Featured

Poetry Is a Way to Connect Us During These Uncertain Times

By Georgia Heard, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

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

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

Elizabeth Alexander wrote: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that sing a deeper history

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

Puzzles because there are so many different ways that things connected

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

The moon

Laughter

Sadness

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

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

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

Wise words indeed!

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

When you turn the corner

And you run into yourself

Then you know that you have turned

All the corners that are left

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

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

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

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

Four Engaging Structures That Work in Hybrid A/B Learning Classrooms

By A.J. Juliani

This summer as many schools went from going back to school in-person, to virtual, to some mix in-between a lot of teachers were faced with a new reality: Teaching kids in your classroom at school and at home…at the same time.

This Hybrid A/B Model of schooling (also goes by many other names) has a camera on in the classroom for students to watch at home, while students rotate days A/B of being in-person or at-home.

Technology plays a big role in making this happen, and it needs to all work in the classroom and at home for each student in order to pull it off.

Let’s just say that all the technology does work, in that case, the question I’ve been working with teachers on over the summer in PD and training has been: How do I structure the learning experience so kids at home and in-class are both learning?

Below I share four different models that I have seen work and that teachers are using around the country (and world) in Hybrid A/B learning.

This is a long post so feel free to jump around as needed. I share videos, templates, and resources on these structures in my Online Learning Master Course, but this 3000-word article should give you enough information to get started!

1. The STEPS Model (I do, We do, You do with a twist)

This is (by far) the most traditional model of teaching that can work in an A/B Hybrid environment. I usually start my training with this model to show how you can make the jump to teaching hybrid without changing too much as a teacher. Remember, we are all at different stages of the continuum, and in many content-heavy subjects, this model works well to get the students into a consistent flow of what the class will look like (whether they are in-school or watching at-home).

Here’s how it works, adapted from The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools:

S: Set-Up (Practice Review)

You can do this with small groups or large groups, but for the sake of our interpretation, let’s just say you have half the class in front of you in the classroom and the other half at home. You start by setting up the class for the lesson and doing some review of the previous day’s lesson.

An important part of retrieval practice is having the students pull out their responses from yesterday’s lesson instead of providing a review for them. This is also a good time to have students doing some practice or review problems or questions while you take attendance and complete the other beginning of class procedures.

When done well, students will expect to come into class either in-person or virtually with an idea of what the first 5-10 minutes will look like every day. This also helps teachers see whether or not students are grasping the knowledge/skills/topics that were covered in the previous lesson.

T: Teach – Explicit Model and Guide of New Concepts or Skills

The next stage is direct or explicit instruction of a new concept, skill, or continuation from the previous lesson. This is the “I do” part of the lesson where the teacher explains and shares examples of what to look for, how to do something, and why it matters in the overall context of the subject.

There is little interaction in the “T” part of the lesson with students in class and at home focused on understanding what the teacher is explaining and listening/watching. However, using a tool like Peardeck or Nearpod can allow students to respond to prompts and questions easily throughout the lesson.

Note: This does not have to be the teacher talking the entire time. Bring in videos, manipulatives, pictures, models, and anything else to help guide the student’s attention and interaction with the content. It also does not need to be a long, drawn-out, part of the lesson.

E: Engage – Practice with Feedback

Here is where teacher-led practice comes into the lesson. The “We do” part of the lesson engages students in practicing the skill being taught in the lesson. A few ways you can do this in hybrid situations:

  1. Have students in class partner-up with a student at home. Students in class on their device and students at home on their device. This is a perfect use of a breakout room (in Zoom) and as a teacher, you don’t have to worry about monitoring the breakout rooms as they are happening in front of you.
  2. Students could be doing the practice individually or with groups using online collaborative tools such as Google Docs, Slides, Jamboard, Padlet, etc.
  3. Have students go through this process in-class and at-home with various students sharing on the in-class or virtual whiteboard.

P: Practice Activity – Extended Practice of New Skill

The “You do” portion of the lesson has students practicing the new skill or engaging in the content by themselves. Here is a perfect time to have the cameras off at-home and have students engage away from the device.

Or you can have them continue to use technology and share what they are doing/learning in your learning management system (Google Classroom, Seesaw, Canvas, Schoology etc).

My favorite part of this practice piece of the lesson is the ability for the teacher to work with an individual student or small group who may need some additional help or who could use a challenge.

S: Show You Know – Share Your Questions

At the end of the lesson, you can bring all the students back together on the live-stream (or have them do this individually depending on your circumstances) and end the classroom in a similar fashion to how you started it. Have students showing what they know and understand by answering questions, asking questions, and checking their own (and each other’s work).

The goal here is for the teacher and students to have a formative understanding of their needs and where to go next (what to tweak etc) in the following lesson.

Notice that in the STEPS Model the students are NOT staring at a live-stream the entire time. In fact, the only time they are needed to be on the live-stream asynchronously is during the “I do” teaching/modeling mini-lesson part of the class. You have options for each of the other parts of the lesson on how to structure the learning experience.

2. The Station-Rotation Model

The Station-Rotation Model is one of the most commonly used blended/hybrid learning structures, used successfully by teachers all around the world pre-pandemic. You may have done this yourself with various forms of media and centers in your classroom.

Now, with half the students at home and half the students in your classroom, the station rotation model still works but has to be adjusted accordingly.

The basics are simple to understand: Each lesson has various learning stations that the students work through during the class period.

The easiest way to begin is to have two stations.

Station #1: Instruction with the teacher.

Station #2: Online activity or assignment.

The teacher begins the class by explaining each station, then gets half the class (either the in-person group or at-home group) to start Station #2. The teacher then takes the rest of the class to Station #1 for half the class period, before switching and taking the other half of the class through Station #1.

While that is the easiest way to begin, going into three stations may be the best option for station-rotation lessons long-term.

Catlin Tucker shared a perfect image to explain the three station-rotation model in our Hybrid A/B environments:

The class period is broken up into three distinct sections. For Hybrid A/B learning I would have all of the students at home be in one group (Group 1) while breaking up the students in-class into two separate groups (Group 2 and Group 3). However, if your situation is such that you have at home hybrid students and full-time virtual students that group may have to be split in two.

The Teacher-led Station is what you will be leading (three separate times) throughout the class period.

The Online Station is personalized practice, research, and exploration, or multimedia lessons that students can access on their own using digital tools and spaces.

The Offline Station can be used for some off-screen activities, getting students engaged in reading or other activities that they do not have to be ‘Logged on’ to complete.

The key to the station-rotation model is to set clear time expectations at the beginning of the class and to keep them throughout the period. It also takes some serious planning. Don’t be alarmed if the first time (or 2, 3 etc) students and you take some getting used to this model!

3. The Flipped Model (with needs-based grouping)

As I walk through these steps to “flip” your instruction and set up a working model of differentiation in your Hybrid A/B class, keep in mind a few things.

First, realize that this can work in any subject area. In order for it to work successfully, a teacher must come up with clear objectives on what students need to know, and how they will demonstrate that knowledge. You’ll also have to be able to teach the main concept through video, and students will need a way to access that video at home (or at the beginning of the class period).

Second, don’t spend too much time thinking about the resources you use to make the video. Often teachers get stuck in the technical side of things instead of just making it and getting better with production over time. This happened to me for a long time before realizing that it didn’t have to be fancy.

Third, make sure you use this strategy to find out what your students know and what they are missing, then get them to a place where they can demonstrate that understanding. When you pre-assess students, the goal is not to see “who did the homework” but instead how your instruction can meet students where they are at in their current level of understanding.

Getting Started Flipping Your Instruction

Here are 10 steps (some longer than others) to get this model working with your class:

  1. Teachers identify a particular concept or skill to focus their instruction (often dictated by your curriculum).
  2. Teachers create a short video screencast (using Screen-cast-o-matic.com) walking students through the concept, explaining the reasoning and steps, providing examples of the skill in action.
  3. Teachers edit and upload the video to Youtube or Vimeo.
  4. Students watch the video the night/day before class and take notes or answer some quick comprehension questions.
  5. When students arrive at class the following day, the teacher hands out (or gives digitally) a short 5 question pre-assessment based on the video and instruction from the night before.
  6. Students answer the questions to the best of their abilities and then score a partner’s (or self-score their own assessment).
    1. Students end up in three groups based on the pre-assessment score.
      1. Score a 0-1 and you are in Tier A.
      2. Score a 2-3 and you are in Tier B.
      3. Score a 4-5 and you are in Tier C.
  7. The goal for all students is to end up in Tier C by the end of class.
  8. The first third of class:
    1. Tier A sits down and re-watches the video from the night before with a teacher-created handout with new questions.
    2. The teacher gets Tier B into groups (or partners) to work on refining some of the skills and concepts together. They can use the video as a guide and call on the teacher to help during their group work.
    3. Tier C is given a higher-level application challenge.
  9. The second third of class:
    1. Teacher heads over to Tier A after the video is complete to answer any questions they might have on the concept and give the entire group some questions to answer. Then they answer questions individually. They move onto Tier B.
    2. Tier B takes another short formative assessment (individually) to show their understanding after the group work on the concept. Those that score a 4-5 move onto Tier C.
    3. Tier C continues to work on the challenge or completes it and begins to help new students coming into their group.
  10. Last third of class:
    1. Tier B students work in partners or groups and take the next formative assessment when they are ready. Teacher floats between Tier B and Tier C helping and challenging as seen fit.
    2. Tier C students finish the challenge and work to create a challenge for the following class (or next year’s class).
    3. Tier B students are helped by classmates and teacher to move to Tier C before the end of the class.

Let’s recap:

First, you start with some type of work at home or at the beginning of class. Then you assess quickly on base knowledge of that concept. The pre-assessment separates your class into three tiers of understanding. The goal is to move students through tiers and provide different levels of support. With all students landing at the final tier for a challenging activity by the end of class.

The trick to making this successful is to embed choices into the activities during class. Allow students to pick partners and groups. Give students multiple types of questions to answer and activities to complete. Give the second-tier options on how they are assessed before moving to the final tier. Provide the final tier with options and choice to challenge their understanding and move past the application to a higher level of thinking.

I would personally start with a concept or skill that some students typically master quicker than others. In this case, you’ll have experienced the frustration of having students at all different levels of understanding, and know that there has to be a better way to go about instructing the entire class.

Start small with a short video, and quick activities at each of the levels. This way, when you move into bigger units of study, students will be familiar with the process and expectations. It’s amazing to watch the negative “snowball” effect of students falling behind stop immediately. In this model, there is no “falling too far behind” because students are all expected to reach a certain level of mastery by the end of the class.

4. The Choice Board Model

This is a self-paced option for the Hybrid A/B learning environment. The Choice Board allows for various levels of learning to take place and gives students choices in how they access information as well as demonstrate their understanding.

Here is a quick example of what a Choice Board might look like via Kasey Bell:

Novel Unit Tic-Tac-Toe

Here are the steps you can go through to create a Choice Board in your content area:

  1. Identify a unit/concept or skill and what you want students to know/do/make in order to demonstrate their understanding/proficiency.
  2. Create or choose an assessment/performance task that allows students to demonstrate mastery.
  3. List various instructional methods, resources, and strategies to prepare students for the assessment/performance task.
  4. Choose four-six instructional methods to turn into choice-board activities. Each activity should be a similar length in time and cover common material. Here is where you can add different types of technology or hands-on experiences to the learning process.
  5. Create a workflow for the students to follow. Have notes and formative checks as part of the choice-board design process. Allow for reflection during each activity when planning how long students will complete the activity.
  6. Introduce the different choices to students and describe what the goals of the activity are (as well as the assessment this is leading up to).
  7. Let students pick activities based on their interests/needs.
  8. As the teacher, a few of the activities/options might need more guidance than others. Make sure you aren’t just “managing” this activity, but instead truly acting as a guide and expert learner when the opportunity is available.
  9. Once the choice-board activities are complete, put students into small groups to “jigsaw” their reflection. Bring students from different activities together to reflect on their learning experience and share (this can be written, audio, or video reflections – think Flipgrid).
  10. Listen to reflections and check the formative pieces for each activity to see if students are prepared for the assessment. If not, feel free to go through one more activity together as a class or talk about any topics/concepts they did not understand during the activity.
  11. Give the assessment/performance task.
  12. BONUS OPTION: Make your assessment into a choice-board with multiple performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate an understanding of the content and skills.

As you can see, the process takes more time on the front end from the teacher, but you’ll know that students are prepared for a performance task by going through this activity.

When I began using technology in the classroom, these activities also turned into online experiences that could be done at any time. My ultimate goal as a teacher was to see my students succeeding and demonstrating their understanding of concepts and skills at a high level. The simple act of “giving students choice” changed how my students viewed our assessments, and how they prepared for assessments.

I share all kinds of Choice Board examples in this blog post!

What’s Next?

Planning, managing, and teaching in a Hybrid A/B environment can be difficult, but hopefully, these structures can give some options when thinking about how to get students engaged in the learning process. I would love if you shared in the comments some structures you are using in Hybrid learning!

Thanks for all you are doing for kids!

A.J. Juliani is the author, Empower and Launch (along with five other books). In addition to writing, he is the Head of Learning and Growth at NextLesson, and a Facilitator for the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (PLN). Reach out on Twitter @ajjuliani.

Who Will Sound the Alarm?

By Lester Laminack

September,

Fulcrum between summer and fall,

I have come to count on you

to sound the alarm.

 

I’ve been listening.

 

Where are your rumbling buses,

the hydraulic whoosh,

the inward folding doors?

 

Where is the chatter and the chuckle

of backpacked-children,

that clamber up steps,

the shuffle to find an open seat?

 

Where is that waterfall of youth

splashing onto freshly cleaned corridors,

the squeak of new sneakers,

the squeal of old friends,

the morning bells setting it all in motion?

 

Where is the thunder

of two-hundred-twenty feet

marching in unison,

eight steps to five yards?

 

Where are the grunts and groans,

the slap and thud of muscled young men

clad like gladiators in helmets and pads?

 

Where is the rising and waning roar

of thousands filling seats

escalating upward into the Friday night skies?

 

September,

I fear you have become the latest victim

silenced by this virus,

this crazy, cunning menace.

 

Who will sound the alarm?

—Lester Laminack 2020

I think many of us are feeling like this, like nothing is the way it should be. In mid-March I was working in a school in Parkersburg, WV. That morning I was the visiting author and met with two large groups of elementary school students. I was scheduled to be the speaker for a Young Authors celebration in the district that evening. I returned to the hotel after the second assembly with a plan to relax until the celebration. I had been at the hotel less than an hour when I got a call from the ELA coordinator.  “I’m so disappointed to tell you that we have to cancel our Young Authors celebration this evening. Our superintendent just got off the phone with the governor’s office and all school events have been cancelled in response to this new virus.”  

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 4.59.04 PM

It was too late in the day to begin the travel back to North Carolina, so I made a dinner reservation and got things ready for an early morning departure. On the six-hour drive home I received several other notifications cancelling or postponing events scheduled for the remainder of March and April. Over the next three weeks events into May were cancelling and the pattern followed with events toppling like dominoes stacked in a line. Some just cancelled. Others postponed indefinitely. And several went virtual via Zoom. Schools were rapidly moving to “virtual” platforms and it felt as if the whole country was in some sort of pivot trying to right itself in the midst of growing anxiety.  

Here we are in September, still trying to find our footing. Back in March I believed we would “get back to normal” by June or July and certainly by the time the new school year began. Perhaps you were wiser, but many of my friends held a similar belief.  And now the new school year is underway with teachers, students, and communities scrambling to manage one or another of a variety of “re-entry” plans. No matter what format your school or district has selected, I feel fairly confident that none of it is ideal. Teachers are stressed, parents are stressed, communities are stressed, so it goes without saying that our children are stressed.  

Many of us are suffering from a disruption to routines and schedules that took away our sense of knowing what comes next and altered the we mark the progression of time through a school year. The world feels out of order, chaotic even, for those of us who thrive on routines and schedules and known expectations. After all these months of not knowing, of trying to make the best of less than ideal circumstances and shifting expectations I am feeling the impact of the stress. If I feel it, then I can only imagine that feeling is intensified in our children. 

In times like these I find myself thinking of Fred Rogers who kept the children his singular focus for over thirty years. While he was not a classroom teacher, and he didn’t have assessments, standards, curriculum mandates to deal with, I think there is wisdom to be gained from reflection on what made his program work. From my perspective there are a few simple principles that we can replicate:

  1. Keep it focused—each episode had a central theme that threaded through our visit. 
  2. Keep it consistent—there was a predictable routine to each visit, a set of verbal and nonverbal signals for each transition point. 
  3. Keep it simple—there was no hype, no flash and dazzle, the entire visit was calm and simple involving story, music, a visit with a neighbor, imagination with simple hand puppets, inquiry with “picture picture” on the wall, science or art that could be done at the kitchen table.  
  4. Keep it real—in every visit, Mr. Rogers was present, fully present and not distracted by things around him. He remained focused on YOU sitting there on the other side of that screen. 
  5. Keep it manageable—the pacing was consistent and something that even young children could follow, the content was never overwhelming, examples were supportive.

Lester L. Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University in where he received two awards for excellence in teaching. Lester is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States. Lester has coauthored a number of professional books including Heinemann titles Writers ARE Readers: Flipping Reading Instruction into Writing OpportunitiesLearning Under the Influence of Language and LiteratureReading Aloud Across the Curriculum; and Bullying Hurts. In addition he has several articles published in journals such as The Reading TeacherScience and ChildrenLanguage ArtsPrimary Voices; and Young Children. Lester is also the author of six children’s books. Connect with him on @lester_laminack.

The Power of “Anything” Making the Case for Starting Your Writing Year with Choice of Genre

By Matt Glover

Last week, a teacher emailed me this quote from her child after one of his first days of school.  That night at the dinner table her son Barney said:

“Mr. Harry made me LOVE writing today by just saying ONE WORD. He said we could write ANYTHING!!!”

So much is implied in the word anything.  It’s ripe with possibilities for writing about any topic, in any genre that is meaningful to a child.  Fortunately for Barney, his teacher wanted to capitalize on the power of anything to increase engagement.  And judging by Barney’s reaction, it worked.

For years I have been advocating that teachers start the year with a writing unit of study that allows for choice of genre.  In fact, I believe students at any grade should have several opportunities within a year to experience some units that allow for choice of genre, in addition to plenty of genre studies.  However, I believe choice of genre is particularly important during the first unit when teachers want to maximize student engagement.  If there has ever been a year when we need to think about increasing engagement, it’s this year.

I realize that having units that allow for choice of genre runs counter to the prevailing practice in many schools today.  I work in a wide range of schools across the United States and internationally, and increasingly I’m in schools where students never have the opportunity to choose their genre.  There are many schools where every unit of study in writing workshop, from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of eighth grade is a genre study. This is tremendously problematic, especially in terms of the impact on student engagement.

Let me be careful. This isn’t an anti-genre stance.  I love genre studies.  I spend significant amounts of time finding stacks of mentor texts for specific genres, and I have a wide variety of genres to study. But I also care about student engagement, which means I have to think about the role of choice of genre.  Since engagement is especially important at the start of the year, I would not begin the year with a genre study.

If as educators we care about engagement, then we have to consider the role of choice. Choice and engagement are inseparable.  In any activity, choice influences what we do, how we do it, and our disposition towards the activity. Learners in any area will be more engaged when they have ownership and control over their learning.  In writing, choice manifests itself in many ways, including choice of both topic and genre.

I’ve written at length about the specific benefits of students’ choosing their genre, but I want to zero in on a few of the reasons that impact the beginning of the year. Regardless of whether you are teaching in person, online, or in a blended environment, engagement is more important now than ever.  If your students are learning virtually, they need to be engaged in order to write a lot, which is crucial in becoming a better writer.  If you’re teaching face to face, you may be online at some point and we want to maximize engagement now so it will carry over into an online setting.

Maximizing engagement right from the start should be enough of a reason to begin the year with a unit that allows for choice of genre.  Here are a few that particularly influence the beginning of the year.

Understanding our students as writers

At the beginning of the year we want to understand our children as writers. I want to know what their favorite genres are, as well as their favorite topics.  I want to know who’s the fantasy writer, the comic writer, the how-to writer.  I want to be able to ask the question, “What genre have you chosen, and why?”  That’s an incredibly revealing question and I can only ask it if the child has choice of genre.

Understanding all our students can do as writers

In addition to understanding children as writers, I want to see their best writing so I have an accurate understanding of their strengths.  If I choose to start with a genre, whichever genre I choose will decrease engagement for someone in the class, and decreased engagement will make it difficult for them to show me all of their strengths.

Accelerating Learning

Students will learn more when we study something in depth.  Having choice of genre for a few days before we start a genre study won’t be enough. Instead, by going deep into topics (units) such as revision, peer conferring, illustration, or reading like a writer, we can accelerate student learning and provide them with crucial skills and understandings they can employ in every unit throughout the year.

Now that we are going to start the year with choice of genre, we need to think about the possibilities for units.  A unit of study is simply a collection of days of teaching writing that work towards significant goals. There are at least three types of units we could include in our year.  We could have:

  • Genre Studies- Studying a specific genre of writing
  • Process Studies- Studying an aspect of how authors create pieces of writing
  • Craft Studies- Studying specific techniques authors use to craft effective pieces of writing

Students can meet the goals of a craft study or process study by writing in any genre they choose, thus increasing engagement in writing in any environment.  In craft and process studies, the learning is dependent on students writing in a particular genre.

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Photo courtesy of Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

When working with teachers, I have a list of over twenty craft studies or process studies we consider.  I wouldn’t rule out any of the them for the first unit of the year, and I know grade level teams that have used all of them as their first unit. But, some of them occur more frequently as the first unit. Some of the most common craft studies and process studies used to start the year are:

  • Launching Writing Workshop– This process study focuses on helping students become self-directed, independent, and productive in writing workshop each day. The focus is often on the routines and procedures students need to start the year, especially if they are new to writing workshop.
  • Launching the Use of a Writer’s Notebook– The key to this process study is that students are using a notebook as a tool to help them produce pieces of writing. Students are learning to use this important tool they will continue to use throughout the year.
  • Finding and Developing Independent Writing Projects– When I tell 3rd to 6th graders that they can go write anything they want, I am sometimes met with, “What do I have to write about?” Or, “Which genre are we supposed to write?” Those questions indicate that students don’t know how to create independent writing projects, often because they have been consistently directed what to write for years.  A process study on finding and developing independent writing projects teaches students how to choose topics and genres, plan and revise their writing, and how to start new projects.
  • Reading Like a Writer– This process study nurtures students’ habit of mind of noticing what published authors do to craft texts well and then try those techniques out in their own writing. This important process skill is one they will need in every genre or craft study throughout the year.
  • Author Study– Early in the year we want to support students in creating and maintaining a strong identity as a writer. An author study is a craft study that helps students realize that they can use the same techniques that published authors use.
  • Genre Overview– An interesting question to ask your students is, “What genre have you chosen?” Many students don’t answer that question well simply because they haven’t heard it. This craft study helps students answer that question by supporting them in better understanding the concept of genre, as well as being more intentional and articulate about the genres they choose.
  • How Authors Find Ideas– If your students consistently say they don’t know what to write about, this process study will provide them with strategies they can use to find meaningful topics throughout they year.

Again, in each of these units, students can meet rigorous unit goals by writing in any genre they find meaningful and energizing.

There are other units that often occur later in the year, but they could provide a significant benefit early in the year.  For example, a unit on Revision sets students up to have a positive disposition toward revising throughout the year. Throughout the unit, students create pieces of writing and try out the revision techniques they are studying.  This deep dive into a process that they are applying to personally meaningful genres and topics impacts their ability to revise in every unit that follows.

In whichever way we start the year, we have to consider how our actions align with our beliefs.  If we believe that engagement is crucial in helping students become better writers, then we would have to consider the role of choice of genre.  Writing anything will allow our students to write with energy in the first unit, and all the units to come

Matt Glover has been an educator for over 30 years, including the last 10 as an educational consultant. He is the author of numerous professional books for teachers, including Craft and Process Studies: Units of Study that Provide Students with Choice of Genre.  Matt can be contacted at mattglover@me.com.

Reading in a Pandemic: How did it suddenly become so difficult?

By Carol Jago

With Covid19 has come upheaval. So much anxiety. So many uncertainties. On many days I feel as though I am in a state of suspended animation. Although I usually read at least one book a week, I recently found myself unable to focus, giving up on a book that I had hardly begun. My eyes might be on the page, but my mind was elsewhere.

That is not to say I wasn’t reading.

I spent hours on Twitter following links to breaking news. I read compulsively, but none of that reading was nourishing me. Upon reflection, I think that I was starved for story ­­– stories that had a clear beginning and end and were internally consistent. Stories that could help me make sense of the news. Stories that could serve to sustain me through these difficult days.

I kept wondering if the same thing was happening to students — not only those who had limited access to or appetite for books but also the most avid young readers. Was it possible that the pandemic was interfering with our capacity for reading? Was the constant bombardment of “Breaking News” getting in the way of sustained attention? In Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World, Maryanne Wolf warns that we are all getting into the habit of skimming rather than reading texts closely.

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Photo courtesy of Sylvain Maruoux via Unsplash

“The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf

Although I found it difficult to settle down to a book, I didn’t stop buying them. (Habits die hard.) Two of those purchases, one an adult novel by Elizabeth Wetmore called Valentine, and the other middle-grade historical fiction by Ann Clare LeZotte called Show Me a Sign provided me with an onramp to finding my way back to books.

Valentine is the story of how five women survive the rape of a Mexican teenager in the midst of a 1970s boom in the oil fields of West Texas. As in the much-loved Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, the sunbaked setting echoes the characters’ inner landscapes. As in Miriam Toew’s Women Talking, these women struggle together to make their way in a brutally male world. I could not put this story down. When in-person book clubs resume, Valentine would be the ideal choice for your first meeting.

Set in a Deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805, Show Me a Sign is narrated by 11-year-old Mary Lambert, deaf from birth and living in a community where everyone can sign. In her author’s note, Ann Clare LeZotte, who is herself deaf, explains, “Throughout the story, I tried to highlight the differences between sign language and spoken language. I hope to convey the intimacy, complexity, and expressiveness of sign language.” Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Seeds of Change trilogy, Mary’s story offers a particular window into post-Revolutionary War years. The island community’s prejudice against the Wampanoag reflects the mainlanders’ view of the deaf as lesser beings. As Mendelian genetics was unknown at the time, hereditary deafness in isolated communities was a puzzlement. I predict that Show Me a Sign will be a serious Newbery Medal contender.

At a time when travel is a risky undertaking, books offer safe transportation. At a moment when loneliness visits daily, reading provides fresh company. In a period when troubles are manifest, stories help us prevail.

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school for 32 years and is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crises (Heinemann 2019).