When I do this in classrooms, there is a buzz in the room and an excitement in the air. Just like play has elements of exploration, creativity, and excitement, so does immersion in writing. Kids are also driving the curriculum because the conversations are focused on what the kids notice about the genre rather than what the teacher has chosen for them to notice. I find that if units start this way kids are much engaged in the more focused lessons that teachers do next in the unit because they have had a chance to ‘play’ with the genre beforehand.
Recently, I was conducting a guided reading lesson with a group of first grade kids. The book I was using was about a little boy who fell down while walking to the store. As I began my book introduction, the kids became obsessed with the fact that there was blood on the little boy’s knee and they kept wanting me to show them where the blood was. Also, they were quite taken with one picture because it showed the little boy paying attention to a motorcycle on the street, rather than to where he was going. They wanted to talk and talk about this page and I watched how the ‘play’ with this page helped them to understand that the boy fell down because he was looking at the motorcycle and not paying attention to where he was going. The guided lesson continued and the kids practiced many important print and comprehension strategies. The play that happened before their reading once again helped them to become more engaged with the more formal aspects of the guided reading lesson.
In both of those examples, there is an element of play in the Reading and Writing Workshop. Kids were given time to explore, talk, and create in ways that were similar to how they explore, talk and create while engaging in play and/or choice time.
In many classrooms that I work in teachers are not only conducting Reading and Writing Workshops, but they are fitting in choice time or play. In some of my favorite classrooms teachers are taking the structure of Reading and Writing Workshop and bringing that structure to their choice time. They are starting the choice time with a lesson that helps the kids to explore and create in deeper ways. Then, the kids go to choice time activities and the teacher confers with them. Finally, the teacher brings the kids back together for a share. I don’t believe that giving this structure to the choice time takes away any of the creativity or exploration of this time. As a matter of fact, I think the structure allows the kids to focus on their thinking because they can count on the consistent structure of workshop teaching.
So back to my question: Is there a connection between play and Reading and Writing Workshop? I think the answer is a resounding yes!
What do you think?
Copyright © 2011 Best Writing Consultant