Entering Stories Through Mood

By Trevor Bryan, 2021 CCIRA Conference Presenter

One of the easiest paths to take into a story is to think about the mood or moods that the author or illustrator is showing their audience. Whether you are reading a wordless picture book, a picture book, graphic novel, middle grade novel, novel or watching an animated short, TV show, movie or play, the same holds true: narratives are told through mood and so thinking about the mood and what’s causing the mood is the straightest shot to getting at the heart of the story. If we think about what a story is, it can help us to understand why entering narratives through mood is so effective.

How Stories Work: Three Main Ingredients

What’s a story? How do they work? These are straightforward questions but ones that don’t get talked about too much. But it makes sense that if we want our students to be able to discuss narratives well, and if we want them to craft narratives that will resonate with their intended audience, they know what a story is and how they work.

All stories are built using three basic ingredients: events and action, reactions to the event or action and reasons for the reaction to the events or action. In stories, things have to happen. There has to be some event or some action that takes place. There has to be a plot. Often, we think of this, the plot, as the story but, in fact, the plot is not the story. This is why, when students write “stories” where they explain a sequence of events (this happened, and then this happened, and then, and then, etc) they not only don’t sound like stories, they are excruciating to listen to or read.

The story is actually the reaction and the reason for the reaction to the events or action taking place. Let’s look at a quick example of what I mean.

Imagine that I wrote a story that started:

I woke up. I never felt so excited in my life. It was my birthday.

We have an event: I woke up. We have a reaction: I felt excited. We have a reason for the reaction: It’s my birthday. This all makes sense to us as readers because we can infer why a character would feel excited on their birthday.

Now imagine I started my story this way:

I woke up. I never felt so sad in my life. It was my birthday.

In this case, we have the exact same event but a totally different reaction which creates a totally different story. Furthermore, we have the same reason for the reaction, it’s my birthday, but we can’t really infer why a character would feel so sad on their birthday. For the audience, more information is needed. As the writer, my job would be to explain the reason for the reaction further so that the story makes sense. If an audience doesn’t understand all three ingredients, at least at some point, then they are going to feel confused and disconnected from the story.

Two Real Life Examples

Let’s look at two examples from the real world. I chose two books that I think (that I hope) you are familiar with, The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds and Wonder by R. J. Palacio. We’ll look at the opening of The Dot first.

In the opening illustration of The Dot we see an illustration of the main character, Vashti, sitting backwards with her arms folded, all alone, a scowl on her face, engulfed in a murky, greenish , grayish color. She does not look happy. Besides the illustration are the words, “Art class was over, but Vashti sat glued to her chair. Her paper was empty.”

Event: Art class happened.

Reaction: Vashti is frustrated and didn’t do anything.

Reason for the Reaction: ?

At this point in the story, the audience doesn’t know the reason for the reaction. They can make a prediction based on the question, “Why would Vashti feel frustrated right now?” but it is difficult to make an exact inference based on the information given. However, once we turn the page, the reason for the reaction, the reason for Vashti’s mood, the reason for Vashti’s frustration is given. “I just can’t draw!”

Because the reader now clearly knows the event, the reaction and the reason for the reaction, they are in the heart of the story.

Wonder is set up a little bit differently. The first chapter, which is one page (pg. 3) starts with the main character, Auggie, giving some background information about his facial disfigurement. “My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” One thing that background information does, is that it often provides a reason for the reaction. So unlike in The Dot, where the audience finds out the reason for the reaction after the event and reaction are shown, in Wonder a reason for the reaction is provided upfront.

On the very next page (pg.4), with the first two sentences, we find out the event and Auggie’s reaction to the event. We even get a second reason for the reaction. R. J. Palacio writes, “Next week I start fifth grade. Since I’ve never been to a real school before, I am pretty much totally and completely petrified.”

Event: Fifth grade is starting.

Reaction: Totally and completely petrified.

Reason for the reaction (stated): Auggie has never been to a real school before.

Reason (inferred): Auggie has a facial disfigurement that can make interaction with other people difficult and uncomfortable.

Whether you are reading a simpler narrative like The Dot, or a more complex narrative like Wonder both stories are built with the three ingredients: having a clear event, a reaction and a reason for the reaction. By understanding these three ingredients, the audience can settle into the story being shared.

Reactions are the Mood

As humans, we react to everything emotionally. When we see a sunrise, wake up on a rainy day, when it’s time to go to gym class, hear our favorite song, see a dog, we feel a certain way. If we have a strong enough reaction, a strong mood, then we have a story that might be shareable. Stories are told through mood. Showing the mood or the reaction to whatever events or actions are taking place, is one of the main jobs of a writer, illustrator or actor. What’s interesting is that although they all use a different symbol system to present the information to the audience, they all show the same information. An actress can frown, a writer can write, “She frowned,” and the illustrator can draw the character frowning. Following are the Access Lenses (illustrated by the incredible Peter H. Reynolds!), a tool that can help you and your students to identify key details that will help them to figure out a character’s reaction and mood.


Mood Structures

Narratives normally have more than one event. The different events (the action) are shown using the building blocks of stories, scenes. And because different scenes usually have different events taking place, there are also different reactions or moods being shown. And because there are different moods, this means that stories have a change of moods or what I call, Mood Structures. So once audiences identify a mood, their next job is to get ready for a change of mood. Below is a simple drawing that shows the three most basic Mood Structures. In simple stories, such as The Dot, there is often only one major mood change. In longer, more complex stories like Wonder, the audience might see several mood changes. For example, each chapter might have it’s own mood structure. The mood changes are what cause the emotional roller-coaster that makes stories fun.


Symbols in Stories

Anything that causes a mood is symbolic of that mood. For Vashti, drawing is a symbol of frustration. For Auggie, going to school makes him feel petrified. School equals scary. Thinking about things that cause a mood as a symbol makes it easier to make a meaningful text-to-self connection to a story. We all have things in our life that make us feel frustrated or that make us feel scared. Furthermore, we also know other characters who have felt frustrated or scared about something and so thinking symbolically can help us make strong text-to-text connections too.

Positive and Negative Symbols

Just like with moods, symbols can be positive or negative. Characters, settings, objects or events that cause a negative mood are negative symbols. And characters, settings, objects or events that cause a positive mood are positive symbols. Often in stories, the way an author changes a mood is by having a positive or negative symbol show up. In many stories, positive symbols can be thought of as symbols of hope and support and negative symbols can be thought of as symbols of obstruction and destruction.  For instance in The Dot, when Vashti is feeling totally frustrated, her teacher ( a symbol of support) shows up and helps to get her started drawing. And in Wonder, when Auggie enters the dreaded lunchroom and is blatently excluded and forced to sit all by himself, Summer ( a symbol of hope and support) decides to sit with him. We could all use more Summer in our lives!

Symbols can also change in stories. Art clearly starts out negative for Vashti but by the end of the book art is a symbol of creativity and Joy for her. Likewise, in Wonder, school starts out as a place where Auggie feels uncomfortable, scared and gets picked on, winds up being a place where he is celebrated and embraced.

Finding Themes through Moods

When we don’t know how to do something it can make us feel frustrated.

Doing something that we’ve never done before can make us feel scared.

Sounds like two themes, right? Two big ideas? Two lessons that we can learn from stories? One way to arrive at a theme, big idea, or lesson learned is by combining the mood and what is causing the mood. Some of the most important themes, big ideas, or lessons in stories will come from thinking about what causes a character’s mood to change.


One of the nice things about helping students to learn to enter stories through moods is that it’s extremely consistent across grade levels. All narratives, whether they are targeting young children, or teenagers, are built using the same ingredients. They all will have events, reactions to those events and reasons for the reaction to those events. And because they have a reaction, they will have a mood. By paying attention to how the mood is shown, audiences will be studying craft. And by noticing how the mood changes, audiences will be studying story structure. This means that studying craft and story structure can help students with their comprehension. Studying craft and story structure also puts audience members in a better position to create narratives that will resonate with their intended audience.

Pay attention to the moods both in your own lives and in the lives of your characters. Mood truly is where you’ll find the heartbeat of a story.


Trevor Bryan has put together a family friendly resource to help students engage with some of the ideas he discussed above while at home. It’s a free 14 page document that can be found here: https://blog.stenhouse.com/resources-to-support-reading-comprehension-through-mood?success=true#comments-listing

Feel free to reach out to Trevor with any questions. Find Trevor on Twitter, @TrevorABryan, on Facebook, The Art of Comprehension or through his Blog, Four O”Clock Faculty.

Trevor Bryan has been an art teacher in New Jersey for 20 years, spending the last 16 in Jackson Township. Trevor’s first book, The Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Texts to Foster Comprehension, Conversation, and Confidence, was published in 2019 by Stenhouse Publishers. Since around 2012, Trevor has presented at various national and state conferences, consults The Princeton University Art Museum on utilizing AoC for school and other group tours, and he provides professional development for several school districts across the United States on using and implementing The Art of Comprehension. Trevor also consults for award-winning and bestselling author/illustrator, Peter H. Reynolds’ education company, FableVision Learning.

Feel free to reach out to Trevor with any questions. Find Trevor on Twitter, @TrevorABryan, on Facebook, The Art of Comprehension or through his Blog, Four O”Clock Faculty.


New Learning-Forever Ours to Keep

By Jennifer Allen

After my daughter Sam’s freshman year, she figured out basketball wasn’t her sport.

Sam’s sophomore year she decided to try a new sport. Although she knew nothing about Nordic skiing she took a risk and signed up. Since Winthrop did not have a team, she would need to practice at another school, 20 minutes away, a school known for their many state titles. Joining Nordic would mean that she would not only have to learn a new sport but that she would have to do so by immersing herself in a new and an unfamiliar school environment with kids she did not know.  

Sam didn’t want to just ski, she wanted to be part of a team. A Nordic team needed four girls to score. After a week and some convincing, she found three other girls from her school in Winthrop who agreed to join her in taking this risk, for none of them had ever stepped on Nordic skis.  They would be a team and ski for their own high school but practice with the neighboring school. They embraced the idea of possibility together.

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And then came learning to ski. That first year they were referred to by the other school as the “newbies”. Sam would come home from practice telling tales of their collective falls and crashes. With each practice, progress was made, momentum generated, and skills acquired.

In their second year as a team they started to look and sound like skiers. These girls dreamed big. Their goal was to win the Mountain Valley Conference Championship.  It might seem like an unattainable goal to most, but these girls were determined and kept the goal within reach. At the end of their 2nd year of skiing (junior year) they came in 2nd place for their conference. They were happy but wanted more. They wanted to win, they wanted the trophy, and more importantly wanted to be recognized as genuine skiers.

Fast forward. As seniors, the girls got the ultimate taste of success.  It seemed that their hard work, determination, and humility had all paid off.  The Winthrop girls were awarded the trophy for being the 2020 MVC winners for Nordic skiing!

Their smiles as they held the conference trophy spoke of a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Then, 48 hours later came the news that there was a scoring error and that the team had actually come in 2nd place, not 1st. The trophy was not theirs to claim. Their moment evaporated almost as quickly as it had been captured.

Trophies and titles can be handed off, but what can’t be taken away from these girls are the skills acquired and the feeling of accomplishment from new learning.

Just like when kids learn to read, it can never be taken away. It’s not the trophies that we win or championships seized, rather it’s the skills we acquire with new learning that stay with us for a lifetime.  New learning is forever ours to keep.

Jennifer Allen is a literacy specialist in Waterville, Maine. She has worked in education for the last twenty-five years.  Jennifer started as a classroom teacher in the primary grades and has been working in this position as a literacy/specialist coach for the last sixteen years. She is the author of Becoming a Literacy Leader and A Sense of Belonging, both published by Stenhouse.

Three High Leverage Moves to Solve Problems of Practice

By Julie Wright

I have the pleasure of working in many schools across the country.  The schools I serve are unique in their own ways. Size of schools and classrooms vary.  Start and end times vary. Mandated curricular materials, initiatives, special projects, and school culture often vary. Number of preps, number of meetings, number of students with diverse needs…all vary.    

Schools are unique, there’s no doubt.  Sometimes, however, the ongoing problems of practice have similarities across states, districts, and schools.  For example, there’s never enough time to get everything done. The school day is not getting any longer, yet the curricular demands continue to increase.  There’s no such thing as a NO VACANCY sign above our classroom doors in the public sector (thank goodness!). Yet, it’s our job to meet the needs of individual students.  In addition, a common occurs when competing opportunities and initiatives make it hard for stakeholders to know what’s most important, yet it’s our job to champion the goals.  

What are the problems of practice that show up in your school/district?  Jot them down.

While problems of practice can seem daunting at times, they often have silver linings tucked inside that help us find our way. Once we name the problem of practice, we can figure out how solve it, making the system better. School folks (administrators, teachers, support staff, parent volunteers, etc.) working with students regularly have a unique opportunity to make high-leverage moves with and for all individual students.  Sure, these high leverage moves can look, sound, and feel different depending on the time of year, grade level, and individual classrooms because kids are dynamic.  But, high leverage moves become easier and more personalized when we know the students we serve. Proximity helps us get to know students and then, in turn, use that intel to plan curriculum, instruction and assessment.   Take a look at 3 high leverage moves that solve problems of practice by maximizing learning time, addressing students’ talents, needs, as well as creating clarity and focus.

High Leverage Move #1:  Use the reading workshop model to capitalize on small group learning.  

Getting to know and meet students’ needs is a challenge when schools or classrooms lean too heavily on whole group.  This happens when small groups feel unmanageable. The workshop structure pictured in the graphic below makes small group learning possible because of the increased amount of time dedicated to student work time.  Work time is where students have opportunities to read and work independently AND where small groups can meet. Whether you teach in an elementary or secondary setting, you might consider looping workshop across 2 days as pictured on the right.  Doing so maximizes students’ work time while connecting learning from one day to the next. 

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The first step is to take stock of your reading workshop structure by mapping out how much time is dedicated to student work time. Take stock by listing the total minutes you have during workshop and then add up the minutes that are dedicated to work time.  Kids deserve ⅔ of the total number of minutes during workshop time to do the work of learning. Handing that time over to them, regularly and consistently, is important. If you’d like to take stock of how much time readers are really working, download this template

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We know proximity matters.  The closer we get to students’ conversations, interactions, and their work, the more we will meet their needs.  As the next graphic suggests, small group is a sweet spot during reading workshop because proximity creates greater chances for  knowing and meeting students’ individual needs,  

Big Take-away:  There is never enough time, but when we use the workshop model we have a better chance of maximizing student work time and meeting students’ individual needs. 

High Leverage Move #2:  Kidwatch to get to know students’ interests, curiosities, habits, and needs.

Educators have been studying students since the one-room schoolhouse.  Yetta Goodman and Gretchen Owocki’s work helped give definition to the term kidwatching (Heinemann, 1994).  My co-author and I studied kidwatching while writing our book, What Are You Grouping For? by Wright & Hoonan (Corwin, 2019). We use the term Kidwatching 2.0 because kids, and the world around us, are constantly changing, requiring us to fine-tune our observation skills. We kidwatch because it’s the purest form of student data and significantly impacts our decision-making.  Kidwatching helps us know what students know and what they can do, as well as inform us about what they need next. Kidwatching helps us capture students’ strengths and areas needing a lift.  

Take a look at the picture below. What do you notice?  Take a look at facial expressions, seating arrangements, materials, and so on.  Make a jot list in your head or on scratch paper.

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Or, you might consider using the note catcher below.  Here you would note what you see (since it’s a picture), why what you see matters to student learning, and any wonderings or questions you have.  

What do I see/hear? Why does it matter to student learning? Wonderings

This group of 5th grade boys are digging into several texts– picture books, biographies, sports joke books, a trivia calendar, and more–focused on sports.  This small group previewed and oriented to the texts before choosing one to read. You may have guessed that they excitedly grabbed the Sports Illustrated for Kids because they wanted to see which all-star player was featured in the center fold out.   If you are kidwatching in the classroom, your notes would also include what you hear. Student talk is really important because it gives a clearer, richer picture of student thinking.  

Kidwatching notes often lead to teacher and student conversations which lead to more kidwatching.   Intentional kidwatching almost always feeds new inquiries and new interactions because it’s a recursive process.  If you’d like an electronic version, download this Kidwatching 2.0 template. 

Big Take-away:  When we get to know students’ interests, curiosities, habits and needs through kidwatching, we have a better chance of meeting students’ individual and collective needs.

High Leverage Move #3:  Curate to inspire students to be connoisseurs of text.

Think about all of the things you learn about students by observing, listening, interacting, and studying their work.  We must use all that we know about our students to curate texts for them to read. As teachers, we curate to meet students social and emotional needs.  We gather texts that we think will stoke students’ personal interests and passions. Sometimes we curate texts to nurture students’ knowledge development and/or conceptual understandings.  And, of course, we collect and use different texts to address curricular demands and to differentiate instruction to respond to students’ individual needs. Inviting students to curate texts for themselves and others is important too because doing so, 

  • Fosters student independence,
  • Invites student choice and voice to selecting reading materials,
  • Increases reading volume,
  • Develops skills and habits that carry over into adulthood.

Take a look at the tub in the picture below filled with texts focused on women who have influenced and/or made contributions to our world.  

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The teacher read aloud the book, Separate is Never Equal:  Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation.  Students were surprised by the lasting impact that Sylvia Mendez and her family had on changing California desegregation laws.  This story sparked interest which resulted in a small group of 6th graders diving into different texts focused on women who made significant contributions to the world.  Some of these texts were curated by the teacher, while others were curated by the students. When students curate texts for themselves and others, it promotes autonomy, student independence, and an increased desire to read.  As you might imagine, the number of texts in the bucket increased over several days and the number of texts that students explored and read consequently increased. Teacher and student curation provides opportunities to increase reading volume, student choice, and independence.  If you are interested in curating texts based on students’ individual needs, consider using the A Little Bit About or Tell Us Your Thoughts

Big Take-away:  When we curate texts for students, and invite students into the curation process, we are prioritizing increased reading volume, student choice and independence.  

Which high leverage moves will you use to solve your problems of practice?  Consider using the reading workshop model to capitalize on using small groups to increase proximity and maximize student learning time.  Use kidwatching in order to get to know students’ interests, curiosities, habits, and needs so that you have a better chance of meeting students’ individual and collective needs.  Curate texts that inspire students to be connoisseurs of text so that the priority becomes increasing reading volume, student choice and independence.


Clinton, C. (2017) She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. New York, NY:  Penguin Books.

Owocki, G. & Goodman, Y. (1994) Kidwatching: Documenting Children’s Literacy Development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Schatz, K. (2015) Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future!. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.

Thimmesh. C. (2002) Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Books.

Tonatiuh. D. (2014)  Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. New York, NY:  Abrams.

Wright, J. & Hoonan, B. (2019) What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers–Not the Book.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Julie Wright  is a teacher, instructional coach, and educational consultant with over twenty-five years of experience in rural, suburban, and urban education settings.  She holds National Board Certification as well as a B.S. in Education, M.A. in Language Arts and Reading, a K-12 Reading Endorsement, and extensive school leadership post-graduate work, including a pre-K through grade 9 principal license from The Ohio State University. Julie serves as an Adjunct Faculty Member at Ashland University and is the co-author of What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers–Not the Book (Wright & Hoonan, 2019). Follow Julie on Twitter @juliewright4444 or for more information on how she can support your efforts, visit www.juliewrightconsulting.com.







Building the Content Knowledge we Need as Teachers of Writers

By Amy Ellerman, CCIRA Past President

“How did you know to do that?” 

This is the question I am asked most often as I work side by side with teachers and kids in writing workshops. And while I appreciate the unspoken implication that the instructional move that prompted the question is remarkable in some way, it typically isn’t. 

My ability to respond so naturally to writers in the moment comes from deep content knowledge I have built over many years—nothing magical about it. 

Awesome, you’re probably thinking. Is that all? 

Yes, and. . . Underneath that original question is another, more important question, at least from my point of view as an instructional coach: How DO we build the deep content knowledge we need as teachers of writers?

Teaching writers is complex. It can seem overwhelming to contemplate the expertise necessary to teach writers effectively. The more we learn, the more we realize we have to learn. . . And yet, we all start somewhere. (Even Ralph Fletcher started somewhere, or so I tell myself when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.) We all make intentional decisions to invest in ourselves as learners, as well as to the writing lives of the young writers in our class(es). 

Penny Kittle describes the impact a skilled teacher has on young writers in her book, Write Beside Them

“I’ve been fascinated by the teaching of writing for years. I’ve read many books and listened to many brilliant people, but sometimes I feel I’ve learned only one thing: If you want better writers, all of the power lies within you. It’s all about teaching. In study after study when researchers took all of the factors that can impact student achievement—from parental income to school resources to parental support to per pupil spending in a school district—the factor that had a greater impact than all of the others combined was the effectiveness of the classroom teacher. By saying that, I do not discount the impact those other factors do have on our classrooms and our students, but simply to remind you that your skills and expertise are more powerful” (Kittle, 2008, p. 2-3).

There are no shortcuts. It does take time and effort to build those powerful skills and expertise. But there are ways to be strategic in how we build content knowledge, so that we can see evidence of our learning on student writing as soon as possible. As we know, it is seeing evidence of growth that motivates learners of all ages to continue learning. 

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Photo courtesy of Ian Schneider at Unsplash

#1: We can read. 

It is an investment to seek out content knowledge, and it is a choice. And as much as it is true that we learn by doing, we also learn by reading. In this busy world, it can be tempting to say things like, “I don’t have time to read.” When I hear this, I cringe—I can’t help it. We are professionals, and professionals read. As George Couros said at #CCIRA20, “Learning is [our] job. It is literally [our] job.” 

That said, there are a myriad of options for how we might read. We can read professional books, blogs, and articles. We can listen to podcasts. We can tap into eduTwitter, where links to reading material are right there on our phones. It’s not about reading everything cover to cover—there’s way too much out there for that to be possible. But we should know the work of the foundational leaders in our field as well as the leaders and practitioners who are adding new thinking to the research. We will never be able to stay in the loop with everything, but our young writers are depending on us to try.

In addition to the wealth of professional resources available, building reading lives that extend beyond professional reading supports our developing content knowledge as well. If our writing workshops reflect the kinds of writing that exist in the real world, then we need to be well versed in the kinds of writing that are out there: the fiction and nonfiction that our kids are reading, literature and informational text that tap into our own passions, examples of real people (of all ages) communicating for authentic purposes. . . We need to be noticers and collectors, seeking out examples of different forms and genres that our writers might find relevant. 

One recent example for me came from a traveling exhibit in Denver this fall called the Empathy Museum. A colleague visited it with her son, and as we discussed what made it such a powerful experience for them, the connections to possibilities for writing were immediate. (If you watch the linked video, you’ll be able to envision what we’re envisioning. . .) It is through “reading the world,” feeling the impact that different forms of communication have on us as we encounter them out in the wild, that we discover authentic reasons to read and write. 

Beyond reading, we seek out opportunities to learn more. We take classes and attend conferences. Every year at the CCIRA Conference, I’m in multiple writing sessions that knock me off my feet in the best possible way, challenging me to think differently or to dig more deeply into the way I teach writers. This year it was Matt Glover and Colleen Cruz, both of whom are making similar, innovative connections between reading and writing instruction with writers of very different ages. Being open to new thinking creates opportunities to continually connect to and refine what we understand about writing instruction. 

#2: We can write.

I know this one makes some educators uncomfortable. . . but it really is the key to developing deep content knowledge in writing. There is something about doing the work we are asking our students to do that builds a bridge. Being writers ourselves allows us to shift our stance—to move from being “the teacher” to being a fellow writer, side by side in the workshop. 

Kids are much more likely to take the feedback or strategies we offer when they are coming from our experience, rather than just our curriculum. It’s similar to how kids can tell if we really read the books that they are reading or if we just pretend to. . . They’re super savvy—they can smell authenticity. 

Ralph Fletcher is right on when he says, “Our classrooms are filled with students desperate for adults who care about writing and books as much as they do” (Fletcher, 2013, p. 10). When we (read and) write, we become those mentors for kids. We also develop empathy for the work of writers that is challenging. We begin to anticipate those challenges, which impacts the ways in which we plan for writing instruction. 

Katie Wood Ray describes this shift from writing teacher to teacher who writes in Study Driven

“Teachers who have empathy for the work of a writer are able to teach more than just process; they can help students understand what it’s like to be a writer engaged in the process, and that’s so different. For example, it’s one thing to know, in an intellectual sort of way, that people who write often have to rewrite and rework a draft over and over to get it right. It’s quite another thing to understand, in an emotional sort of way, how hard it is to actually do that. When what you know about ‘people who write’ becomes what you know ‘as a person who writes,’ what you know changes” (Ray, 2006, p. 32). 

When we bring our own writing into the workshop, it opens a window into the thinking work of a writer for kids. We can be transparent about what makes writing complex and how we work through it. This way, student writers expect to encounter obstacles, and they have mindsets and tools for solving problems. 

Most importantly, as long as we are side by side, genuinely engaging writer-to-writer, we don’t have to be the experts. In an inquiry-based writing workshop, we can study great writing together, noticing and naming what makes the writing work. If we position ourselves as the experts, then the learning our writers do will be limited by what we know. When we adjust our stance, positioning ourselves as writers right in the work with kids, we are fellow learners—we are authentically seeking understanding. This stance opens us up to the kind of learning that builds content knowledge. 

#3: We can collaborate with other teachers of writers. 

As John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” It is essential for teachers of all content areas to have structures in place to support deep collaboration. When teachers have regular opportunities to share and to reflect on instructional practices (especially with student work on the table), content knowledge deepens and instruction is strengthened. Making space for this type of conversation—where we can dig into the nuance of the teaching, not simply skate over the surface—this is how we get better for our writers. 

Building relationships with colleagues where it is safe to take risks and reflect in this way takes commitment. There is so much we can learn from each other when we trust each other enough to describe instructional moves in detail, comparing our intentions with the outcomes of actual student work. Investing in instructional collaboration is a powerful way to accelerate the building of content knowledge. In my experience, teams who prioritize time for this complex work grow their skills more quickly and create a long-lasting support system.

#4: We can recognize that we will never be “finished” learning how to teach writing. 

Wait! Before you close your laptop in frustration, thinking, “That is not at ALL where I thought she was going with this,” consider these words from Katie Wood Ray: 

“Writers have to manage so, so many different decisions to get writing done. That’s one of the most fundamental things about writing—making all these little decisions along the way. Anyone who doesn’t understand that writing is a complex, recursive, ever-shifting kind of thing you have to decide about, hasn’t written very much or hasn’t listened very well when writers have explained how they do what they do” (Ray, 2001, p. 90). 

I would argue (and I’m certain Katie would agree) that this is equally true about the teaching of writing. The power lies in all the little decisions we make along the way in response to our writers, and there is no recipe to follow. As teachers who understand the thinking work of writers, we must draw on both deep content knowledge as well as writing experience. We must embrace the complexity, never pretending to have (or believing anyone who claims to have) the magic formula for teaching writing. Instead we read, we seek new learning, we write, we collaborate with others, and we maintain an inquiry stance. 

We have been trusted with making decisions that lead to powerful writing experiences for kids. It will always be a little messy, and there will always be more to learn as we grow alongside our writers. Letting go of that elusive finish line (that does not exist) might help us to revel in our own learning experience along the way. 


Fletcher, Ralph. (2013). What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Kittle, Penny. (2008). Write Beside Them. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Ray, Katie Wood. (2006). Study Driven. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Ray, Katie Wood. (2001). The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. 

Amy Ellerman is an Instructional Coach at Maple Grove Elementary in Golden, Colorado. She is a Teacher Consultant with Colorado Writing Project and a Contributing Writer with Two Writing Teachers Blog. Amy blogs at Running to School (amyellerman.blog) and can be found on Twitter @sanderling12. Amy currently serves as Immediate Past President of CCIRA. 


An Essential Tool for All Readers

By Gail Boushey and Allison Behne

Reading good-fit books is essential if students are to progress as readers. Children must spend the majority of their independent reading time engaged in books which they can decode and comprehend at very high levels. 

We need to teach children to choose books that are a good fit for them; books they enjoy. Regie Routman (2003) says, “A just-right book seems custom-made for the child— that is, the student can confidently read and understand a text he finds interesting, with minimal assistance. These are books that make students stretch—but just a little bit—so that they have the opportunity to apply the strategies we’ve been demonstrating (and they’ve been learning), as well as become familiar with new vocabulary, genres, and writing styles” (93).

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Courtesy of Cesar Carlevarino Aragon at Unsplash

Allowing student to choose their reading leads students to engage with reading, increase comprehension, and build capacity for encountering complex texts (Guthrie & Klauda, 2014). The real challenge is teaching children how to do this. We teach children the simple method of I PICK when choosing books, so that each time they go to the library, bookstore, or classroom book area they are empowered to overcome that difficult statement, “I can’t find a good book.” 

I – I choose a book

P – Purpose. Why do I want to read this book? (Learn something new, pleasure, try a new genre, explore a specific author . . . )

I – Interest. Does it interest me? One aspect we must not overlook when helping children select good-fit books is their own interest level. The extensive focus on choosing the correct readability level frequently engulfs our thinking and teaching. Often we forget that children, like adults, need to be interested in what they are reading. A high level of interest allows children to engage in reading the volume of material necessary to progress from being a survival reader to becoming a life-long reader. 

C – Comprehension. Do I understand what I am reading? The goal of reading is to derive meaning. Without comprehension, readers are just following words on a page without meaning. After reading a small piece of text, the reader should check for understanding to help determine if it is a good fit.

K – Know the words. Do I know most of the words? To gain meaning, readers must be able to read the words. When selecting a book, readers view a sample to check if they can read most, if not all, of the words they come across. 

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it is likely not a good-fit book and the reader should select another book and ask the questions again. If the answer to all questions are yes, then it is a good-fit book. 

It is crucial that we teach students how to make their own reading choices and empower them to do so. The ability to choose a good-fit book equips readers with the lifelong tool to enjoy, understand, and learn in any environment at any time.

Good Fit Bookmark



Guthrie, J. T., & Klauda, S. L. (2014). Effects of classroom practices on reading comprehension, engagement, and motivations for adolescents. Reading Research Quarterly, 49(4), 387-416.

Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Browser History

By Donalyn Miller, 2020 Conference Speaker

Recently, my husband Don and I went back to our old neighborhood to eat lunch at our favorite Tex-Mex place. After lunch, we spent two hours wandering around Half Price Books. We couldn’t recall the last time we had roamed a bookstore; we had forgotten how much we enjoyed it. We ambled down every aisle—taking our time. We pulled books off shelves for a closer look or commented on beloved favorites we recognized. We chatted with other readers—sharing reading memories and swapping recommendations. 

On the way home, we discussed a few books we bought—Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I bought because several friends recommended it and a copy of America’s Test Kitchen: Cooking for Two Don found for his already overflowing cookbook shelf. We talked about the joy of lingering in the stacks—holding books, looking at covers, reading dust jackets, skimming chapter headings and back matter, dipping in to read a few pages or examine an illustration. 

Thinking about our bookstore trip later, Don and I realized that our book selection behaviors have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Gone are the days when we entertained our daughters with afternoons in the public library or flipped through crates of new releases at the comic book store.

We still read a lot of books, but we discover, evaluate, select, borrow, and buy them almost completely online now. I read reviews and critiques from publications like School Library Journal and The ALAN Review. I trade recommendations with colleagues on social media. I discover books on lists like NCTE’s #BuildAStack or the ALA Youth Media Awards. I keep track of books I have read (or want to read) using Goodreads. Readers can research almost anything about authors and their books online these days. I appreciate the benefits of online resources and platforms that have opened up the world of books and reading to so many, but I don’t think these tools can fully replace the gift of time to browse through shelves of books—at your own pace and for your own purposes—driven only by your own interests and desires. It reminds me of a former student, Hailey, who told me once after a visit to the library, “I don’t find the books, Mrs. Miller. They find me!” I understand what Hailey means—the delicious feeling of discovering a book you didn’t know you wanted to read. 

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Thinking about my students over the years, I know that many have never wandered a bookstore or a library for any length of time. In some cases, they lack access to bookstores or libraries in their communities. Even when students can access well-stocked school and classroom libraries, we often don’t give them enough time to preview, share, and talk about books they might read. According to Scholastic’s bi-annual, Kids and Family Reading Report, a national survey of thousands of school-age children (ages 6-17) and their caregiving adults, kids consistently report that their parents and teachers underestimate how hard it is for them to find books to read. We presume a fourth grader knows how to find a book in the library. Not always. We presume an eighth grader knows. Not always.

Truly independent readers can successfully self-select books for themselves (Miller, 2013). I imagine most adult readers feel reasonably confident that we could walk into a library or a bookstore and find something that we could read with some level of comprehension and would be interested in reading. We didn’t pick up these skills overnight. Book selection skills come from years of examining, evaluating, selecting and reading books.

Students with wide reading experiences show more confidence and success with their book selection abilities. Students who frequently abandon books or seem disengaged may not possess the book selection skills they need to identify and evaluate books they might read. Kids need encouragement and support for their book choices and lots of low-risk opportunities to explore and self-select reading materials. Take any group of readers, and you will find a variety of methods for selecting books. How can we value what our students know and can do while determining what book selection skills and resources they still need?

When students choose books to read during library visits and classroom book shopping opportunities, they want to talk with their classmates about the new books they’ve discovered and picked to read. Set aside a few minutes before you leave the library or when returning to class. Invite students to share the books they found and also share how they settled on that book instead of others. 

I recently led this discussion with a class of eighth graders in Long Island. After selecting library books, Ms. Jones, their teacher, and I invited kids to chat with each other about their book choices and how they picked their books. 

I begin with my own example, “Folks, I just finished reading How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin. The author is a multiple award winner for best fantasy and science fiction, and I have read some of her other work and liked it. I heard about this book of short stories on Twitter. I would say I picked this book because of its author.”  I write “Ways to Find and Choose a Book” on the white board, and scrawl “author” as the first bullet. “You may have chosen your book today because of its author, too. You may have chosen it because of some other reason. Spend a few minutes talking with your table groups about the books you picked today. How did you learn about the book or discover it? How did you decide you wanted to read it?”

After students talk for five minutes or so, Ms. Jones and I invite students to create a list of the resources and skills they used to find books in the library. You will recognize many of their ideas from your own browsing history.

Ways to Find and Choose a Book


Recommendations (online and in person)




TV Shows and Movies


Awards and Lists




Reading the blurb or jacket copy

Reading a few pages

Skimming the book (looking at chapter headings, illustrations, back matter)

Most adult readers have used all of these resources or strategies at some point in our reading lives! Students with fewer reading experiences and practice self-selecting books may depend on one or two strategies for finding books and use them again and again—relying on covers or a quick skim to lead them successfully to a good book. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

After creating and discussing students’ suggestions, you can fill in any resources they may have missed by referring to other books you know they have liked or resources you have shared like library databases. Elementary students may have a less-extensive list more appropriate for their age and reading experiences. Revisit your chart with students before your next library visit and use this list during conferences to support students who struggle with book selection. Challenge students to seek out recommendations, read a few pages, or read outside of their genre preferences. As students practice different methods for finding books to read, their book choices will become more consistently successful and personal. 

Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author or co-author of several books about encouraging students to read and creating successful reading communities at school and home including, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013), and Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids (Scholastic, 2018). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter @donalynbooks.


3 Reading Response Categories to Genuinely Engage Students with Texts

by Marilyn Pryle, 2020 Conference Speaker

If you walked into my classroom, you would see students who voice their opinions, who freely ask questions, and who make all kinds of connections; you’d see students who focus on language and craft, who examine texts through the use of literary devices and archetypes and even formal literary criticism, and who constantly refer to the texts as they discuss. They do these things consistently, organically, and always in variety, based on their own inklings, curiosities, and interests.

         It wasn’t always this way. I used to assign a reading and then give students comprehension questions to check their understanding. But the use of Reading Responses has transformed my entire approach to teaching textual analysis. With the Reading Response system, each student can—and is expected to—bring his or her real self to the table.

         By writing and sharing Reading Responses, instead of simply “finding the answer,” as one would with a set of comprehension questions, the goal is to contribute to the discussion. What’s the difference? When your only goal is to contribute to the discussion, you can be wrong. You can ask a “dumb” question. You can give your opinion freely. You can use your life—your outside reading, your knowledge about TV and movies, your family stories. You care about your groupmates’ thoughts, perhaps, and not just “what the teacher wants.” Will you arrive at “The Right Answers”? Some, for sure. But more importantly, you will meander along the path of deep thinking, the road that leads to evidence-based interpretation rooted in personal experience, prior knowledge, and engagement. The road, perhaps, of personal growth. And isn’t that why we all teach in the first place? If we can get students to be present for their own education, we have succeeded. I call this reading with presence: reading with your whole self, your true self, your memories, your opinions, your willingness to learn and grow.

         Writing Reading Responses (RRs) is a daily or almost-daily practice of having students craft brief, structured responses to whatever text they have read. There are four rules to writing a Reading Response:

  • Choose a category of response, using the list of possible categories, and write the category name at the top of the response.
  • Develop an original thought within that category and write out the thought.
  •  Find, copy, and cite a line, paragraph, or page from the text that relates to the original thought.
  •  Keep writing and thinking for at least five sentences.

         I usually give my students a list of 15 categories to start the year, and add about 15 more as the year goes on. These categories range from topics such as Give an Opinion, Spot the Setting, and Mind the Mood to more advanced topics such as Archetype Alert and Feminist Criticism. The RR categories are meant to be a vehicle to help students think more clearly and deeply about a text; they are the scalpels students can use to dissect the text. I give students a sheet of the category titles and some thinking prompts to go with each. The rest is up to them.

Examples of RR Categories

  • Give an Opinion
  • Ask a Question
  • Make a Connection
  • Language Recognition
  • Theme Recognition 
  • Tell the Tone
  • Mark the Motivation
  • Cite the Claim
  • Interesting Intro 
  • Archetype Alert
  • The Joy of Genre
  • Note the Narrator
  • Feminist Criticism
  • Gender and Queer Theory
  • Critical Race Theory

         Here are three of the most popular categories in my class with their prompts, and student examples of RRs for each:

  1. Give an Opinion: Tell what you think or feel about a certain part, and why.  You could react to an aspect of character, plot, theme, language, tone, style—anything in the text. But you must be specific.      

Give an Opinion for The Eye of Minds (J. Dashner) by Noelle

I think it is really sad that Michael doesn’t miss his parents. In the book it says, “Between school, the Virtnet, and Helga, he hardly had time to miss them” (location 307).  This is depressing. It’s like he doesn’t even know his parents. Every kid should have the chance to love and bond with his or her parents. Michael is completely fine with not connecting with his. It’s almost like he’s taking them for granted, which is something no child should ever do because parents are the ones who provide for the children. 

  1. Make a Connection: A certain point in the text reminds you of another story, poem, movie, song, or something in “real life.”  How are the two alike? Be specific.

Make a Connection for “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” (Li Po) by Callie

Li Po’s poem “The River Merchant’s Wife” reminds me of Taylor Swift’s song “Come Back… Be Here.” Po’s poem tells of a young girl who at first resists her marriage, but then learns to love and depend on her husband (“I desired my dust to be mingled with yours / Forever and forever and forever” lines 12-13). So when her husband leaves for business, she feels isolated and old. Likewise, Taylor Swift’s song is about how at first she didn’t want to be attached to her partner, but she did. So when he left her, it ruined her. Swift sings, “And this is when the feeling sinks in / I didn’t want to miss you like this / come back… be here.” Both the poem and the song show longing for a partner that is gone. 

  1. Language Recognition: You notice some engaging sensory details, a simile or metaphor, some onomatopoeia or alliteration, some parallelism, or something else. Whatever you notice, quote it, and explain how it adds to the text. Does it contribute to the mood or characterization? Does it relate to a theme? Could it have a deeper meaning? What would that be?

Language Recognition for The Young Elites (M. Lu) by Isabel

I think the description of Gemma’s laugh is a beautiful description that gives powerful insight to her character. On page 185, paragraph 6, the laugh is described as “a bright ringing sound, the laugh of someone who’s loved.” The sound of the laugh suggests to me that Gemma is an optimist, as well as surrounded by friends and family. Also, this is amazing personality expressed in this laugh is probably going to draw Adelina and her closer. As well as this, the wording in this description was so well done, one could almost hear the laughter for themselves. Gemma could be well analyzed by her marvelous giggle.


         Once students have written an RR or two about a text, they have something to say in class.  It may be a minor point, or it may be a major point, but it is a concrete thought and it is tied to a specific part of the text. No longer can a student say, “I don’t know” when asked to react to a reading. When given time to write, and a list of choices to scaffold their reactions, all students can come up with something.

         With Reading Responses, class time becomes a time of meaningful discovery. Students do not passively ingest information but actively create it through their own thinking and discussion. The role of the teacher becomes one of backstage facilitation, expert clarification, and joyful encouragement. RRs are like cinder blocks—small and concrete, manageable for one person to carry. But when used together, all manner of building becomes possible.

Marilyn Pryle is a tenth-grade world literature teacher at Abington Heights High School in Clarks Summit, PA. She is the author of Reading with Presence (Heinemann) and 50 Writing Activities for Meeting Higher Standards (Scholastic). Her work centers around giving students the tools to find their own voices in reading and writing. She was recently named Pennsylvania’s 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year. Find her at marilynpryle.com and @MPryle on Twitter.