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!
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
Two years ago three of the instructional coaches went to a training at the Bucks County Intermediate Unit that was meant for coaches and leaders to turn around in the district. It was three full days packed with new information and lots of practice pertaining to text dependent analysis (TDA), but we learned so much that we were able to turn around and train small groups of teachers over the course of 3 half days. This post is dedicated to providing asynchronous training and exploration of all things TDA for teachers who are new, have changed grade levels, or just want some refreshers.
As always, I am available to our Bensalem teachers for planning and instructional coaching. In addition to four training videos, I have included some previous blogs that showcase the work I have done in classrooms last year.
Training Session #1 – What is Close Reading?
In this first session we looked at the definition for TDA that was provided by the Department of Education that shows the need for close reading, what that actually is, and how to use a framework for close reading to do the work necessary for analysis as defined.
Using Images…What Does That Look Like in the Classroom?
Training Session #2 – How Does the Framework for Close Reading Work with Fiction?
The second session was spent looking at the challenges of PSSA prompts and how the Close Reading Framework we’ve adopted, as recommended by the Bucks County IU, along with the use of a Close Reading Menu can assist in providing instructional support for teachers and students as they grapple with this challenging work.
Using Short Texts and Even Independent Reading to Model and Practice This Work
Moving from Pictures to Text…Oh My! not only looks at the transition to more challenging texts but the diversity in thinking that must be celebrated so kids know they can make inferences and come to new understandings without the worry of “being right”.
What’s the Deal with All These Sticky Notes shows how the work of close reading can be used within the independent portion of the workshop, but it requires a lot of teacher modeling. I recommend using books from your classroom library as this will serve as double duty and sell books to kids too!
Training Session #3- How Does the Framework for Close Reading Work with Non-Fiction/Informational Text?
Session three was actually a bonus session provided during an in-service day that resulted from many questions asked about how is thinking about nonfiction and informational text different. We used the same framework for close reading but a different close reading menu based on the kinds of elements that pop up in our standards and eligible content as well as our learning progressions and bands of text complexity for reading nonfiction and informational text.
Supporting This Work Across Content Areas
Active Reading Beyond ELA shows that this work can also be practiced in other content areas that use nonfiction and informational text.
Training Session #4 – How Do Learning Progressions for the Units and TDA Inform Instruction?
Learning Progressions are meant to inform instruction and allow for differentiation based on strengths and needs of individual students. This final session took a deep dive into how the learning progressions for our units and for TDA are similarly designed and serve similar purposes. The progressions for TDA are broken down into three underlying components: Reading Comprehension, Analysis, and Essay Writing. Each component addresses specific criteria.
Moving On from Thinking Work to Organization and Essay Writing
As we learn and grow in our practice, more may be added to this post. It is certainly not meant to be tackled all in one sitting. During the actual trainings, teachers left each session with tools and homework to practice the work back in the classroom before returning for the next session. I recommend that this post be used in a similar way. Watch each video, explore some of the supporting resources under it, and try the work out in your classroom before moving onto the next video. If there is something specific you would like to see more of, leave a comment or shoot me an email. And as always, I am here to support Bensalem teachers.
As a parent, teacher, and instructional coach, I am saddened by the turn education has taken in a few short months. Frustration and anxiety are at an all time high for teachers, students, and parents. Many of us are just trying to survive on a daily basis. As teachers so much of this is outside of our control. We certainly are not responsible for the pandemic or the decisions districts make to keep our communities safe, but we are responsible for committing to best practice. In the last two months I have personally seen so many great teachers rise to the occasion, learn new and innovative ways to deliver instruction, and continue to hold close the fundamentals of best practice in reading and writing workshop. As we move toward a new hybrid model, I encourage everyone to do the same. The simplicity of it may be just what we need as we enter another new chapter that no doubt feels overwhelming.
The fundamentals of reading and writing workshop never change no matter the model– synchronous, asynchronous, full remote, hybrid, or 100% in person, but they do need to be reimagined.
In a hybrid, synchronous model, the minilesson is still mini. Whether you use the UOS virtual learning videos or give the minilesson yourself, a minilesson will fall somewhere in the 7-12 minute range, build an anchor chart, and include explicit modeling and even some guided practice.
In the hybrid model, one cohort in in the classroom receiving the instruction in person. The other cohort is in the Zoom where you may be sharing your screen.
So far we’ve done this…
Today, I’m going to teach you this…and model what that looks like using the mentor text or read aloud.
But What About Guided Practice and Turn and Talk?
To keep students actively engaged in minilessons we utilize brief moments to turn and talk about our own thinking. In this particular lesson, I am thinking about the characters in my read aloud and I need to determine who has the least to greatest amount of power before I can model my thinking about how a character responds to power. I might in a normal classroom say, “Here are the characters we’ve learned about so far. Turn and talk about the order you might put them in from greatest amount of power to least and what makes you say that.” But how does that work for the students at home? How does that work in the classroom with 6 feet of distance between turn and talk partner?
Well, it could be a turn and shout. Or it could be everyone at home is put into a breakout room for one minute with a partner to discuss while we turn and shout in the classroom. But something tells me that won’t be preferable to some. Maybe instead my in class students have white boards they can write on then turn and show. Turn and talk might instead be in the classroom, “Partner A – write down who you think has the greatest amount of power so far and why. Partner B – write down who has the least so far and why?” and after one minute they turn and show their thinking. The cohort at home can still use the breakout room to chat or you might say to those at home, “Jot your thinking in the chat”. After the minute you can share some thinking from the chat and the whiteboards you can see to avoid the close contact of the typical eavesdropping. If this is a system you use daily, it will be clunky at first in the beginning, but like everything else will smooth out as you and students become familiar with the procedure.
Now I’m ready to model how to think deeply about dystopian characters by using the next strategy of thinking about how characters respond in different ways to power. I might model my thinking for how Luke responds to power and provide more guided practice. I might send students back to the chat box or to the breakout room to discuss a different character while my in person students return to their whiteboard.
Even though students can’t lean in and discuss, it does not mean we abandon such an important practice. Utilize whiteboards, a piece of paper even, the chat box, and the breakout rooms so students can still participate in guided practice and conversation that is so essential for growing readers and writers. As you reimagine a practice, it will be clumsy at first for both you and kids, but when it becomes a part of what you do daily, it will quickly become second nature, much like the words, “turn and talk” do within a week of it being a norm in your typical classroom.
Once the minilesson is complete, we will continue to provide the sacred time of reading and writing independently. We will remind them of the kind of work they can do today by referring to their anchor chart and send them off.
If I have the ability to use multiple devices I might keep a timer going on one or set a timer on my phone to keep track. I live by my timers, and they can help some kids with time management and keeping focused. They can even be added inside student notebooks for students by inserting a video!
But What About Small Group and Conferring?
The minilesson exposes students to the rigor, but the real magic happens in small group and conferring. This is time where you are using your best tools in the shed to grow readers and writers. We may not have our small group table since furniture has been removed from classrooms to space student desks six feet apart, and we may not feel comfortable sitting along side a student to properly confer, but that does not mean we abandon our best tools! Much like turn and talk and guided practice, we need to reimagine what this will look like. This might look different from room to room depending on just how many actual students are in the room, but keeping six feet apart and trying to run a small group in person could be a challenge. The volume of your projected voice alone would be a distraction to the independent readers and writers in the room. What I might do instead is pull small groups from the cohort that is working from home into a breakout room. I’d let those in the classroom and at home know that during the independent reading and writing time, I will be pulling certain students at home into a breakout room. From there I will work on what kids need based on data from running records, performance assessments, and what I am seeing in reader’s and writer’s notebooks. I have the ability to open any students notebook if it is a digital one and confer — compliment, teach (what does this student need next?), send off to practice. This time is so incredibly sacred as it provides the differentiation for students and allows relationships to be built. This time cannot be put on the back burner.
A lot of times the last 5 minutes of reading workshop is a time to write fast and furious about what we noticed and our thinking. This doesn’t change in a hybrid setting. What may change is the share time. I may even use this 5 minutes to do my own writing based on the mentor text, read aloud, or my own independent reading.
Since we may not be able to end the class every day with turning and talking about what we worked on, we can at the very least utilize Zoom for those at home in the final minutes. We can use the breakout rooms to partner up students to talk about what they worked on today, what they noticed, and what it made them think. In writing, they might talk about what they worked on today, how it worked for them, and what they still need to do.
Avoid the Pitfalls
Instead of trying out every single digital tool that’s being thrown out there, choose maybe one or two and get good by doing them. I am a super simple online teacher. I use my slides, digital notebooks, and features in zoom like chat and breakout rooms. Even my notebooks are simple, much like the composition books I used in the classroom for years. I include the anchor chart right on the page for easy access for students, maybe some post its depending on the unit, and rubrics or guides when and as needed.
2. Avoid the scavenger hunt. Teachers don’t mean to do it, but this one I learned while trying to help my own children. If there are too many directions, too many links, too many things to open and try to find, it is exhausting and even I start to shut down. That is why I love the digital notebook and putting everything they need in one spot.
3. Not everything needs to be done through a screen. The independent time in reading, for example, is a solid 30+ minutes (unless the child is pulled for a small group that day) to read a book. Synchronous instruction for those in the remote cohort are not watching and listening to you all period. They are getting the minilesson and doing the independent practice. Avoid returning to an entire period of the sage on the stage. It was not best practice before and it’s not now either.
In other words…keep it simple. Consistency and the basics will be your friend now more than ever!
How Have YOU been Reimagining the Workshop?
I would love to hear your ideas. Comment here or shoot me an email. We are all in this together and can benefit from the thinking of our colleagues,
While the running record assesses the reading comprehension of a child through snapshots that indicate a just right reading zone, performance assessments assess an independent ability to think. Often times teachers will say to me that all of their students comprehend far below grade level, and I will look at the running record data and find a majority are actually reading on or above grade level. The students don’t necessarily need reading comprehension strategies or lower level texts; they need support to strengthen their thinking about reading. Those are a completely different set of skills.
I have heard many times that pre assessments are a waste of time. However, the purpose of the performance assessment is to guide decisions about small group instruction, additional minilessons, and even read aloud choices.
Using the Learning Progressions to Differentiate
A performance assessment will focus on a small number of specific skills like inferring about character. By matching the thinking to the learning progressions, teachers can determine at what level individuals are thinking about reading for 2-4 skills at a time and use that information to determine what strategies students need to grow their thinking.
We might also find through the performance assessment that a student’s thinking level is higher than their independent reading level. It is just as crucial to take this into account when meeting needs. That’s where read alouds and guided practice come in. These readers can still be given opportunities for thinking about reading and practicing these skills with a text they may not have been able to access independently, and they need these opportunities.
When we look only at independent reading comprehension or at independent thinking without also looking at the other, and we do not provide the differentiated instruction and opportunities to meet readers where they are, we are doing a huge disservice to them.
That is why using performance assessments to inform instruction is a powerful tool. One note of warning, however. Learners need a space for approximation. Don’t feel the need to assess and grade everything. Practicing skills can be clumsy, but we want kids to know that it’s okay to not have perfect notebook entries every day as they practice skills. Feedback not evaluation is important for growth.
Taking Ownership of Growth
One strategy to help learners take ownership of their growth is to invite them into the process. If they are writing about character, for example, use the learning progressions to show the good, better and best and determine where their current thinking sits and what they need to do to grow their thinking.
When you understand the purpose of any assessment and how it can work for you and your students, it becomes more valuable. Performance assessments provide us with very clear data that shows us exactly where kids are in their thinking and what they need next. While we want our students to be strong readers, we also need them to be strong readers who can think.
My experience with the parts of speech included the little grammar book that I remember as a student and later as a teacher. What I noticed, as both a student and a teacher, was that learning and teaching the parts of speech was like throwing a bunch of paper balls at a student and hoping something stuck. But it didn’t. So does that mean it’s completely useless to teach? Not at all, but it depends on how you teach it.
If you are using that little grammar book of lessons and practice, assigning worksheets, or even digital slides that are essentially worksheets, you may not be getting much to stick. That is because drilling out of context has been proven to ineffective. However, if you are using mentor texts and examining how the parts of speech impact writing and allowing students the time to go into their own writing, you are teaching grammar in context and you may find more success.
What Does This Look Like?
First, introduce a student-friendly definition. In this case, we are thinking about adjectives. Then allow students time to brainstorm. Whether they are in person or remote they can pick something in the classroom or in their home to describe coming up with as many examples as possible in a specified period of time.
They can also play tennis with the item they are describing. In person, name back and forth until the first person can no longer leaving it up to the other partner to keep going unit they can no longer think of any as well. In a hybrid classroom, breakout rooms can be used to partner up students.
Step one is quick…few minutes at most!
Find a mentor text to read to students and then examine just a piece of it looking closely for adjectives–words that describe people, places, or things.
Then remove the adjectives. Again this is just within a few minutes.
Ask students what effect the adjectives had on the text. Why did the author use the adjectives?
After studying this wrecked version of an informational text, we are showing not telling our students that adjectives provide precision and clarity in order to help readers understand. This would then lead to an invitation to revise.
If we are teaching the parts of speech in a way that teaches writers then we are more likely to improve writing, and isn’t that really the goal? Being able to name and identify parts of speech is not a life long goal; however, becoming a writer is. The research forever has proven that teaching grammar in isolation does not have positive effects on writing growth. In fact, it can cause more harm. Not only does it not stick, but the time wasted takes away from valuable writing time. Teaching grammar and the parts of speech in context of writing and using it as a means to transfer to student writing is a more effective approach.
Where Do I Start?
Think about the genre you are in. What are the parts of speech and conventions that will be important to learn and apply? The work is meant to transfer right into the current writing. For example, opinion and informational texts that need that precision and clarity will lend itself nicely to adjectives while strong verbs and strong nouns are necessary in narrative pieces. It might be useful to examine a mentor text for the genre and type of writing you are working in to determine what kids need. Studying realistic fiction, for example, might show me that strong nouns, strong verbs, paragraphing dialogue, and punctuating dialogue will be a helpful start. Think to yourself, what do they need now that they can go in and write or revise today.
*Note this same work can be done with the spiral unit book as well as the viewer’s guide within the virtual units.
Use the Viewer’s Guide in the Virtual Units of Study. It is such a powerful tool get yourself grounded in what is most important.
The Viewer’s Guide can be found in the introduction of the virtual unit.
When you open the Viewer’s Guide, you will get a session by session glance of what the teacher is teaching and what the students are doing.
By reading through what teachers will be teaching and what students will be doing, you will see a clear roadmap of where students are headed as well as patterns for what is most important.
Here’s a road map of what I noticed in the sixth grade personal narrative unit.
Prior to beginning any unit, it’s helpful to use the Viewer’s Guide to create your own roadmap to ground yourself in what’s ahead and to find the patterns that are most important because we can’t teach everything but the kitchen sink and hope it’s going to all stick.
I noticed when creating the roadmap for this unit that what was truly at the heart was craft and elaboration.
It would also be helpful to study student writing from past years or from the online resources for your units.
This unit, as many do, offers examples of student writing. By reading these examples, you might get a better picture of what to expect. It would also help to share these student samples with students. Let them know you are about to begin an exciting unit exploring personal narrative, for example, and share what previous students have written.
Ask them, “What do you notice about personal narrative?” and for each example, “What do you notice this particular student did when writing his/her personal narrative?” Let students make discoveries and have opportunities to discuss them. Then share the road map of the unit with them. This will help them to see what they are doing and why along the way.
You will also need to fold in some additional work based on what you notice students need based on their pre-assessment writing.
Determine the additional work you will be adding in based on what you notice in student writing that will serve as critical areas in conventions that need to be developed. This may become a secondary road map for you and students.
This work is blended in using mentor sentences. We want to develop their skills of paying attention to what writers do, why they do it, and the effect it has on the writing. Read more about that here in “Where Does Grammar Fit Into the Workshop?” We want to use our mentor sentences and what students notice to create anchor charts and use that work to revisit their own writing pieces and revise with this work in mind.
Keep what’s most important front and center. In almost every writing unit I have looked through I’ve noticed that what is at the heart of each unit is being a writer.
Each unit, no matter the type of writing, focuses on writers who set goals and make plans to achieve those goals; studying a great deal of mentor texts to notice craft moves and determining which moves to try out and use within their own writing; reflecting on goals, plans, craft choices, and growth as a writer; and determining new goals and new plans.
The idea is to teach the writer more so than the type of writing. That is not to say that the type of writing is not important, but it is secondary to teaching writers to become independent. Teaching them to set goals, create plans, use resources, and reflect. If you are able to foster that independence, then your writers will be able to succeed in anything they need or want to write.
The best way to teach and learn grammar, mechanics, conventions, style, rules, or whatever you want to call it, is to study and practice it in context. In our district, we support writers with the works of Jeff Anderson, Jennifer Serravallo, and the lessons found in the Units of Study, particularly in the If…Then…Curriculum of the Writing Units. While doing this work, we can pull mentor sentences from our read alouds, independent reading, and any other example of great writing.
What can we learn from great writing and great writers?
While reading the first chapter of Jason Reynolds’ Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, I was blown away by some of the great mentor sentences I could pull that reflect not only the elaborate style of “show not tell” but also the use of punctuation. Just look at this incredible example right on page one!
There are so many lessons that can be pulled from here, but sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. For example, look at the mentor sentence below.
By presenting a sentence and asking what they notice, it invites students to look at not just what authors do but also why they do it? What impact does the comma have on this sentence? What about the hyphens? Can we create rules for these or start an anchor chart? This is done best when students can talk it out with one another. In a remote setting it may be a slow discussion in Schoology or Google Classroom if not live.
Building an anchor chart over time
How about the comma in the mentor sentence below ? What do we notice? What impact does this comma have on the sentence? Can we continue to add to the anchor chart?
Not only are we focusing on the rules of punctuation, but we are examining beautifully written sentences that emphasize the magic of elaboration and “show don’t tell”.
Now how about this one? There are multiple commas. What do you notice about the commas? What impact does each have on the sentence? Can we add another rule to the anchor chart?
Jason Reynolds is my hero!
Look at more of the beauties I found just in chapter 1, focusing on similes, sensory details, commas, hyphens, dashes, italics, contractions, possessive nouns, types of sentences, dialogue, quotations, ellipses, and so much more!
Once you have students noticing and examining what authors do and how the writing is impacted, you can invite students to imitate and look into their own writing to use or correct.
You can also encourage students to pay attention to their own independent reading books for mentor sentences they can collect or even share with moves they can try to use within their own writing. Here’s one I found last night while reading.
What about grammar exercises?
There are many who learned grammar the traditional way with grammar textbooks, worksheets, and sentences to diagram or those who look to sitesthat are the modern version of those same things, but the research behind the effectiveness of that approach is very telling.
Teaching grammar will not make writing errors go away. Students make errors in the process of learning, and as they learn about writing, they often make new errors, not necessarily fewer ones. But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences. And lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing, are the three ingredients for helping students write in accordance with the conventions of standard English*.
The Writing Progressions for each genre found in the Units of Study online resources under the title Writing Pathways.
Student Writing for patterns and needs based on pre assessments, post assessments, and entries in the writer’s notebook.
The Eligible Content found in the PA Standards.
The Scope and Sequence recommended by PATTAN (click here). Look to see when skills should be introduced, reinforced, and mastered. The development of a skill and the need for reinforcement is generally spread out over several grade levels.