Heidi Louella is a seasoned ELA teacher who is on special assignment for a fourth year as a literacy and instructional coach in Bensalem Township School District. A self-proclaimed teacher-nerd, she is always excited to learn and grow in the profession and join forces with teachers to foster student engagement.
Once you have tools that can be used for table conferences based on the the learning progressions, then a possible addition to your toolkit could be creating and adding demo tools. These tools use the mentor text or read aloud to model the kind of thinking that can be done during stop and jots and long writes.
These tools are created using each progression. Below you will find a demo tool created using the first progression for thinking about character.
When creating demo tools, you can show readers how you:
look through a lens (which comes from the progressions)
notice patterns (your stop and jots)
come to a new understanding (your long write)
Since creating demo tools can be more time consuming upfront, I would recommend that your grade level team take a piece and share so that it’s more manageable.
This year teachers are feeling more than ever the struggle of limited time, but small group and conferring time is such an important piece, so I have been busy at work trying to help teachers to simplify the tools in order to make this important part of the workshop more manageable.
It All Starts with the Learning Progressions
Think of the skill or skills for an upcoming unit that are important. Using a highlighter, highlight the specific things students can do at each level for that skill then make a post it note for each.
Then take those post its and place them in order in a notebook, sketchbook, etc. Remember to include the post its for your grade level and what comes before it. Below is using all of the progression, so it would be appropriate for grades 6-8.
This one would be appropriate for grade 4 since it uses the grade 4 descriptor as well as the grades before it.
This way as you pull up alongside a student, you have a menu, in order of complexity, to determine where a student is based on what you may see in current notebook pages and you can quickly determine what is next.
Examples Using Notebook Entries
In this example a student recently has been seeing patterns of the character Wilson being helpful and nice to other people. First, we want to compliment: Looks like you have a theory for your character based on patterns you are noticing. You are also using multiple character traits. What a great start!
Then you can teach: You are already doing so much great thinking, but I want to push you to the next step. People usually do things or act in certain ways for a reason. For example, I might be helpful at home or school because it’s my job as mom and teacher to help, but I might help there and in other places because it makes me feel good about myself, or because I want to be a positive role model, or because it’s the right thing to do. I might even be helpful because I want people to like me. Think about Wilson here. Why do you think he is being helpful and nice?
Then leave the student with the challenge of thinking of Wilson’s motivation in any trait that becomes a pattern.
Above is an eighth grade notebook page. This student is already thinking about motivation behind the pattern for two different characters who don’t have trust. The compliment: Look at the way you not only notice that both Rufus and Matteo have trust issues but you are asking yourself why that might be the case. A next step might be to start looking at hidden sides, or how pressures pull characters into conflicting ways. Show students what this might look like in life or in a mentor text/read aloud then walk them through this thinking in their own book, leaving them to continue to look through this additional lens.
By using the progressions to create a menu of strategies in the order of complexity, you can easily see where a student is right now and push them to what’s next. As always be sure to leave them with a post it to add to their own menu.
Many of the teachers I have been working with this year are finding that small group instruction is even more of a challenge than usual. Not just because of the the planning but because readers are having trouble staying engaged in their independent reading when the teacher is pulling students to the table away from the rest for small group work.
Those who are choosing to do more conferring and going to readers rather than having readers come to them are finding more success. As we work to get readers back on track with their stamina, it may make more sense to stay in the mix and do table conferences which has many added benefits.
I was recently in a workshop with teachers and instructional coaches on Zoom. We were working on writing our own narrative pieces. The instructor asked someone to share for a conference. While the instructor was conferring with her, it sparked so many ideas in me as I was eavesdropping. That’s what table conferences do. They focus on the reading and writing of one student, but everyone surrounding you and the student benefit from the instruction.
Often times we try to meet with more kids in small group who need the same thing at once, but while that may help us work to move more readers at one time, conferring one-on-one is the strongest tool in your instructional toolbox.
It All Starts with the Learning Progressions
Everything we do should be linked back to the learning progressions in order to move readers forward. Using a highlighter, highlight the specific things students can do at each level for that skill then make a post it note for each. The anchor chart that you create using the progressions can be a tool for your conferences as you move about the room looking at current writing in the the reader’s notebook to determine where they are, what to compliment, and what to teach.
Examples Using Notebook Entries
This entry does not state a theme, but look how the reader is reflecting on big moments of choice.
Compliment: You are already looking for themes that are pulled through when a character makes a decision.
Teach: So now we want to ask, “What can readers realize from Pip’s decisions?
Using the read aloud or mentor text demonstrate how looking at when the character makes a decision can reveal a theme.
This particular entry was written by an eighth grader, and I know The Outsiders was the class novel in the beginning of the year. I might say,
Remember in The Outsiders when Pony and Johnny make the decision to go to Dallas for a gun, money, and plan to run away after Johnny kills Bob? Readers could realize from that decision that people don’t always have the best judgement in a crisis or that those who feel powerless in society don’t think they have better options. Now that we have these themes, we can continue to track them to see if they hold true throughout the story.
Then coach the student through this same work using another big decision in The Outsiders and then in her book.
Looking at this notebook, the reader is already asking, “What’s this story really about?” and making a list of possibilities.
Compliment: You already have a list of some pretty significant issues. This is something we definitely want to track to see which ones can be pulled through the entire story.
Then, I would push this reader to move from a list of issues to a list of potential themes by asking, “What can readers learn about power/betrayal/fear/poverty from this example?” Then look closely while reading to see if there are more instances that will support those themes.
The mentor text or read aloud could be used to give examples of how to do this work.
In this entry from a notebook, I am seeing an obvious theme — There are good people out there. But the reader pushes further and a more hidden theme is revealed — Having toxic parents doesn’t mean having toxic kids. Looking at this hidden theme, I want to know how this is being pulled through. using the evidence, and so I would refer to a new anchor chart that is based on the learning progressions for supporting thinking about theme with textual evidence.
I would push this reader to think back to what was already read for times that show that Chance is not toxic like his parents and to keep reading looking for more evidence to support this thinking. Right now the hidden theme is revealed with vague, if any, evidence. I would use the read aloud or mentor text to show how a hidden theme can be traced throughout a text and not just found in one part and how to use specific examples to support the thinking.
In this entry I am seeing that the reader is looking at how the story is written with strong character development to determine the themes — Work together to succeed and friends help you grow. The way the reader is going about determining theme through the way the story is written is complex work, but the themes determined are pretty basic. I would work with this student on developing the theme into a more complex one.
I would also work on the text evidence to include the character development of multiple characters to better show how characterization reveals the theme asking which qualities does each have that show how working together can bring success.
Sketchbooks are great for making tools that can be carried around for table conferences. And when made in advance, while pairing with a mentor text or read aloud, your planning is minimal. These conferences are research conferences. See where the reader is in this moment, compliment what they are doing already, and use the progression of post its to determine what they need next.
Some of the barriers that teachers may be experiencing are disengaged, unmotivated students with little to no stamina. And what writers need most to feel engaged and motivated whereby increasing stamina is seeing value in what they do. Opportunities to bring their full selves to the page make writing meaningful and real, but that doesn’t just happen. We need to work regularly at providing strategies and opportunities for writers to generate ideas that allow them to show who they are and what is important to them. To help support teachers in this endeavor, I will begin with three strategies that I have recently learned or relearned when thinking about this work.
#1 Issues and Themes: An SEL Approach
I absolutely LOVE this strategy that my supervisor learned from Colleen Cruz through a recent Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institute. It marries an SEL strategy with writing strategies and produces real writing using what is important to the writer right now.
First, jot down three issues or themes affecting you right now. Then circle the one most present for you.
Now take three minutes to write fast and furious to tell the story.
While sharing this strategy during professional development with teachers, I chose my issue of the stress I was feeling going into that particular day. I was feeling stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, but also excited to share some tools that teachers could take back to their classrooms.
Share what you wrote and allow writing partners to turn and share.
Now take two minutes to go back or continue and write with the setting in mind. Be sure to share what you wrote and allow a minute for turn and share with writing partners.
Now take two minutes to go back or continue and write with action in mind. Take the time to share your writing and for a minute of turn and share.
Now take two minutes to go back or continue and write with dialogue in mind. Share what you wrote and provide a minute for writing partners to turn and share.
What did this exercise accomplish? Well, I can speak for me. This exercise actually calmed me down and greatly reduced my stress and anxiety especially as I shared my writing along the way.
While this exercise is an SEL approach, it is also a strategy for generating ideas and revising with different craft moves in mind. By doing this exercise at times, we are building a bank of small moments and issues that writers can choose to return to while providing opportunities to practice writing moves that can be applied within any writing piece.
I always recommend writing alongside student writers. It has value for writers to see how you go about writing even when it’s tough. My action part was a struggle for me, and I didn’t get much accomplished during that 2 minutes and it is okay!
It has value for you as well. It helps you see where the tricky spots are and what you do to approach those tricky spots so that you are in a better place to support writers. I found that I needed to write without worrying about dialogue rules so I could just focus on getting my ideas out first.
What kids really need to see? The above images are my rewrite to show you, the reader, how I went about the task in steps. But kids need to see what the writing really looks like. Writing does not come out perfect from the moment the pen hits the page. Below is what I really wrote during the exercise. Drafting is messy!
#2 Identity Maps
Identity maps are a way to web about yourself in order to help generate some ideas. Teachers should model this work using the age of their students. My students were typically 13 years old, so I would make mine as my 13 year old self. Start by webbing details about yourself. I’m a daughter, I have 2 sisters and brother. My parents are divorced. I live with my mom who is a single mom. I see my dad every other weekend. And so on and so one. Take something like 2 minutes to brainstorm. Always allow a minute for turn and share with a writing partner. One partner might have something that could spark an idea in the other.
Then pull up the personal and social identities and see what you can add. I did this in a new color. I was able to add new information to the web including: my mom’s side is Scottish and and German, my dad’s side is English and Swedish, I live in Bensalem, I don’t play sports, but I’m involved in theater.
From there begin to add story ideas. For example, I moved twice in eighth grade and it was the absolute worst year of my life. There was a fight during a dance off at the roller skating rink with my youth group. Who has a knock-down-drag-out fight at a youth group gathering? Or being told every year we couldn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day because, “We are Scottish NOT Irish!” and then my mom visits Ireland and we became 100% Irish overnight and my mom visited “the motherland” every year after that. There are also many stories surrounding the fact that my sister and I hated each other (not anymore) including the great early morning curling iron fiasco.
You could even take 3 minutes for you and student writers to write fast and furious about one idea. Doing so helps writers decide if it’s a worthy piece to take to publication or a piece to practice strategies within.
#3 Issue and Theme Walls
This approach can easily be done when reading with students and move into their own reading. The walls can be notebook pages and/or physical walls that are continually added to.
I shared this strategy with a group of teachers by using a First Chapter Friday approach. I read aloud the first chapter from Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks. Okay, I didn’t read it aloud myself which is what I normally do and preach, but if you heard the Audible version of this particular text, you would know that it works so much better than I could ever pull off.
So, the First Chapter Friday reading did make many of the teachers want to make sure this book is added to their classroom libraries. It really is an incredible book! I asked readers to listen with pen in hand and jot any issues or themes that stand out to them. Afterwards, I asked readers to turn and talk about the issues and/or themes that they were already noticing.
They then were asked to add one or two ideas to the wall. Below are some of the issues noticed within the group as well as my notebook jots while listening.
This can be done with any text: read alouds, mentor texts, First Chapter Fridays, and even using independent reading books. By creating an issue wall and issue notebook page, writers can then go there for inspiration for writing ideas. I could look at my page and already have specific ideas for times when assumptions were made about me or when it was tough to be the new person. This does not only work for writing narrative but informational and argument as well.
Whatever you do to help writers generate ideas, keep in mind that writers need many, many opportunities to generate ideas that bring their full selves to the page. Find ways to weave it in throughout the year. Maybe even have a section in the writer’s notebook for this cause. Lastly, remember that not every draft or every piece started needs to be taken to publishing. Sometimes drafting for a few minutes and revisiting drafts at times to practice developing writing skills is just as valuable, if not more, than taking one piece to publication.
In order to push student writers to develop their craft, we first need to know what writing is. Writing can be a lot of things but is especially meaningful when writers are able to bring their full selves to the page. As teachers we want student writing to be authentic and meaningful. After all, isn’t that what increases engagement and motivation — two barriers that can really get in our way?
Writers Bring Their Full Selves to the Page
One thing we can do is to have our students examine how writers bring their full selves to the page. One approach is to examine what writers bring of themselves by using windows and mirrors.
Mirrors and Windows
Mirrors are seeing common issues and experiences that you, the reader, can also identify with. Windows, on the other hand, are common issues and experiences that you, the reader, cannot identify with and so you are getting a glimpse of an alternate experience and point of view. Watch Renee Watson, author of many novels in our classroom library, share her poem “Where You From?” Think to yourself as you listen about those mirrors and windows.
What did you notice? Some mirrors for me were being raised by a single mother, rarely getting new clothes but plenty of hand-me-downs, having to make a dollar stretch a long way. A couple windows for me would be living on that side of town or being asked if my hair is real.
Personal and Social Identities
Another thing we can do is to examine how writers include their personal and social identities in their writing.
Look closely at the text, what do you see in just a small chunk of the text?
Writers bring their full selves to the page. When we examine writing as readers with these lenses in mind, we can see it and its value. When we work with our writers we want to provide the space for them to do the same kind of work. Even if it’s not a personal narrative or memoir piece, writers can bring the characters they create to life with personal and social identities or use them to strengthen their point-of-view and perspective in informational and argument pieces.
Next up…Generating Ideas that Allow Writers to Bring Their Full Selves to the Page!
We know from Reading and Writing Workshop 201 that instruction during the independent time of the workshop focuses on the individual and small group needs. This is when teachers meet needs by moving readers and writers from where they are, thus providing differentiation.
By moving readers and writers from where they are, teachers are also focusing on equity vs equality. Instead of everyone getting the same instruction and being expected to do the same thing, we provide the instruction they need to make growth and hold them accountable for that work.
Often times unfavorable behaviors, disengagement, and lack of motivation in the classroom can be attributed to needs not being met, instruction not being differentiated, and expectations that are unrealistic compared to needs. These behaviors can look different in every reader and writer from avoidance and shutting down to more aggressive behaviors that create workshop disruptions.
Shifting from equality based instruction and assessment to equity based instruction and assessment means re-framing our focus as teachers.
Accountability in the Workshop – Part 1 “Why”
This video explains the philosophy of grading with equity in mind and why this shift is necessary.
Accountability in the Workshop – Part 2 “How”
Now that we have established the why, these videos focus on how we go about this shift in both reading and writing workshop.
While balancing the structure of Writing Workshop is often a focus in the the early stages of becoming a workshop teacher, teachers need to next look next to the intention behind their instruction during the independent work time. This is where your strongest tools- conferring and small group instruction- are being used. It is during conferring and small group instruction that we are differentiating instruction and preparing writers to grow their own writing skills and craft because we are teaching them the strategies they need now and can draw from not just in one piece of writing but any time they write.
Think about this time with writers while conferring and pulling small groups as providing the right kind of support for individuals. The skills taught with your own writing in the minilesson are on or even slightly above grade level. It provides opportunities for exposure to higher level skills and rigor. But expecting mastery or even growth from this level for every student is unrealistic. They still need the exposure to the on grade level work and rigor, which is why the minilesson is such a small chunk of time. Once they move to the independent work time, they need differentiated instruction and time to practice and grow from that place. Think about it in terms of weight training. If doing curls with say 25 pound weights is considered “on grade level” does that mean it’s appropriate to hand 25 pound weights to every student and say, “Have at it!” Of course not. Some will need to start with learning form and building up from 5lbs, others, 8lbs, others 10lbs, and some may even need 30lbs. That is the power and beauty of conferring and small group. It is meeting writers where they are and providing the specific instruction they need to grow from that point.
.What does this look like and how do teachers prepare for this work? These two videos focus on bringing intentional instruction to conferring and small groups.
Conferring with Intentional Instruction
Small Group Instruction with Intentional Instruction
While balancing the structure of Reading Workshop is often a focus in the the early stages of becoming a workshop teacher, teachers need to next look next to the intention behind their instruction during the independent work time. This is where your strongest tools- conferring and small group instruction- are being used. It is during conferring and small group instruction that we are differentiating instruction and preparing readers to be independent thinkers because we are teaching them the strategies they need now and can draw from not just in the book they are reading but in any book.
Think about this time with readers while conferring and pulling small groups as providing the right kind of support for individuals. The grappling with skills and text in the minilesson are on or even slightly above grade level. It provides opportunities for exposure to higher level skills and rigor. But expecting mastery or even growth from this level is unrealistic. They still need the exposure to the on grade level work and rigor, which is why the minilesson is such a small chunk of time. Once they move to the independent work time, they need differentiated instruction and time to practice and grow from that place. Think about it in terms of weight training. If doing curls with say 25 pound weights is considered “on grade level” does that mean it’s appropriate to hand 25 pound weights to every student and say, “Have at it!” Of course not. Some will need to start with learning form and building up from 5lbs, others, 8lbs, others 10lbs, and some may even need 30lbs. That is the power and beauty of conferring and small group. It is meeting readers where they are and providing the specific instruction they need to grow from that point.
What does this look like and how do teachers prepare for this work? These two videos focus on bringing intentional instruction to conferring and small groups.
Conferring with Intentional Instruction
For more on conferring, check out the Heinemann Blog for posts written by Jennifer Serravallo and Carl Anderson.
Small Group Instruction with Intentional Instruction
I’ve been working with some middle school students trying to push their thinking about character by using the lenses to look for patterns that help us make more inferences about character. At the time we were watching parts of the movie The Blind Side. As students were examining Michael Oher, the main character, even when looking at patterns through lenses, their thinking about Michael was very obvious.
While students came up with lots of ideas about his character, they just felt confined to the left side of the learning progressions.
While it’s good to notice that Michael is quiet, shy, and lonely the reasoning behind it fell flat for me. He doesn’t have family or friends so he’s lonely. He doesn’t do well in school so he’s quiet. He’s different from everyone at school so he’s shy. I wanted more depth. More of what we see in the 6+ column of the progression, so I started thinking about issues and conflicts. The movie is full of them. He’s a teenage boy whose basic needs are not being met. Needs not being met are often at the the center of issues and conflicts.
I tried to have kids examine what the character really needs, and if the need is being met or not being met, what reaction do we see in the character? It took me back to my kids when they were little and finding the need behind their behavior. One of my children, for example, would become very angry and inconsolable at times. We could have ignored it and hoped it would go away, but the behavior was during times when his world was not predictable. He was a kid who needed order and structure and when that need was not met, he would act out because he didn’t feel safe. So why was Michael really so quiet, shy, and lonely? What need was not being met?
I started playing around with tools to help push this thinking while leaning a bit on some basic Maslow. It helped, but it wasn’t enough.
I consulted with Brandi Hamnett, our SEL Instructional Coach, and she helped me lean on the work of Nonviolent Communication, which is about seeking to understand while building connection and empathy in conflict. This work is not only important as teachers who seek to understand our students without judgement, but for kids to to use in their own relationships as well, and what better way to practice this work than with characters!
I revised the tools, and we got back to work.
Let’s Try This Work…
Watch this short clip. Examine Michael during this conflict with his football coach.
Think to yourself, What does Michael need or value here?
You might have thought he needs connection and in particular to be understood.
His coach does not understand him and gets frustrated and that leads us to ask, “What do you see as a result of the need to be understood not being met?”
Michael reacts to not being understood or having a connection by being confused and overwhelmed. He’s stuck making mistake after mistake.
Then we see Leigh Anne step in. She shows that she understands him and gives him direction that meets this need. After the need is met, what do we notice?
We could look at the conflict between the football coach and Michael and say that in the beginning of the scene Michael is confused and overwhelmed. We see this in the continuous mistakes he makes which only further frustrates his coach. Michael is confused and overwhelmed as the result of his need for being understood not being met. We can infer that Michael doesn’t respond well to criticism. Later, when Leigh Anne, who takes the time to understand Michael, explains to him what he needs to do, we notice a change in Michael. We see his facial expressions changed and his body language relax. He looks more at ease and looks hopeful and encouraged. When he goes back to practice we see his confused actions are changed to confident and powerful ones. We can infer that Michael is someone who needs connection and understanding in order to respond positively.
By really examining why Michael responds the way that he does, we are thinking deeper about his character as he faces conflicts and issues which pushes us to the right side of the learning progressions.
This is really challenging work and needs a lot of modeling and peer discussion in the form of turn and talk. But with persistence, I am seeing that the work is paying off. The inferring about character has grown deeper than the obvious surface level thinking and there is plenty of room to scaffold this work.
I may still tweak the tools as I continue to experiment, but I thought it was worth sharing for the upper elementary and middle school grade levels who might want to experiment with this work as well.
If you try this work with your students, I would love any and all feedback and would be happy to plan with you. Additionally, Brandi Hamnett was a wealth of information on this subject and a valuable asset for all SEL needs. Thank you, Brandi!