Featured

Poetry Is a Way to Connect Us During These Uncertain Times

By Georgia Heard, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

A good friend emailed me recently about joining my online poetry writing workshop. He said, “I need to be part of something, Georgia. I feel so disconnected and invisible.” My friend was brave enough to express what many of us have been feeling during the past several months. The need to be part of something. The need to connect with people in community. The need to feel like more than a small image on a Zoom meeting screen. Many of the children who look out from their separate thumbnail screens in virtual classrooms have been feeling this way too — disconnected and invisible — despite all the positive ways teachers are working to help students feel engaged and part of a community.

Those of us who teach writing and reading, and also love poetry, know that poetry has always been an antidote for feeling separate and unseen. Poetry can connect us. Poetry can shake the dust off of the stale and the stereotyped. Poetry can inspire empathy for others. Poetry can inspire change. Poetry can beckon us to look in the mirror and see the truth inside.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote: 

Do you want to know each other? [Poetry reaches]…across what can be a huge void between human beings.

That void has grown more cavernous since the beginning of the pandemic. 

In the past decade, the prominence of high-stakes, high-stress testing has swept poetry further into the corner of the classroom. But since the start of the pandemic, the emergence of “soft skills” such as building empathy, “social and emotional learning,”  and “trauma informed teaching” have emerged as essential for educating the whole child. Why did it take a pandemic for us to realize that without attending to children’s hearts and humanity  — education can be a dehumanizing experience for some children as we pour more and more content into a vessel called learning? 

Joy Harjo the current United States poet laureate says, “Poetry tends to hang out at points of transformation.”

At some point in our lives, whether curled up quietly on a couch, or gathered with friends and family at a wedding, or attending a funeral most of us have had the experience of reading or listening to a poem that touches our being, takes our breathe away, brings tears to our eyes, and affects us in some way that’s deep and, almost, inexplicable. How does a poem do this? 

When we read a poem that stirs us it is a convergence of words humming the same tune as our hearts. The poem whispers I know you. It recognizes us. And in this recognition we also recognize something forgotten in ourselves. Our circle gets wider and connects us to others whom we have never met. It awakens something that may have been frozen inside us. It helps us remember the sky we were born under as Joy Harjo writes in her poem “Remember.”

Poetry is not something you find only in April. Poetry is not a phonics’ worksheet exercise where children circle the double ee and long o sounds. Like a wild horse, poetry resists being corralled in reading test questions: What does the speaker doubt in lines 14-15

Poetry is what is present in the voices of people to whom it would hardly occur that this could be so. The way all speak in unselfconscious moments is the very stuff of poetry. The way we speak to our loved ones every day and night: when you tuck your children into bed; the first things you say to your spouse or partner when you wake up in the morning. When we speak in a voice that’s exclusively ours, that’s natural, when we’re not trying to be anything other than ourselves, that’s the stuff of poetry.

In a virtual poetry workshop, right after schools closed in April, fifth grade poets looked around their worlds with poet’s eyes to try to find poetry. Seeing the world with poet’s eyes is more than just trying to find a topic for a haiku or another kind of poem — it’s about polishing the film of familiarity and approaching life with a wide-awakeness, as Maxine Greene says.

“I use the term wide-awakeness,” Greene states. “Without the ability to think about yourself, to reflect on your life, there’s really no awareness, no consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t come automatically; it comes through being alive, awake, curious, and often furious.”

Poetry shimmered all around fifth graders’ worlds. They found poetry in:

Things that sing a deeper history

Doorknobs are like poems. They’ve been touched by so many hands.

Puzzles because there are so many different ways that things connected

but you don’t know until you look at the picture.

The moon

Laughter

Sadness

After they lived and wrote poetry for three weeks, I asked students if they had any advice for other poets who were embarking on a poetry journey. Here are a few words of wisdom:

My advice to other poets would be that everything holds poetry. You just have to take the time to realize it. You should write from your heart and think about the reason for your poem, and the meaning it has to you.

Poetry helped me during this hard time as it helped me stay calm, and jot down feelings. I wholeheartedly recommend this for anyone feeling stressed. My piece of advice to anyone would be to NOT RUSH A POEM. Let the words come from your heart, not from your hand.

Wise words indeed!

If you’re wondering how to begin with poetry one doorway is to find a poem you love, or have loved through the years. An aha poem.  Invite your students to do the same – to find a self-portrait poem, an identity poem, a poem that speaks to how you’re feeling. Carry it around in your pocket, in your head, in your heart as you go about your day. Paste it on your computer screen so when you need a break your poem can refresh you. Place it by your nightstand and let it be the last thing you read before you sleep. Reflect on it, and write alongside it as Teshager, a student of mine, did with Langston Hughes’ poem “Final Curve:”

When you turn the corner

And you run into yourself

Then you know that you have turned

All the corners that are left

 “Final Curve” awakened this realization, this truth, in Tesagher :

You too might find that poetry is an antidote for feeling disconnected and invisible during this challenging and sad time. A scientific vaccine for COVID-19 will come, hopefully, soon but poetry can offer a different kind of cure — as the last line of Julia Alvarez’s poem “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry” asks, What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?

Georgia Heard is a founding member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York City. She received her MFA in Poetry from Columbia University.  Currently, she is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and in schools around the United States and the world. 

She is the author of numerous books on writing including: Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School which was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the “10 Books Every Teacher Should Read,” Finding the Heart of Nonfiction: Teaching 7 Essential Craft Tools with Mentor Texts, Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Student Writing and Poetry Every Day (forthcoming). In addition, she has published several children’s poetry books including Boom! Bellow! Bleat! Animal Sounds for Two Or More Voices and My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness (forthcoming).website: www.georgiaheard.com   Follow her on Twitter:@georgiaheard1

A Reflection on Cultivating Genius

By Vince Puzick

Note: I emailed Hollyanne Bates (CCIRA’s blog curator) on January 1, 2021 to ask if I could submit a blog about our current “book study.” Like many of you, I have read and re-read Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy over the past several months. I envisioned writing a blog focused on identity and equity and to invite CCIRA members to email me with your reflections in May for a blog to close out the book study. Then, January 6, 2021 happened.

Gholdy Muhammad writes, “I define text as anything that can be read – both print texts and nonprint texts. Society members were reading print texts but they were also reading the world as texts (Freire and Macedo, 1987). They read images and the social times as texts” (emphasis mine, 33). 

And, oh my. We have been handed a lot to read when we consider the current images and the present social times as texts. 

We are inundated with competing voices, multiple perspectives, hostile rhetoric, and (occasionally?) reasoned argument. Our screens load visual images that have us questioning, and maybe leave us anxious and unnerved. 

I have immersed myself these past few days in considering Muhammad’s concept of criticality: “Criticality enables us to question both the world and the texts within it to better understand the truth in history, power, and equity” (117).  We must interrogate the world and its texts. Passive, disengaged consumption of texts is not enough. It has never been enough. But today, students must “interrogate the world not only to make sense of injustice but also to work toward social transformation” (120).

It’s a tall order.  

Gholdy Muhammad’s definition offered at the beginning of her book stayed with me each time I re-read:  “Literacy is not just about reading words on the page… Reading and writing are transformative acts that improve self and society” (emphasis mine, page 9).

When I embrace the idea that literacy is a “transformative act,” and when I broaden the definition of text to include “anything that can be read,” her Framework rises to a whole new level of importance beyond another “literacy framework” focused on decoding and comprehension of complex texts.

If I truly believe – and I do – that authentic literacy empowers students, then in what ways will I think and act as an educator? I hold Muhammad’s statement to be true:  “Teachers must ask if they will be transformed by the learning as they expect and want students to be transformed” (emphasis mine, 78). 

The classroom must be a transactional environment as well as a transformative one: “Criticality does not believe in hierarchies in teaching and learning” (122). What instructional decisions do I make to disrupt that hierarchy? What does classroom discussion look and sound like? What texts are students reading – and who is making the decision for those texts? And what criteria drive those decisions? 

I am a learner within a community of learners as I work with students in the interrogation of the texts in front of them – print, nonprint, visual, oral, and digital. Further, I learn the identities of my students: identities as readers, identities in cultural contexts, in historical contexts, and in the context of an educational system that has not served all of our students in equitable and meaningful ways. 

Ultimately, at this moment in time marked by anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, I understand Gholdy Muhammad’s declaration that “Who we are is connected to historical, institutional, political, and sociocultural factors” (69). 

If teachers are to be “transformed by the learning,” then we must center student voices; we must honor and value all that they bring to the classroom. We must read and listen closely to learn “the realities and lived experiences of persons experiencing the moment, which equally contribute to the same narrative” (120). 

We are, all of us, connected to, and can be connected through, this moment in time.

I invite you to share your reflections and responses to Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.  My goal is to gather many (if not all?) of your responses in a blog later in the spring. Email your thoughts to vincent.puzick@gmail.com and please, for ease in gathering, use “Cultivating Genius” in the subject line.  

Vince Puzick served in public education for over 32 years as a college composition instructor, high school English teacher, and K-12 content specialist in literacy and language arts. He now provides professional development in standards-based curriculum design and instructional practice.  When the weather is nice (which is every day), he is fly fishing on one of Colorado’s rivers and probably daydreaming. He is working on a series of literary nonfiction pieces tentatively titled Americana.  Vince lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Jannetta, his daughter, two stepdaughters, a dog, and a cat named Trout.  

Because I Like It! The Humble Beginnings of a Lifelong Reader

By Kathy Collins

Will you take a moment to think of someone you admire as a reader? As you gather your thoughts, I’ll share mine: I immediately think of two long-time friends. One reads voraciously, as if they are satisfying hunger. They read widely across genres and topics; their critiques and opinions about books are compelling and thought-provoking, often affecting my perspective and my reading lists. They are also book pushers – recommending and passing along texts they’ve loved or that they think I’ll love. 

My other person COMMITS  – for him, reading is laborious and requires enormous focus, but even so, he makes time for it and reads deeply about anything of interest. Coyotes – he read so much in a short time that he has become a cocktail party coyote expert. Medieval Japan? He’s read on this topic for years – something that has nothing to do with his daily life and everything to do with his curiosity. He says that the act of reading isn’t exactly pleasurable, but its results are rewarding.

So, now, who are the readers you admire? What are the characteristics you find admirable? 

I ask about this during certain workshops. As teachers turn to each other and share, we listen to stories about the best friend who goes to readings by every single author (emphasis on single) at the independent bookstore in her town, whether or not she has interest in the featured book, saying that’s how she makes her best discoveries (and potentially a love connection). We hear about people with self-driven reading pursuits and projects, like the teacher who shared that her wife wanted to build a deck on their house. She read every house magazine, blog, and resource on DIY deck design and building. 

We hear about the wide variety of social lives around reading, including stories of a grandma who has been faithful to the same bible study for fifty years, a big family who gifts already-read books when they get together for the holidays, and a couple who fell in love during their bookstore cafe courtship and created a ritual of seeking independent bookstores wherever they travel. But mostly, the reasons we admire others as readers are less Hollywood-ending or rom-com meet-cute. Often we admire others for the simple reason that they manage to read – like the teacher who shared the story of a colleague’s reveal: she hides out from her family in the guise of ‘using the bathroom’ which this teacher found admirable because it proved her valiant commitment to reading at least a little bit each day. 

Nobody has ever shared their admiration for their best friend’s SAT score. Nobody has talked breathlessly about their husband’s reading level or their sister-in-law’s self-correction ratio. I’ve never heard anyone say they admire a colleague because they read super-hard books nor has anyone expressed awe for a neighbor who is fabulous at predicting. Nobody has ever named a lover who has amazing reading stamina. Actually, come to think of it, nobody in my workshops has ever even said “lover.”

When I work in pre-school to middle school classrooms, I’ll sneak moments here and there to ask children a version of the question, “Who is a reader you admire, and why?” Again, I’ve collected responses, and here are the kinds that tend to recur. (Fig. 1.2)

The differences between the children’s responses and those of adults are revealing. While adults tend to appreciate characteristics of a person’s reading life and reading habits, the kids seem to admire readers based on their perceptions of reading strength and skill, characteristics that are, in some ways, more quantitative: reading speed; book level; page count, and test scores. Children also reveal their sensitivity to and awareness of who’s getting what kind of instruction, who’s being hauled off for extra reading help, and who’s praised or left unnoticed by the teacher. Finally, children often admire another based on what kind of book they’re reading- the more chapters and pages, the more to admire.

It’s rare for a child to name a characteristic they appreciate about someone else’s reading life, the way they think about texts, or their habits around reading. Children’s responses reflect what they believe is valued in school and suggest that so much of our reading instruction is focused on how to read, skill-wise, and most of what kids know and admire about each other is what they read, level-wise.

There’s another question that I ask teachers at the beginning of certain presentations. I’ll ask them to take a moment to think of something they’ve read that continues to matter to them in some way.

Teachers’ responses often include texts or characters from books that have had been instructive or helpful at particular moments in their lives. For example, one teacher named three titles she has read over a stretch of time – a novel, a memoir, and a self-help/affirmations type of book – that deal with the death of a partner because that’s her ongoing journey. Another teacher asked if songs count and said she has a playlist of songs with lyrics that have spoken to her in different times in her life. Someone talked about how a particular book changed how she viewed her twin brother’s wife and has had a profound and lasting effect on their relationship…for the better. 

Adults often cite texts that remind them of a time in their lives. For example, one teacher named DaVinci Code, explaining that she wasn’t usually attracted to that genre or type of book. It was left behind in a youth hostel where she was staying. She read it, just because it was there. Now, years later, every time she thinks of the book or hears a reference to it, she is immediately transported to a time in her life when she was unencumbered, traveling on her own, seeing the world. Another teacher named his grandmother’s old-timey cookbook, saying that he keeps the cookbook because it’s full of his grandmother’s margin jots about the recipes. This book matters to him because it connects him to her. As you might expect, when I’m in classrooms, I’ll ask children, “What’s a book that really matters to you, that sticks with you, and why?”  Here are some responses that are most typical:

Although this is certainly not a scientific study, I can vouch that a large number of children just don’t know what to say or how to answer, or at least they don’t have the title or recollection of a text of personal significance right there on the tip of their tongues. When children do name books, they often cite the one they are currently reading in school.

Children’s responses about significant books are, again, qualitatively different from what adults say. Please know that in highlighting the contrast, I am not belittling children’s responses. Nor do I expect (or hope) a six year-old will respond like a sixteen year-old, or a sixteen year old will respond like a sixty-year old. A child’s unfiltered response is worthy of our respect and consideration, as is. The important reason to attend to the contrast in responses between adults and children when asked about texts of significance is because of what it reveals about children’s understandings of the purpose of books and other texts and act of reading. 

Most grown-ups tend to name texts that have insinuated themselves into their lives, even though these texts may have been read long ago. Usually, adults name texts that matter because they inform or inspire, provoke or evoke, challenge or comfort, transport or affirm, and so on. 

Many children, especially in elementary school grades, name books that epitomize an achievement, and by this, I mean books that show off reading growth with respect to level or reading status. One story this tells us is that for a great many children, the primary function of books is to serve as ladder steps enabling them to climb to higher levels, and what they (and the adults around them) value is the level or the achievement more than the impact that book had in their lives. Another story this might tell is that children haven’t yet had time and space in the rush through curriculum and frenzied scramble through levels to even consider significance or what it feels like when a book really matters. That would require a bit of slowing down and lingering. Who’s got time for that?!

Another story children seem to internalize about what makes a book significant is that the harder the book, the better the book and, therefore, the better the reader. There is status and an intellectual aura conferred upon children who, for example, read chapter books in early grades, who read thick, page-dense books in upper grades, and who read edgy or content-mature books in middle school.

If these are the reasons books matter to kids, well, then these reasons matter, partly because they illuminate how important it is for our instruction and our classroom environment to provide opportunities for children to internalize more and varied stories about Reading Lives and about how engaged readers pursue, acknowledge, and hold on to texts that matter to them.

One of the stories that seems to be missing, for many kids, is that text significance lies not in the size or level or page count of the text they’re reading, but in the effect the text has on them, the response it inspires, the human connections it forges, the understandings it facilitates, the empathies it enables, or, simply, the way a text, a character, a series can become part of or change the stories of their lives. 

I want to be clear, though. It’s not that we need to expect many six year-olds to say that Knuffle Bunny matters to them because it’s an incisive commentary on personal responsibility, nor for ten-year olds to say that The Diary of a Wimpy Kid opened their eyes to the idea of white male mediocrity. Instead, something we can hope for is that children can name books that matter to them, and when asked why, children will declare, with enthusiasm:

“Because I Like It” is not to be underestimated.

When children say a book matters to them because they like it, it may sound like a quick, simplistic, superficial response, and, as a consequence, it’s undervalued. But the truth is that being able to name texts one likes is the necessary and humble beginning to becoming someone who chooses to read, has favorite texts and authors, and identifies as a reader. ‘Because I like it’ books and other texts can be the launch point of an activity, passion, hobby, inquiry, vocation or habit that can grow big and important in one’s life. 

It’s worth our teaching time to nurture children’s dispositions to fall in love with texts, authors, genres, series, and so on. In addition, it’s also vital to provide opportunities for children to articulate why they love a particular thing as well as the process for how they fell in love with it. When kids’ processes for falling for a text are shared out loud, the act of falling for a text is more easily or likely to be replicated with another text or by another child. 

In 2007, 2012 and again in 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report including data about adult pleasure reading habits, which Dana Gioia, then Chairperson of the NEA, described as “the most complete and up-to-date report of the nation’s reading trends, and perhaps more important – their considerable consequences.” (2007).

The report does several things. Drawing from data gathered from many different sources and studies, it details a story about reading volume and reading proficiency among the nation’s adult population. I want to acknowledge that these points are debatable if we stretch the definition of reading from a narrow focus on reading words to also include reading visual texts, and when we expand the boundaries of reading terrain from book reading and literary texts to include on-line content, alternatives to books, and texts that are not considered literary. Furthermore, we have to ask who is defining reading proficiency, and the corollary question, who benefits from the definition? Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that a report compiled in 2007 or even 2012 couldn’t possibly include comprehensive data about digital reading habits associated with tablets and smart phones and other devices, the impact of social media on reading, and adults’ interactions with the newer text types, including memes, gifs, posts, blogs, tweets, quick videos, etc. In any case, the volume and proficiency of adult readers (and associated debates around these matters) are not the parts of the report that I will focus on.

The report shares correlations between adults’ pleasure reading, also referred to as voluntary reading, and its relationship with other measures of adult lives.  According to the data, there are clear indications of the importance of having a voluntary/pleasure reading life as an adult and the potential consequences of not having one.

Mr. Gioia writes, “Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways.” According to the NEA study, engaging in pleasure/voluntary reading as adults correlates with several things, including academic and economic success, more participation in cultural activities and events, higher civic engagement, and, wait for it, increased exercise!

I want to acknowledge two things. First, that old saying, “correlation does not mean causation” needs to be applied here. In other words, just because data show that having a pleasure-reading life correlates to more civic engagement, it doesn’t mean that pleasure-reading is the cause of civic engagement, or that participating in the civic life of one’s community is caused by reading for pleasure. 

I’m sure we all know people in our lives who may not read for pleasure but who regard voting as a sacred act; or someone who would never choose to read, given an hour of free time, but who performs as a mime every weekend in a local park and who co-founded the International Organization of Juggling Mimes in Parks – or something artsy like that.

Obviously, having a pleasure reading life isn’t the singular pre-requisite for civic engagement, cultural event participation, exercise, or higher salaries. It’s just that a pleasure reading life strongly correlates with these things among survey respondents, which included thousands of adults of varied race, ethnicity, socioeconomic levels, educational attainment, and so on.

So, my read on this report goes like this: Sure, the report is a decade old, and yes, there are likely to be some reliability and validity issues, as there are for many studies, but it makes TOTAL COMMON SENSE to me that reading for pleasure can be important to the lives of individuals and to the health of communities. And, by the way, I still can’t get over the surprising correlation between pleasure reading and more exercise! 

When kids have lots of experiences with texts they like and when they find pleasure in the act of reading, it stands to reason that as they grow up, they’ll be more likely to be an adult pleasure reader. This may increase the chance that they’ll be an awesome citizen and neighbor, healthy and active, and involved and connected with their community in a number of ways. Maybe that’s just me dreaming the dream. I acknowledge that I have no ‘science of reading’ data to back this up, but I know that reading for pleasure can’t hurt and certainly can help our children’s reading lives. As Sharon Murphy writes, ““When pleasure and reading are companions, we know very well that children become engaged readers and are likely to continue to read throughout their lives. (2012)”

So, children’s regular expressions of “BECAUSE I LIKE IT” in reference to texts and to the act of reading are not simply a bonus outcome or fringe benefit of our reading instruction. Instead, “BECAUSE I LIKE IT” must be a constant inspiration and steady companion to our instruction, standing tall alongside beside the Big Three of our instruction: Reading with Accuracy (decoding skills), Reading with Fluency (fluency skills) and Reading with Meaning (comprehension skills). Here’s to adding Reading With Pleasure and creating a Big Four.

Our world might very well be better for it.

(This is an excerpt of a chapter from Whole Readers (working title) Stenhouse Publishing, 2021.)

Some “Because I Like It” Book Resources:

www.clarelandrigan.com 

www.disrupttexts.org

www.diversebooks.org

www.americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com

www.theconsciouskid.org

References:

Murphy, Sharon. (2012) “Reclaiming Pleasure in the Teaching of Reading.” Language Arts, v89 n5 p318-328 May 2012

National Endowment for the Arts. To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2007. https://www.arts.gov/publications/read-or-not-read-question-national-consequence-0 

Kathy Collins is coauthor with Matt Glover of the Heinemann title I Am Reading. Kathy is the beloved author of Growing Readers as well as Reading for Real. She presents at conferences and works in schools all over the world to support teachers in developing high-quality, effective literacy instruction in the elementary school grades. Kathy has worked closely with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and she was a first grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York.

The Top 5 Blog Posts of 2020

by Hollyanna Bates

CCIRA has been here for educators for over 50 years. There have been many challenges along the way, but CCIRA has remained strong. This past year has been full of surprises and innovation as educators navigate new ways of working with students using remote platforms. Through the pandemic, CCIRA is here, ready to connect you to professional networks and to provide access to quality professional development.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Johns via Unsplash.

Our blog has been providing quick and easy PD since its inception three years ago. Educators across the country subscribe and often repost on social media channels. Each year our readership grows, expanding the reach of CCIRA. The posts this year have been some of the best. There has been a steady stream of thoughtful and helpful responses to teaching online. Below you will find the Top 5 Blog Posts of 2020, listed by order of popularity.

1. Reading in a Pandemic: How Did It Suddenly Become So Difficult? by Carol Jago

2. The Fab 4 Comprehension Strategies: Accelerating Reading NOW! by Lori Oczcus

3. An Essential Tools for All Readers by Gail Boushey and Alison Behne

4. Who Will Sound the Alarm by Lester Laminack

5. Entering Stories Through Mood by Trevor Bryan

Conferring with Mentor Texts

By Carl Anderson

I love to have writing conferences with students!  In these 1:1 conversations with students, which we have when we teach writing onsite or online, we’re best able to differentiate instruction, meet students’ varied needs, and get to know them as writers and people.  For all these reasons, conferences are the most important teaching we do in writing workshop. 

I especially love writing conferences in which I use mentor texts to teach the craft of writing—for example, how write effective leads, how to transition from one part to another, or how to write precise, beautiful details.  A mentor text is a well-written text that we show students to help them see how they can craft their own writing.   Mentor texts can be published texts by well-known authors, texts we’ve written ourselves, or texts written by students.

It’s important to teach with mentor texts in conferences for several reasons.  Mentor texts help students envision the craft moves they can make when they’re drafting and revising.  They help students understand that reading is central to the act of writing, because when we teach with mentor texts, students learn to “read like writers,” a kind of close reading in which writers notice how writers craft their writing.  And mentor texts help us teach effectively, too.  When we teach with a mentor text, we’re able to teach descriptively, instead of prescriptively.

How can you confer with mentor texts, or improve the way that you’re already conferring with them?  Here are some of steps you can take to do this important kind of teaching.

Preparing for Craft Conferences

Unlike mini-lessons and small groups, where you know what you’re teaching beforehand and have already selected which mentor text you’re going to use in the lesson, when you begin a conference, you don’t know exactly what you’ll teach students—and, if it’s going to be a craft conference, which mentor text you’ll use.  This means that you’ll need to prepare differently for conferences, so you’re ready to teach one of a wide variety of craft techniques.   

You’ll prepare for craft conferences by assembling a stack of mentor texts, and having them with you when you confer. Usually, a stack contains 3-4 different texts.  You won’t need more than that because each of the texts in the stack will enable you teach many different craft techniques.  Together, a stack of 3-4 texts will contain many craft techniques.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

The First Part of the Conference 

In the first part of a conference, your job is to discover what kind of writing work a student is doing as a writer.  You’ll do this by beginning conferences with an open-ended question, like “How’s it going?” or “What are you doing today as a writer?”  In some conferences, you’ll find out that students are working on an aspect of process—finding a topic to write about, planning a draft, revising or editing.   In others, you’ll learn that students are working on an aspect of craft—they’re figuring out the structure of their piece, using punctuation to create voice, or writing an ending, etc.  When you discover that a student is doing craft work, you’ll know right away that you’ll be teaching with a mentor text.

The Second Part of the Conference

Once you know that the conference will focus on an aspect of craft, you have to do some quick thinking.  You need to decide what to teach, and then select which mentor text you’ll use, all in a few moments.

To do this, you’ll:

  1. Read the student’s writing and ask yourself, “What does this student know so far about doing the kind of craft work?”  That is, you’ll ask yourself about the partial understanding the student has of the work.
  2. To decide what to teach, ask yourself, “Considering what the child knows so far, what is a next step for them?”
  3. Finally, ask yourself, “Which mentor text in my stack shows this next step?”

The Third Part of the Conference

In the third part of a craft conference, you’ll teach the student how to craft their writing more effectively.  To do this, you might teach the student a new craft technique, or show them how to use a craft technique they’re already using even better.  

You’ll take several steps to teach with a mentor text:

  1. Start by naming the craft technique you’ll be teaching the student.
  1. Make the text visible to the student.  If you’re teaching onsite, place the mentor text in between you and student.  To share the text in a socially distanced way, use a document camera to project the text onto a nearby screen. If you’re teaching online, use your online platform’s “share screen” function to show students a JPG or PDF you made of the mentor text that you’ve placed on your computer’s desktop.  
  1. Name the author of the text.  Doing this helps students understand that an actual person wrote the text, one who crafted their writing in ways that students can learn from.
  1. Read aloud the part of the mentor text that contains the craft technique you’re teaching.  Hearing the technique read aloud helps students internalize the way it sounds.
  1. Describe the craft technique precisely.

Finding Good Mentor Texts

To confer with mentor texts, you’ll need to have a collection of them!  Start by taking stock of the texts you already have, and see which units of study you have enough texts for already (usually, a stack of 3-4 texts will be enough for a unit).  For the units for which you don’t have enough texts, it’s a good idea to make a stack ahead of time, so you aren’t scrambling to find texts while you’re in the middle of the unit.

You can find excellent mentor texts in several places:

  • Your classroom library will have many potential texts.
  • Ask colleagues to share the ones they use.
  • Ask your school librarian to help you find texts.
  • Look for collections of particular genres written for children.
  • Children’s magazines like Highlights and Time For Kids have a wide variety of texts in them.
  • Google “Sources of Mentor Texts”—you’ll immediately find several websites in which educators discuss their favorite mentor texts.

As you choose mentor texts for your collection, use these criteria:

  • Choose texts you love, so you’ll discuss them with enthusiasm and passion.
  • Select texts you think your students will be moved by in some way, so that students will want to see how the authors wrote the texts to cause these reactions.
  • Students should see themselves, as well their lives and interests, mirrored in the texts, which will help students be more interested in studying them—and be inspired to write about their lives and interests, as well.
  • The authors of your mentor texts should reflect the diversity of students in your classroom.  Students are more likely to develop identities as writers when they can see that authors of mentor texts are like them in important ways, such as gender, race, or ethnicity.
  • You see lots of craft techniques in the texts that you can teach your students, techniques that are in students’ “zones” as writers.

Resources

Carl Anderson is an internationally recognized expert in writing instruction for grades K-8.  He works as a consultant for schools and districts around the world.  Carl is the author of How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers, Assessing Writers, and A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences K-8.  Look for his next book, A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts K-5, in 2022.  Website:  www. conferringcarl.com  Twitter:  @Conferringcarl

5 Baskets to Add to Every Virtual Classroom Library!

By Clare Landrigan, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

You know that saying … if you build it, they will come?  For me, this saying has manifested in ways I could have never imagined with the virtual bookroom I created last April.  Since then, this virtual space filled with hyperlinks has connected me to educators and students across the world.  This idea started because of the need for access to books in a time when even public libraries were closed, and it continues to grow as we think about authentic ways to engage our students as readers virtually.  Here are five baskets every teacher should add to their virtual classroom library to maximize student identity, engagement and choice:

Classroom Author Baskets

Our writers need an audience and our readers need access to text – this idea is a win-win!  Create digital book baskets filled with your students’ writing.  Their peers can choose to read these during independent reading or even for their book club.  I love watching authors join book club meetings to answer questions and listen to how their text impacted their readers.  Time is a precious commodity right now, this is an easy, meaningful way for our students to publish their writing and connect with an audience. 

         

#Trending

For many of us, reading is social – it is about being a member of a community.  Readers often consider what friends, colleagues, neighbors and family members are reading when they choose books.  Students cannot meet together and physically pour over books with one another right now.  They are not browsing together in their classroom libraries.  We need to find ways for them to connect and share texts virtually so our classroom reading community can support each other.  Organizing the books students recommend digitally into a basket provides a space for them to interact. We include student book reviews, audio booktalks, and video book trailers in addition to actual texts so students can consider their peers’ point of view.  All of this can be easily organized into a digital bin (Cherry-Paul and Johansen, 2014) in your virtual classroom library.  

Anyone Interested?

Research has demonstrated the importance of inquiry in student engagement.  In his book, The Curious Classroom, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels focuses on the impacts of student-directed inquiry, “Students were seized by curiosity, hungry to build knowledge, and fully in charge of their own learning. And those experiences, those habits of mind, will serve them for the rest of their lives.”  Allowing students to create digital text sets for the classroom library seems to be the perfect opportunity for students to get invested in a topic of interest with peers.  They can choose to read in depth, across varied texts, and experience how reading can propel their inquiry and thirst for information.  Students may choose any topic or a focus within a content area of study. Students may work independently or in collaboration with peers to research, share, and build their knowledge. This provides students with an authentic, meaningful literacy experience that they can take charge of! 

Help Wanted!

Every writer needs a reader throughout the writing process.  Audience is an abstract concept for young writers. It can be difficult to envision a person reading a finished piece of writing while it’s still being drafted. It helps to share writing throughout the process to receive response and suggestions from readers.  Enter the perfect collaborative reason to read and respond.  We add a Help Wanted basket to the virtual classroom library so students can add their writing throughout the process and ask for peers to respond.  Peers share questions, reactions, and ideas. They think about characters, information, structure, theme, point of view, feelings, and tension.  Students read these texts during independent reading, writing workshop and even during their free time. 

 Audiobooks

Students need access to recorded texts. Students can choose a favorite book to record for younger students or for their peers.  They can focus on their storytelling voice and bringing characters to life as they read their text aloud – slowing down to show the pictures as needed.  These recordings are organized into digital classroom library baskets and then shared with other teachers in the school for students to listen to during independent reading, partner reading, or for book clubs.  

If you don’t have a virtual classroom library, read this to learn how to use the free virtual bookroom to get started and check out these resources to DIY your classroom library with Padlet, Google Doc or Bitmoji. 

Clare Landrigan is a staff developer who is still a teacher at heart. She leads a private staff development business partnering with school systems to implement best practices in the field of literacy. She believes that effective professional development includes side by side teaching; analysis of student work; mutual trust; respect; and a good dose of laughter. She is the co-author of, It’s All About the Books published by Heinemann and Assessment in Perspectivepublished by Stenhouse.  Clare is on the board of The Book Love Foundation and you can find her online at TwitterFacebookInstagram, and at her website, where she blogs about books and the art of teaching.