From Collections to Comparisons

By Lori Conrad, CCIRA Featured Speaker

Kids are born collectors. From rocks to Legos, stuffed animals to toy trucks, for just about any child, creating collections is as natural as walking, talking, maybe even breathing!

So when it comes to the school work of comparing texts, comparing themes, distinguishing point of view, and all the other myriad of ways standards label setting two or more ‘things’ side-by-side to examine what they have in common and what makes them distinct, why not begin with what kids do best?  Why not start with their collections?

Curating Collections

My daughter, who just graduated from college a few weeks ago, is a champion collection curator. It started with Beanie Babies, which led to Polly Pockets.  Then came her gaggle of soccer socks, followed by her stack of basketball shorts. Today, as I look into her over-filled bedroom, her newest collections include a cluster of beautifully potted succulents and a multitude of vintage t-shirts that would make any clothes maven green with envy.  And for each iteration of her collecting history, Emelia could explain in great detail the differences, similarities, unique attributes and specific functions of each piece.  Emelia is like every other kid when it comes to the collections that inspire her passion and ownership.  She’s convincing in her descriptions, precise in her language choices, and can support any claim she chooses to make about the effectiveness, beauty, or importance of any individual piece.

When I think about supporting readers as they work to compare and contrast various texts or literary elements, beginning with their capacity and interest in collecting seems altogether logical!

Bringing Collections into Our Classrooms

Instead of handing our readers two texts that we’ve selected, say a nonfiction piece about the life cycle of bees and Douglas Florian’s poem “Bee-Coming” (in his collection unBEElievables), how about inviting each student to share his or her favorite collection?  Imagine the conversations that might ensue:

“This truck is my favorite! It is faster than all the rest. I’ve timed all of them on a track I built in my bedroom.  It beat all the rest by 2 or 3 seconds each time.”

“I love this rock most of all.  It’s a piece of obsidian.  My uncle brought it back from a trip he took last year.  It’s harder than this piece of sandstone because it was made deep underground.  It’s related to lava.”

“This is my collection of Pokémon cards.  My dad has one, too.  We sit at the table and trade.  He thinks Pikachu is the best because it’s one of the first characters ever invented. I like Absol because it’s sort of like a unicorn.”

And with these conversations as rehearsal, the writing students might then produce about their collections stands on something authentic, something tangible, and something they know inside and out.  It has voice and details.  It celebrates the ways comparing and contrasting works in the world beyond school.

From Vintage T’s to Texts

For me, making the leap from t-shirt collections to text collections demands two things:  a willingness to try the work myself and a big idea or two to frame an in-depth study.  Doing the same work is the easy part.  I love curating collections of cousin texts.  The bookshelves in my house are organized in a variety of ways. Some shelves are sorted by genre (I’m a sucker for Southern dysfunctional family sagas).  Other shelves hold only a specific beloved author (I think Anna Quindlen has her own shelf), and another shelve is filled with books about cooking food, eating food, and building a life around food. Some shelves are even sorted by dust jacket color.

Composing the big ideas kids will remember ten years from now can sometimes feel more daunting. For this study, I’d want kids to hold on to the ideas that:

  • Readers see both the things that link texts together AND the things that distinguish texts from each other.
  • Sometimes readers find themselves in the pieces they read, while at other times they see the world through the eyes of others.
  • Readers are curious people. Among many other things, they are curious about the decisions writers make and how those decisions reveal what’s in the writer’s mind (craft moves, content knowledge, life experience) and heart (passions, emotional connections, causes).
  • Writers often choose to share a particular perspective about a topic. They create titles and select images that reveal clues about their stance/perspective. Readers can infer these perspectives and biases from these clues.
  • Writers also choose to structure ideas in ways that best convey the important things they aim to teach readers. They might use multiple structures within the same text to do this work.  With the aid of these structures, readers can determine what’s most essential in the piece.

With big ideas like these to frame our conversations, kids can begin to curate their own book stacks. Picking texts from classroom libraries and home collections, they can begin to see all the ways informational texts, stories, and poems might sit side-by-side with other pieces.

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Courtesy of Kimberly Farmer via Unsplash

Layers of Sorting – More than ‘They’re both about bees.’

As kids continue to stretch their thinking and their writing about their book stacks beyond the obvious “they’re all about bees”, it’s important to explore all the ways a collection of texts might be compared.  In my favorite monthly magazine, Real Simple, the editors have a recurring feature they call “Road Test.” This month’s is all about sunscreen. In this one-pager, the editors gather together a collection of some sort, from pasta sauce to oatmeal cups, and then name at least a half dozen ways the collection might be compared.  So for this month’s sunscreen, the comparisons include best touch-up, best spray, best lip treatment and best sensitive face.  The editors include very specific evidence to back up their claims of being best.

When exploring possible ways to sort texts, we might ask readers to consider big layers like author, topic, purpose, or genre.  For example, if we gathered a text set written by Jacqueline Woodson, kids might look for specific ways she lets readers know what’s in her heart and in her mind. When she includes sentences like “There will be times when no one understands the way words curl from your mouth, the beautiful language of the country you left behind.” (from The Day You Begin) and “I watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples and the chance of a kindness with Maya becoming more and more forever gone.” (from Each Kindness), it’s pretty clear what’s in her heart about how to treat others.

If we gathered a nonfiction collection, say about sharks, readers might discover similarities and differences about specific content, but they might also notice:

  • the ways titles express author bias – Nicola Davies finds sharks surprising (Surprising Sharks) while Joanna Boutilier finds them misunderstood (Pigs Aren’t Dirty and Bears Aren’t Slow: And Other Truths About Misunderstood Animals)
  • the ways illustrations set readers up to feel a certain way – the front cover of Neighborhood Sharks (by Katherine Roy) is positively frightening but the almost smiling shark on the cover of Please be Nice to Sharks (by Matt Weiss) makes it seem like sharks could be our friends
  • the ways structure helps establish a cause and effect relationship between sharks and humans – Lily Williams makes it pretty clear in If Sharks Disappeared that our fortunes are tied to each other
  • and the ways structure might also help readers see a shark’s competing sides (Lovely Beasts: The Surprising Truth by Kate Gardner and Heidi Smith).

We could also look at texts that seem to share an important message.  When a colleague read Red by Michael Hall, Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant to his kindergartners, they wrote and wrote and wrote about how writers help readers be true to themselves.

When we decide that comparing texts is more than an activity and more than practicing for a standardized test, learners get to see that the thing they do oh so very well matches up to something others (school boards, newspapers, policy makers) value.  Their capacity to curate collections is an asset they can proudly bring into their classrooms!

Lori L. Conrad has over 34 years of experience as a teacher, literacy consultant and classroom coach.  She’s worked alongside some pretty amazing children and wonderfully thoughtful colleagues throughout Colorado and the United States.  She’s published numerous articles about reading and writing, and is the co-author of Put Thinking to the Test (published by Stenhouse).  She’s a proud mom of two grown children and an even prouder wife. Lori can be reached via email lorilconrad23@gmail.com.

Planning for Language Development

By Beth Skelton, 2019 CCIRA Featured Speaker

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Photo credit: Lorenzo Moreno, Englewood Public Schools

Much of my work with teachers this past school year has focused on lesson planning for language development. Although most members of CCIRA are certainly literacyfocused, they may not always be language focused. Adding a focus on the language students will need to comprehend and respond to text and content can support all learners and is essential for language learners.

The SIOP model, the WIDA framework, Kate Kinsellaand others have long advocated for adding language objectives to lessons. During the past school year, I have drawn on their work and collaborated with many educators to create and refine a series of questions and prompts designed to help teachers plan for language development in an individual lesson. The first three questions are generally part of every lesson planning format and the last four questions add a focus on language development.

Questions and Prompts for Planning for Language Development

  1. What should students know and be able to do by the end of the unit? What is the end of unit assessment?
  1. What should students know and be able to do by the end of the next lesson?
  2. Write a prompt for an oral discussion or a written response about the lesson.
  3. Write out a model response to the prompt.
  4. List the key content and general academic vocabulary students should ideally use in their response to the end of lesson prompt. How will you teach each of those words during the lesson? (include details on the strategies you will use such as gestures, visuals, realia, questions, etc.)
  5. Whatgrammatical or linguistic structuresin the model response might be challenging? (clauses, verb tenses, word order, etc.) What organizational features in the response might be challenging? (comparison, description, explanation) How will you teach these structures?
  6. What supports will you offer language learners as they respond to the prompt?  (labeled graphic organizer, labeled pictures, sentence frames, discussion starters, native language support, oral language practice before writing, etc.)

Backwards Design: The Unit Assessment and Content Objectives

Most districts already require teachers to plan units starting with the final assessment in mind. Once teachers review their final assessment (performance, project, paper, etc.), they are ready to plan for one upcoming lesson within that unit. The second question focuses on what students should know or be able to do by the end of one lesson. Teachers should be able to explain how those specific daily objectives help students to achieve the content objectives for the entire unit.

Planning for Language Development: The Prompt

The third question begins to add a focus on the language students will need to express their learning at the end of one lesson. Teachers should think about one ‘turn and talk’ question or an exit ticket prompt they might ask students to discuss or write about near the end of the lesson. Since teachers generally gather some kind of formative assessment on student learning each day, this prompt is often part of their plans already. This question or prompt should directly link to the daily content objective. Some of the elementary teachers I worked with recently wrote the following prompts for their end of lesson exit ticket about a narrative and informative text.

  • Describe the main character in the story and what he dreams of using details from the text.
  • What’s the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?

These examples require students to synthesize their learning from the lesson using extended discourse of more than one sentence. Notice how these prompts require students to use language for a specific function such as describe or contrast.In order to express their content knowledge in response to these prompts, students will need to use functional vocabulary, sentence structures, and discourse markers.

Planning for Language Development:  The Response

Although most general educators are usually able to quickly write a prompt that would require an extended oral or written response, many do not actually write out what they expect as an answer before asking the question. When two or more teachers from the same team come to a planning session together, I ask them to individually write their model response before sharing out with the entire team. This response should reflect what a top student at that grade level should sound like when using appropriate academic language in their response. When teachers read these model responses, they quickly discover the vocabulary, complex linguistic structures, and discourse markers that are embedded in their responses.

I began writing my own responses to prompts about 10 years ago when I was teaching at an international school in Germany. I wrote almost every paper or short answer response with my students and shared my papers with them as well. This process gave me insight into the complexity of the language and often led me to refine my prompts or teach short language-focused lessons to support the language in their written work.

Analyze the Language in the Response

Once teachers have written a model response, they can analyze the language in the response to determine which academic vocabulary words they should directly teach, which sentence structures they may have to intentionally model, and which discourse markers or structures they should explicitly teach.

For example, the fourth-grade teachers wrote a model response to the prompt Describe the main character in the story and what he dreams of using details from the text. Both of them used a noun clause in the first sentence of their response: Leroy is a__________, who dreams of __________.  When I pointed this out, they quickly realized they should provide a mini lesson on how to use the word who to start a clause. They decided to provide a sentence frame for beginning level language learners to support their use of this complex sentence structure. Teaching students how to embed a noun clause will not only increase the complexity of their writing, but also help them understand more complex texts when they are reading.

These teachers also discovered that some of the words they used in their model response to describe the main character were not actually written in the text. Although the text provided plenty of details that illustrated the spontaneousnature of the main character, this word nor its synonyms actually came up in the text. Teachers realized they needed teach words that were not necessarily inthe text, but important for talking aboutthe text.

When third grade teachers analyzed their response to the prompt “What is the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?”, they knew that students would have to use the key terms renewable and non-renewable, and they planned to teach these words with examples, visuals, and experiences. In addition, they noticed their responses clearly contrasted the resources using the discourse markers however and whereas to signal differences.The team decided to explicitly teach students how to contrast ideas by adding these terms to their graphic organizer and modeling ways to organize the response.

Planning for Supports and Scaffolds

After analyzing the language in their model responses, teachers will have a list of words and linguistic structures they will need to teach in the lesson in addition to their content. Then they can decide on strategies, scaffolds, and supports to teach this academic language. Many choose to add sentence frames, create visual word walls, or add discourse markers to graphic organizers. After just one experience asking these questions in lesson planning, one third grade teacher with no other background in language acquisition exclaimed, “It’s easy to add a focus on language to our lesson plans! We already have the prompt, so we just have to figure out what we want as a response. This helps us frame our teaching and the students’ thinking.” I hope you find these questions just as powerful for adding a focus on language development to your lessons.

Beth Skelton is an international consultant providing professional learning focused on creating equitable education for all students. She is especially passionate about making academic content accessible to English Language Learners. She can be reached through her website: bethskelton.com , on Twitter @easkelton , and on Facebook: Beth Skelton Consulting

Looking Back to Learn Forward: A few ways reflecting can deepen students’ learning and understanding

By Laura Benson

Learning emerges from discovery, not directives; reflection, not rules; possibilities, not prescriptions; diversity, not dogma; creativity and curiosity, not conformity and certainty; and meaning, not mandates.
Stephanie Pace Marshall

Memories of learning. Lessons of teaching. Relationships and connections.  We are in a deep time of reflection at our house.  After forty years of teaching and learning with teenagers, my husband Dave is about to retire.  He is retiring from teaching where he attended high school himself, Cherry Creek High School. His Mom worked at CCHS for years. All the children of our extended family have attended CCSS and many had Dave as their Social Studies teachers including our son Tim. I, too, worked at CCHS (many years ago now).  Dinner conversations over the last months and talks while we walk together in the gorgeous (and rather late) Spring air have focused on Dave’s retirement, in part to help him process this transition. And to reflect on all he has gained and all he is grateful for from his time as teacher, Department Chair, and colleague. As a history teacher, we are now reflecting on Dave’s teaching history.

Learning is a process where knowledge is presented to us, then shaped through understanding, discussion, and reflection.
Paulo Freire

All this remembering is stirring my thinking about how we work to nurture the disposition of reflecting with our students. My colleague Dick Moore and I talk about this often, especially in the context of how powerful reflection is in deepening students’ metacognitive capacities. Over the course of my career, I have read or heard  John Dewey, Ron Ritchhart, Art Costa and Carolyn McKanders profile that no learning occurs without reflection. Throughout my forty years of teaching, I have seen this truth realized in my students’ learning – both children and adults – and continuously in my own learning, too.  I have witnessed, too, withered learning when I did not give learners enough time or space to reflect. Rushing doesn’t work in helping learning stick.  Reflection does.

In the bounce of childhood with all its energy and wonder, with the rush of wanting to grow up fast as a teen, and as brilliant as kids are, reflecting does not come naturally to most kids. It’s difficult for kids to know how or why to reflect.  This is where creating a culture of reflection and feedback becomes one of our chief teaching responsibilities (Benson, 2011).  Andrew Miller (2019) shares “Reflection is a powerful practice and mindset to foster in the classroom. Teachers can serve as mentors to students in helping reflection become part of their way of learning.”  We work to help reflection become a habit of students’ thinking because we know how much it chisels our own understanding of what we learn.

How can we nurture reflection?  How can we make room for reflection with our students? What does effective reflection sound like?  Let me share a few key ways I engage and nurture reflection with and for students as co-learners because I am not done getting better at all of this, too!

Cultivating Reflection in Growing
When I was growing up, we were told to stay away from people who talked to themselves.  “Those people are crazy,” was the explanation. The irony that I have spent most of my teaching career encouraging and nudging people to talk to themselves is not lost on me.  I have seen time and time again how powerful it is to share with students why and how self-talk sparks and guides understanding. So, now I would say it’s crazy notto talk to ourselves!

Just as self-talk is a large focus of my modeling learning and thinking with students during my mini-lessons, I work to cultivate students’ self-talk during their independent work time through conferring and nudge self-talk more as we close our time together.  Self-talk nurtures and reflects one’s metacognition or regulation – knowledge about one’s own cognitive processes (knowledge) and the monitoring of these processes (skillfulness) (Hattie, 2009).  In all these contexts, here are some of the self-talk models and stems I practice with students quickly adding their own insights and suggestions to our self-talk list:

“I think…”
“This makes me think…”

“I don’t really get this part…”/”I don’t understand this part.  So, I will….”
“I know…”/”I know…because…”
“I am connecting _____ and _____ now.”/”It seems important to connect ____ and ____  because…”
“This reminds me of…”
“This is like…”/”This is like…but not like…because…”
“I know that I already know…about this topic…”
“I wonder…”/”I wonder…I found out…”/”I wonder…I found out…So, now I will…”
“I bet…”/”I bet…because.  So, now I am thinking/inferring that…”
“Maybe…because…”
“As I read this, I inferred that…because….So, now I am thinking that…”
“I learned…”
“This seems important because…”
“Putting all of this together, I now know/realize…”
“Hmm, I am not sure but it seems like…because…”
“To summarize, the most important points/information are/seem to be…”

After or Closing Reflections
In the early days of my teaching, reflection hit me smack in the face during bus duty (of all places).  At this school, bus duty was really all about shepherding cars in and through the drop off zone as most students were picked up rather than bused. As parents, grandparents, and care givers picked up my students, I began to hear a terrible pattern.  I was horrified and knew that I was the cause of my disappointment.  Each adult would ask one of my students “What did you do in school today?” And every kid, every brilliant and energic student from my very own class answered “Nothing.”  A dagger to my heart!  That’s when I began to think about reflection in earnest and knew that reflection had to become an intentional and sacred part of each learning day.

So now, I end every lesson or, at the very least, each day with reflection. Most often, I do this by bringing the kids back from their independent practice to gather together for a few or several minutes of reflection.  Sometimes, I have time to do this and we work as a whole group community.  Other times, I have maybe one minute before the bell rings or 30 seconds until I have to let them go to their next class.  When time is very short, I use vehicles of oral reflection such as turn and talk (students talking in pairs) or blab school (all students talking at the very same time) to help students voice a reflection about their learning from that day or lesson.

To illustrate this a bit more, I close our Readers’ Workshop or Writers’ Workshop time with several minutes of reflecting in a Talking Circle.  As we gather together in a circle on the rug (or in chairs), we talk to one another with and from questions like those I offer below.  We engage in this group talk with the intention that these questions are meant for each of us first because talking about our learning and thinking as peers often makes it more comfortable to practice reflection when we are alone and on our own. 

  • What did you learn about yourself today?/What did you learn about yourself as a mathematician/scientist/artist/nutritionist/writer/ innovator/etc. today?
  • What question/s generated (or drove) your thinking today?
  • When you meet with your Kindergarten buddy, what will you tell her/him about this (skill/process/event/etc.)?
  • What did you notice about your thinking/reading/math work today?
  • What helped you understand today?
  • What helped you stick with your work today?
  • How did you talk to yourself today as you learned/read/performed this science experiment?/What did your self-talk sound like today as you worked on your own/with your study group?
  • What was challenging today? (And I might add: How did you solve this challenge?)
  • What encouraged your thinking today?
  • What went well? (And I might add:How can we repeat this to make your next learning go well?)
  • What do you need to learn next?/What will help you learn more/next?

Front Loading Reflection
Another powerful way to nurture reflection is to be proactive with students.  Some examples of awakening reflection as a learning compass include questions and nudges like the following:

  • Why learn this?/How is learning this helpful to you (or how could it be helpful to you)?
  • How will this help you as a reader/artist/writer/athlete/scientists today?/How will today’s learning help you?
  • When will this be helpful to you in your life?/When, where, and how will you use this learning outside of school?/How are you/we going to use this skill outside of our classroom?
  • What do you need to do your best thinking today?
  • Where can you put yourself to do your best and deepest thinking/learning today

Vehicles for Reflecting
Whether oral or written (although most often oral), whether working in pairs or as a whole group, where students are in their current learning journeys, and other factors such as the time of day and students’ current energy levels help me decide which reflection vehicle to employ at any given time.  For example, when we have had the fourth day of inside recess due to snow and students are super stir crazy, a movement and highly collaborative form of reflection can be very helpful and meaningful.  When I am trying to get a handle of an especially challenging time of learning for students, gaining their written reflection can be very clarifying for all of us in knowing ourselves and in charting next steps of edifying learning, too. Here are just a few reflection vehicles which support students’ reflection and I encourage you to adapt these strategies as you work with your own students:

Talking Circle: These have become absolutely essential experiences for my students over the years, whether kids or adults.  Australian educators Carol Cooper and Julie Boyd (1996) taught me many years ago, “We often don’t know that we know something until we hear ourselves say it in an interaction with another human being.” Creating Talking Circles gives growing thinkers a setting for voicing and deepening their learning.  To begin, gather all students together in a circle to generate reflections.  The sharing of reflections can be conducted by going around the circle often guided by your prompt or nudge.  Shy students or kids needing more time to reflect may be given the option to say “pass” when it is their turn in the circle. I often begin the year with prompts such as those shared earlier in this piece.  Over time, students lead our Talking Circle setting the focus and helping to pace our conversations and sharings, too.

Turn and Talk: Working in pairs, students share a reflection/s with one another often taking turns.  You can support students by timing and calling out structures such as “Partner A, you can 30 seconds to share your thinking/reflection with your partner” and then to do the same thing for Partner B. Open pair conversations work well, too. The decision about how to structure Turn and Talk reflections will depend on considerations such as how much time is needed for reflection (or how much time you have left for reflections, to be honest) and how mature your students are in the give and take of meaningful peer conversations.

Exit Card/Entrance Cards:  I don’t engage students in written reflection every day but do so when writing will help students process their own thinking and when gathering this data will be especially informative to me and the kids.  I can use the questions and self-talk shared earlier as prompts for this type of short and spirited response from students.

Blab School:  I learned this strategy from Stephanie Harvey years ago and it is amazing how much it supports kids in developing their thinking and in helping shy or quiet students become more confident in voicing their perspectives and insights.  Blab School reflections are simply asking the kids to share their thinking out loud at the very same time.  I have learned to sit by specific kids during Blab School to hear their thinking.  This is a very efficient way to grab their thinking and get to know a student a bit more by hearing their reflections.  The kids always find this vehicle to be especially fun and easy to do.

Self-Talk:  As profiled earlier, sharing our ways of creating understanding by modeling and practicing effective self-talk are huge eye-openers to growing thinkers.  Even into high school, lots of kids think that understanding is magical.  Many of my own students thought they I understood everything I read the first time I read a text.  Help them know that reading/learning/solving math problems/innovating a new piece of art can be hard for any of us.  Talking to ourselves with efficacious self-talk leads us all to better understanding and promotes resiliency when the going gets tough. Help students notice and name their own effective meaning-making self-talk.  Write down student self-talk as often it is students’ self-talk which becomes a much more reachable or connected model for a peer/s in class.

 One word summary: Ask students to provide a summary of their thinking or an understanding of a process with just one word.  These are not always as easy as they sound but they are powerful in supporting students’ discernment and synthesis.  As Mark Twain said, “If I had had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Short responses can be created quickly but quality ones need time.  So, honor students by giving them some time to land on a solid one word summary when engaging them in reflection.

 6 word summary: Like one word summaries, we are encouraging students to synthesize their understanding of a concept, event, or process by asking them to create a 6 Word summary.  Short responses like this consistently bring energy to students’ reflective work.  These summaries can be assigned as oral and/or written responses.

 3-2-1 Reflection:  These are classic organizers for reflection and you can create a variety of ways to help student reflect on key information and/or key ways they processed what they are learning.  Whether oral and/or written, here is a frequent structure I use with students to support their reflection:

3 things you learned

2 ways you supported your own learning

1 question you still have

Strikes and Wonders (Benson, 2011)This is a great way to support students’ identification of important ideas and to assess their judgment of important ideas because what they voice provides me with critical data about how well this type of comprehension and evaluation is going for each child.  It’s also a positive way of nudging students to generate their own questions.  Invite students to engage in Strikes and Wonders with the following prompt: ‘A strikeis something that stands out to you as being really important or makes you say “Ah, ha!” A wonderis something that you have a question about.  What strikes you as important about this book/topic/process/issue/person?  What are you wondering?” Before engaging your students in this type of reflection, think about what you would expect to hear in students’ responses to determine whether they are making healthy process and growth in learning your focus goal/standard. These insights about student proficiency will help you utilize Strikes and Wondersas not only a form of reflection but as an additional form of formative assessment, too.

 Connect Two: This is reflection vehicle I use often with students. Just as we know students must know a synonym in learning a new word, helping students create connections before, during, and after they study key concepts strengthens their overall understanding and usually dramatically impacts their confidence, too.  Connect Two reflections can be shaped with prompts such as the following:

I am connecting _______ and ______ because…

I would connect ______ and _____ because…

I connect _____ and _____ because…and these connections are important because….

 Lines of Communication:  Have students form two lines facing one another.  This way, each person has an across-the-aisle partner to orally voice a reflection.  Often, I structure Lines of Communication with a timer and prompts or questions. We identify one line as the Partner A group and the other as the Partner B group.  Then, I call out something like “Partner A, you have 47 seconds to share your reflection about what we learned today with your partner.  Ready, go!” After the timer goes off, the process is repeated to give all Partner B’s their turn to talk.  Once the first round is completed, the person at the head of the Partner A group leaves and heads to the back of the line.  This moves everyone in the Partner A group down one person and, thus, gives everyone in the whole group a new partner.  For the second through fourth or fifth rounds of reflection sharing, I usually change up the prompts with nudges such as:

“Share two or three key connections you made today”

“If you were going to tell someone about this in an elevator where you wouldn’t have much time to talk, how would you describe this process/book/idea/event?”

“Share a key question you generated today as well as any answers or discoveries you made.”

 Nurturing Reflection in Growing Writers
Revisions is a part of writing that I don’t wait to share with students.  It’s too vital to nudging a writer’s thinking.  So, each day, I am intentional about my use of time for students’ writing and make sure that there are always even a few minutes to engage my students in reflecting upon their writing and writing process.

One key way that I cultivate a reflective stance in growing writers is by teaching them what I call the 3-Step Reflective Revision Process.  I take my time to model and practice each step with my students.  The younger students are, the slower my pace in apprenticing them in each step.  Here are the steps for nudging revision as reflection in your own students.

1. Reread your writing

To students I say, “We are going to begin to do something our favorite writers do.  As they write, our favorite authors stop and reread their writing.  Why do you suppose they do this?”

The kids and I then discuss the intentions and values of rereading our writing as writers ourselves.

Then we move on with me saying, “So, now we are going to end our Writer’s Workshop time each day by taking some time – even a few minutes – to read what we wrote. We will do this before we come to our Talking Circle.”

To you as colleagues, let me say that I know that calling this step “rereading” may be generous in some cases because we know that many of our students are not yet in the habit of rereading their own writing.  Starting this ritual with a positive presupposition, especially with growing writers who tend to be too hard on themselves, consistently helps launch and root this reflection ritual with a nurturing and uplifting energy.

After several days or weeks, you can introduce the second step of the Reflective Revision Process:

             2.  Star a part you COULD change.

Could is a very important word to use in this part of the process because it conveys playfulness and a willingness to consider alternatives.  These are very important dispositions for any writer.

To the kids, I model and voice where, how, and why I am starring a few places in my own writing to indicate changes I am considering.  “I could change the title here because, even as I wrote this title, I really did have a couple of other ideas in my head. It might be powerful to think about different ways I could name this piece. Which title would be a compelling invitation for my readers? Hmm…”

Then, I ask students to try on this part of the process. “Thinking about your writing, reflecting on your rereading of your piece, consider a part or two where you COULD make a change.  I am not saying you have to or will change that part.  Just be playful with your writing and your thinking and star a place or two where you could say that a different way, add more, or just change it up a bit!  Ready, go!”

Over time, we share some of the stars with one another – Some of the places where we could make a change in our writing. As we share our stars or changes with one another, we also voice why we think a change would make our writing stronger and more compelling to our readers.

After several days or week, you can introduce the third step of the Reflective Revision Process:

3.  Make a change!

Now that students have had some time to reread their writing and consider changes they could make, it’s time to nudge them out of the nest and ask them to generate a revision. 

I say something like this to ignite this third part of this powerful process, “Look back at one of your stars – One of the parts or places you determined that you could change.  Now, have some fun and think how you could change that part.  You may even want to try it a couple of different ways (especially with a change like a title, character trait or description, or compelling facts or statistics).  Make a change in your writing!”

 Key to making this go well is to ask students to cross out but not erase their revisions.  I always explain to kids that the changes they make in their writing are hugely interesting to me and greatly inform my understanding about each of them (And this data guides my teaching, too.).  So, in addition to saving kids a lot of time by not erasing their early thinking, these changes become rich wells of data to better understand each writer.

As with the other parts of the writing process and as a community of writers, we step back from our writing together and share why, how, and where we make/made changes in our own writing during our Talking Circle.  These reflections often awaken new ideas in students and frequently become essential affirmations of the value of taking risks and being creative with their writing.

Reflection is as essential to student learning as the white space in poetry which causes us to pause and think more deeply about meaning – Meaning of the piece, meaning of the process, and what this all means to us personally.  As Margaret Wheatley (2005) wised advices, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”  Stepping back to think about, marvel over, and celebrate learning – These are essential experiences for all growing thinkers.  Reflection is a roadmap to the heart and a compass of our minds. 

We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey

References:

Benson, Laura in Almeida, Lisa, Benson, Laura, et al (2011).  Standards and Assessment:  The Core of Quality Instruction.  Englewood, Colorado: Lead and Learn Press.

Cooper, Carol and Boyd, Julie. (1996).  Mindful Learning.  Melbourne, Australia:  Routledge.

Costa, Art. (2009).  Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum: Practical and Creative Strategies for Teachers.  Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Hattie, John. (2009).Visible Thinking:  A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement.  New York City, New York: Routledge.

McKanders, Carolyn (2014).  Adaptive Schools Training – Nansha China. Thinking Collaborative. https://www.thinkingcollaborative.com

Miller, Andrew. (2019). Teaching Strategies:  Treating Reflection as a Habit, Not an Event.Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/treating-reflection-habit-not-event

Ritchhart, Ron. (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking:  The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools.  San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Ritchhart, Ron, Church, Mark, and Morrison, Karin. (2011). Making Thinking Visible:  How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wheatley, Margaret. (2005).  Finding Our Way:  Leadership for an Uncertain Time.  Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Laura Benson is with International School Services, working with educators to develop and refine their curriculum and engage in deeper understandings of best-practice pedagogy. A well-cited scholar and researcher, Laura has published numerous articles in professional journals.  Find her on Twitter at @LBopenbook.

Finding Your Internal “Thank You”

By Olivia Gillespie

Recently, I was invited to give a presentation on the revisions and instructional shifts within the 2020 Colorado Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communicating to a group of elementary pre-service teachers. At the conclusion of the presentation, I conducted the usual Q&A. After approximately 20 minutes of answering questions regarding READ Act, disciplinary literacy, and standards-based grading practices, one of the professors raises her hand and says:  “Olivia, we really appreciate you for taking time to come and speak to our students. It’s not often that pre-service teachers have the opportunity to hear firsthand from CDE. However, before you go, you being a former classroom teacher, what advice do you have for our students who will be entering the profession next fall?” I immediately responded, “Wow, what advice would I give?” I took a momentary pause and began reflecting upon my experiences as a classroom teacher. Memories of conversations with former colleagues began downloading, as I processed the question posed by the professor. After a few additional seconds of pondering, I said:

Teaching, after parenting, is the hardest, but most rewarding job one can do! It is chalk full of challenges and complexities that evokes the heights and depths of every human emotion. There will be days you will cry tears of joy, tears of sorrow, and tears of frustration. Let me warn you; some days you will cry tears for absolutely no reason at all. You will encounter disgruntle parents, endure blame for low student performance on assessments, and combat misconceptions derived from inaccurate assumptions about the teaching profession. You will be asked to implement changes in policies as a result of SPF (School Performance Framework), the hiring of a new administrative team, or legislation. Sometimes, these systematic, curricular, or organizational changes will require you to adjust your classroom practices without sufficient time to plan or quite honestly, the resources to do so.

You will spend countless hours researching, collaborating with colleagues, and entrenched in different professional development sessions, hoping to add to your repertoire of instructional practices so you can help that ONE struggling student responsible for your sleepless nights. Each day, you will find yourselves navigating between the various hats a teacher wears, because for many students, you are one or maybe the only caring adult in their lives.  And you will do all of this, rarely hearing these two little words, “Thank You!” With this said, my advice to you is this: Find your internal “thank you”.

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Photo Courtesy of Courtney Hedger 

What do I mean by this? Every teacher needs intrinsic motivation. Remember those misconceptions I spoke of earlier? Not many people understand the challenges and complexities embedded within education, nor the responsibilities of a classroom teacher. It comes with inherent stress and pressure that if there isn’t something like an internal “thank you” always present to provide a healthy, productive balance in order to maintain your perspective of why you chose to teach in the first place, then you will succumb to frustration and quit.

A “thank you” is not always expressed verbally, explicitly, or immediately. It may come in the form of a hug after you have helped a student navigate a problem; an “A-Ha” moment that brings a smile to the face or faces of a student or group students who finally grasp that concept or skill you’ve been teaching; or, while shopping at Wal-Mart and while with his or her family, the student notices you and expresses genuine excitement to see you. It could come in the form of an invitation to a student’s birthday or graduation celebration, sporting or religious event, or a family dinner. It could also come in the form of standing at the counter of a Dairy Queen ordering a large New York Strawberry Cheesecake Blizzard, and your former student recognizes you and jumps over the counter to give you a bear hug. “That’s what happened to me two days ago,” I mentioned to this group of pre-service teachers.

Emmanuel (that’s the young man’s name), was a student in my 9thgrade English language arts class six years ago. He was the type of student who often disguised his academic struggles by embracing the role of “class clown”. At the end of every class, he would knock over each one of my blue chairs before exiting my classroom. For reasons unbeknownst to me, he seemed to love the sound of me fussing at him. Although he did come back to pick them up and push them neatly under my trapezoid shaped tables, he didn’t do so until I screamed his name as he ran down the hallway laughing hysterically. This was the nature of our relationship. He even continued this behavior during his sophomore year when he’d stop by my classroom just to say hello.

Another customer, observing the encounter between Emmanuel and me that day at Dairy Queen, asked me: “You taught this young man?” I responded, “Yes ma’am, I did. I taught him his freshmen year. I was his English language arts teacher.” She said, “You must have been an amazing teacher, because I have never seen a student so happy to see a teacher in my entire life.” I smiled.

As I relived the moment with those pre-service teachers, I realized that Emmanuel encapsulates why we become teachers.  He also encapsulates why we stay. Emmanuel represents what so many of us experience over the course of our teaching careers:

  1. Simile: Like the blue chairs in my classroom, teachers, daily endeavor to provide support as their students engage in learning.
  2. Metaphor: The Emmanuel’s in education present challenges or obstacles that oftentimes leave us floored.
  3. Theme: However, our resiliency and passion will not allow us to succumb to the temptation to walk away. Instead, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and prepare for the next group of students, masking our tears, frustration, and exhaustion with a smile.

Teachers are the unsung heroes cloaked in obscurity. You effortlessly save lives with little to no appreciation. There are no parades, confetti, or news coverage about your last minute heroics with seconds left on the game clock. You most likely will never receive a multi-million dollar contract for what you do for our children, families, and communities. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to say those two little words rarely heard, “THANK YOU!”

Olivia Gillespie is the Reading, Writing, and Communicating Content Specialist in the Office of Standards and Instructional Support at the Colorado Department of Education. She is a former high school administrator and English language arts teacher. She is currently a doctoral candidate, pursuing her Doctor of Education (Ed.D) Leadership with a concentration in Executive Leadership at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a mother, pastor, entrepreneur, and avid sports fan.

Welcome to Twilight

By Patrick Allen

The end of May marks the close of my 33rd year as a classroom teacher.  I blame it on my wife! When were were dating, I had big plans of becoming a speech and language pathologist, but one evening she handed me a copy of Donald Graves’s book Writing: Teachers and Children at Work (1983) that she had just read.  “You have to read this book, it’s amazing!”  She was right. I devoured it. And, although I graduated with a degree in Communication Disorders that spring, I immediately went back to get a master’s level teaching certificate.  I couldn’t not teach.  

I’ve been joking with my colleagues that I’m in my “twilight years.”  But I don’t necessarily mean that period of time where ambiguity, forgetfulness, and gradual decline take over the human spirit.  Rigor-edu-mortis has not begun to set in quite yet.  When I say “twilight,” I mean that time where you find yourself reflecting and “whispering secrets before we go our separate ways” (Fletcher 1997).  I think that I’ve finally learned to be a listener.

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Photo courtesy of Dawid Zawila 

My teaching career has lasted double most marriages in the United States. I’ve been blessed enough to work with many leaders in our field, forging friendships with fellow literacy experts across Colorado and around the country.  I’ve been blessed with life-long friendships that were born of our common love of learning. I’ve been blessed enough to teach over 825 students, give or take a few, from second graders to fifth graders. I’ve been blessed to work side-by-side some of the most amazing teachers on a day-to-day basis. I love working with learners–both children and adults. And, sometimes the best learning comes through listening to learners reflect on their own thinking, their own metacognition.

Listen.

This past week, during reader’s workshop, I was eavesdropping on my students during a “turn and talk.”  We are knee deep in a study of Synthesis and I want to gather all the wisdom I can from my students. I always uncover gems when I listen carefully to the “sea of talk” (Britton 1970).  As I listened, I overheard Cesar say: “I have to ask myself, am I doing this because my teacher asked me to or am I doing this because I want to make myself better–you have to put yourself into this process… do it to help YOU!”  I immediately grabbed my notebook and jotted down his words.

You see, Cesar gets it.  In fact, he’s publicly announced to his classmates, “We’re lucky.  We get choice and freedom. We aren’t forced to do it. In this class we’re inspired to do it!  You aren’t just handed the gusto for life, you have to develop that gusto for yourself! I like having the chance to give my ideas out, choose the books I want to read, and have the time to do it… every day!”  Freedom is a very important part of the dream for Cesar and his family. Kids like Cesar cause us to lean a little closer and look at the learner in the eye… and listen.

Don Graves reminded us, “Through our active listening, children become our informants.  Unless children speak about what they know, we lose out on what they know and how they know it.  Through our eyes and ears we learn from them; their stories, how they solve problems, what their wishes and dreams are, what works/doesn’t work, their vision of a better classroom, and what they think they need to learn to succeed” (Graves 1994).  I learn from kids like Cesar every day.

Listen.

The same holds true with our colleagues.  For me, learning alongside a colleague gives me the energy, the fodder, and the wherewithal to create the kinds of workshops worthy of my students and their intellect.  For the past three years, I have garnered such brilliance from my teammate, Danny. Danny’s one of those passionate young educators who just wants to hone his craft, sharpen his pedagogy, understand and apply research-based practices, and do what’s best for the learners in his care.  He’s well on his way.

At least three times a week, Danny and I sit and talk after school about learners and learning.  We share the highs and lows of our day. We share the work our students are doing. We share books and mentor texts.  We talk about the thinking we’ve garnered and the charts we’ve developed with children. We listen to each other with respectful, honest ears.  There’s lots of laughter, straight talk, and pondering. There’s a mutual respect that’s developed between the two of us.

In The Energy to Teach we’re reminded, “The essential base to being a good colleague is listening and resonating to the emotional tones of other staff members.  Listening to a colleague does not necessarily mean agreeing… good colleagues have strong emotional, supportive ties” (Graves 2001). That means that our after school conversations have a purpose.  When you have a coaching/mentoring relationship with a colleague, it strengthens the work you do with your students. I’m know I’m better teacher for it. Danny’s a great mentor.

Listen.

I’ve been following Laura Benson on Twitter for years (@LBopenbook) and recently she’s been sharing posts about her literacy mentors… from Shelley Harwayne to Donald Graves to Don Murray to Karin Hess.  The thing that impresses me the most about Laura is that she listens to, and honors, the experts in our field. She does not veer away from her deeply held beliefs. I’m sure Laura would agree that sound underpinnings are the bedrock of our teaching souls.

There’s no stagnation in our work if we choose to latch onto the coattails of great literacy leaders and carry their innovation into our own work.  Great teaching is great teaching. I wouldn’t have been in the business of kids for 33 years if it weren’t for Ellin Keene, Katie Ray, Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Donald Graves, Shelley Harwayne, Debbie Miller, Cris Tovani, Lester Laminack, Linda Reif, Mary Howard, and SO many others sharing their expertise with me.  Sound instruction begets sound instruction begets sound instruction. Who can argue Rumelhart, Clay, Rosenblatt, Goodman? Innovators of literacy insights. My colleagues, near and far, feed me.

“We need to turn around the rhetoric of ‘not enough’ in education.  Take energy from what our students bring, knowing every day that our students do learn” (Graves 2001).  Listening takes time. My friend and colleague, Dana Berg, often reminds me that all our students need is “a voice, an ear, and a conversation.”  They need us to listen.

I’m so glad I listened to my girlfriend (now wife) Susan when she told me to read Don’s book.  It is one of the times I not only listened, but ACTED.  And as I ease into the beauty of this year’s twilight, I’ll continue to hear the voices of my students and my colleagues.  I’ll wait, watch, and wonder… listening for the whispers the next learning opportunity brings.

What will you be listening for?  And, with whom.

• • • • • • • • • • 

A few ponderings….

  • What are the ways you’re listening in on your students and using their conversations as authentic nudges for instruction?  
  • What are you doing to make “talk” public?  
  • What rituals and routines in your classroom nurture natural conversation?

 

  • How are you learning from a trusted colleague?
  • How are you setting aside time to reflect?  With Self? With others?
  • How are you filtering your own professional growth?

 

  • In what ways are you strengthening your philosophical underpinnings?
  • In what ways are you using research to support your interactions with children?
  • In what ways are you revisiting the reasons you became an educator in the first place?

Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.

Graves, D. (1994) A Fresh Look at Writing.  Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Graves, D. (2001) The Energy to Teach.  Portsmouth, NH.  Heinemann.

Fletcher, R. (1997) Twilight Comes Twice. New York, NY. Clarion Books.
Patrick Allen has been a classroom teacher for over 30 years.  He is the author of Conferring:  The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop and co-author of Put Thinking to the Test (both with Stenhouse).  He has worked as a staff developer throughout the United States and Canada.  When he’s not with children or colleagues, he’s busy being a husband, a father to his four grown children, and a “Grumpa” to his grandson, Ryker.  

Take Time for You: Designing Your Own Self-Care Plan

By Tina H. Boogren

A few years ago, I had the honor of co-authoring the book Motivating and Inspiring Students: Strategies to Awaken the Learner (Marzano, Scott, Boogren, & Newcomb, 2017). As we researched the strategies and resources associated with creating environments where students can truly shine, I kept getting stuck on this question: How can we ask our teachers to motivate and inspire their students if they don’t feel motivated and inspired themselves? And thus, a new book was born.

As an education consultant, I travel via airplane multiple times a month, and the key safety announcement never changes, no matter the airline: “Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” The same is true for our educators. I believe that the key to thriving—both as a human being and an educator—rests in self-care.Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 11.09.42 PM

To be clear, that is daily self-care, not the kind we promise to do during the summer or on the weekends, when our own children are older, or when we retire. Yes, daily. Psychologist Catherine P. Cook-Cottone (2015) defines self-care as the “daily process of being aware of and attending to one’s basic physiological and emotional needs including the shaping of one’s daily routine, relationships, and environment as needed to promote self-care” (p. 297). These include small tweaks, reminders, and (most importantly, perhaps) permission for educators to take care of themselves.

I believe we need to start asking ourselves new questions: What if we learned to take care of ourselves while taking care of our students? What if it weren’t an either-or situation? What if we split our time between our own needs and students’ in a new way? What if, for every move we make for the sake of our students, we also make a move for our own sake? What if we didn’t engage only in professional development on pedagogy and content, but spent time learning how to best support ourselves?

Using Abraham H. Maslow’s (1943) easily recognized and well-established theory of motivation, we can design our own individualized self-care plans. By purposefully pausing a few times each day in order to check in on how we’re doing, we can ask ourselves the following questions associated with each level of Maslow’s hierarchy in order to identify what we need in that very moment.

The Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  1. Physiological: Are my basic needs met?
  2. Safety: Do I feel safe?
  3. Belonging: Do I belong?
  4. Esteem: Do I feel confident?
  5. Self-Actualization: Am I living my best life?
  6. Transcendence: Do I feel inspired?

Once you reach a question that you answer with “no,” you can employ specific strategies targeted to that particular level of the hierarchy, thus engaging in targeted, meaningful, impactful self-care.

Sample Strategies Aligned to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  1. Physiological: Drink water, take a walk, get a good night’s sleep
  2. Safety: Stick to a schedule, listen to calming music, schedule doctor’s appointments
  3. Belonging: Put dates with your friends and family in your calendar, share meals without distractions
  4. Esteem: Utilize a growth mindset, talk to yourself like you’d talk to a loved one
  5. Self-Actualization: Choose work you love, challenge yourself with personal goals
  6. Transcendence: Practice gratitude, mindfulness, and engage in altruistic acts

Here’s an example of how this might look. Say you set an alarm on your phone to go off during your lunch break. When you hear the buzz, you know that it’s time to take a few deep breaths and ask yourself the questions presented above. You start with, “Are my basic needs met?” and you quickly answer “no” as you realize that you haven’t had any water yet today and you feel particularly exhausted. You consider the strategies associated with this level and decide to grab your water bottle and go for a quick walk around the school before you sit down to eat lunch.

Or say you find yourself answering “yes” to every question until you get to level three, “Do I belong?” and you realize that you haven’t seen your best friend in two weeks and you’re missing that connection. You quickly send a text, setting up a coffee date for that weekend, and you feel better already.

Or maybe you get all the way to level six and realize that while things are pretty great, you don’t feel particularly inspired. You decide to record three things you’re grateful for today in your planner, and all of a sudden, your mood shifts.

In my book, Take Time for You: Self-Care Action Plans for Educators (Boogren, 2018), I take readers through each level of the hierarchy, outlining possible strategies associated with each level of the hierarchy so that readers can create their own personalized plans for self-care. I also include personal surveys, a daily time audit, reflection questions, and examples of how each level impacts our lives both in school as well as in our personal lives so that we can truly thrive, not only for the students that we teach but ourselves as well.

I’m already looking forward to presenting this work on February 8th at the 2020 CCIRA annual conference!

References:

Boogren, T. (2018). Take time for you: Self-care action plans for educators. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Cook-Cottone, C. P. (2015). Mindfulness and yoga for embodied self-regulation: A primer for mental health professionals. New York: Springer Publishing.

Marzano, R. J., Scott, D., Boogren, T., & Newcomb, M. L. (2017). Motivating & inspiring students: Strategies to awaken the learner. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

 

Worried about Conferring? Just Listen.

By Emily Galle-From

To those who know me, it is no surprise that writer’s workshop is my favorite part of the school day. To those who don’t, I’m often greeted with confused stares or a thread of questions: How do you fit Writing into your schedule?, Isn’t it intimidating?, and How do you know what to teach? Enter: conferring. By doing daily writing conferences, I am able to tailor my teaching directly to my first graders’ needs. Not sure what to teach? Listen to your students. They’ll tell you.

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photo by Agance Olloweb

In her book with Lester Laminack, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts), Katie Wood Ray defines writing conferences as “‘the essential act’ in workshop teaching because of their individualized nature” (156). They occur “when the teacher sits down beside a student . . . finds out how the student’s writing is going, and then in a very direct but conversational way, teaches (or tries to teach) the student something that makes sense at this time.”

Last week, I conferred with a first grader writing a fictional story about unicorns. She included two characters and plenty of dialogue — an impressive feat for a six-year-old. She blushed and beamed as I complimented this work, clearly proud of the story that was unfurling on the page before her.

Of course, my mind took note of this. Carl Anderson reminds us that “it isn’t [the teacher’s] job to fix or edit the student’s writing. Rather, it’s to teach the student one writing strategy or technique he can use in a current piece of writing and continue to use in future writing.” While this student was already achieving first grade standards, I had the unique opportunity to teach something she was proving that she was ready (and excited!) to include in her writing: dialogue tags. It is not a first grade standard, it is not something I have taught the class as a whole, but by listening closely to this student’s writing — and noticing her excitement — I knew this was the right next-step for her.

As I was showing this skill to the young writer, I began to notice an eavesdropper: the student to her left was watching my every move. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed my demonstration, saw the example in a mentor text, and watched his classmate try it in her own writing. The student to her right did not notice at all — she kept plowing ahead with her own work. Honestly, it did not surprise me: that student was so focused on stretching out sounds to write words on the page that dialogue tags were far from her realm of reality. But that student to her left? His attention proved that he was ready and eager to try this new skill, too.

As I circled back around to check in with my student towards the end of writer’s workshop that day, I was thrilled to see her adding dialogue tags when her unicorns spoke with one another. The added bonus? The boy to her left had gone back and added them into his own writing, too. Two for one.

Students will show you when they’re ready for a new skill. When it comes down to it, all we need to do is listen.

Emily Galle-From has been a teacher in North St. Paul, MN for eight years.  She presented at CCIRA for the first time in 2019; her session was entitled Fostering Empathy through Picture Books.  In her free time she enjoys traveling, writing, and reading.