Musings of a Writing Teacher

By Fran McVeigh

The room is quiet. Yet there is a “rustle in the air” this Monday. I quickly survey the room. Typically writing workshop starts out quietly until a writer hits a tough spot and wants to talk it out with their partner.  

Everyone at the first table is writing, writing, writing. At table two, Joey . . . Joey is not writing. Joey is sitting there. He had an idea when he left our group, but he’s not writing. Table three has writing by all. Susie, at table four has her head down. And Les by her is almost lying down on the floor. No writing there. Table five has writing.  

What’s a writing teacher to do?  Quick conferences with Joey, Susie, and Les. Are they stuck on “what to write” or is it too much Monday-itis? A frequent issue during writing time even in writing workshop is the dreaded, “What Should I Write About?” It may come as a question. It may be delivered with a bit of a whine. Or, even worse, it may be a silent telepathic message from a student with their head down on a desk or fidgeting with something inside the desk.

Writer’s Block or “I Don’t Know What to Write About?”

What are some steps to cure the “What do I write about blues?”Here are five ideas for you to try out in your writing and then pass on to your students..

  1.  Make a list.



The first two pages after the Table of Contents in my Writer’s Notebook is a list of topics titled “I can write about . . .” We generated lists that covered two or three pages of chart paper. I recorded a few that appealed to me. I tried to avoid writing too many because I know that looking at a long list makes me anxious. When I am stuck, I pull one or two words off the list, check and see if I want to make them broader?  Or maybe narrower. Here’s my list.

I can write about . . .
Presents / Traditions

Holiday plans

A’Marek’N Girls Cruise



Fur babies

PD Planning


Process vs. Product

Triangle – Assessment, Instruction, Curriculum

Family Stories – Sharing a Hamburger, Ferry

For today, I’m going to combine two.  I’m going to write about traditions with the grandsons.  I’m going to describe some current ones and then I’m going to add in some “possibles” – practicing for the family talk.

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   2.   Make a heart map.



The idea for heart maps comes from Georgia Heard and her book Heart Maps. Here’s a link to her website. A teacher sample of a “Wish Heart Map” is at Margaret Simon’s blog complete with a student example linked here. I began with a simple heart and then began adding topic ideas.


  3.  Make a neighborhood map.


I first heard about this idea from Jack Gantos at a keynote at Teachers College,

Columbia. He says you can create a house map or a neighborhood map.  

Drawing a map helps you remember details that may be important to the story.  

But better yet, those details can get you unstuck and back to writing.  A sample

neighborhood map that Jack used for one of his books is linked here. Part of

the farm I grew up on is pictured here in my map.

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4.  Jumpstart Writing.  

I demonstrate this with students. I write for three minutes. When the timer goes off, I reread my writing and highlight three words that are interesting and that I think I can write about. I choose one of those three and write again for three minutes.  I then quickly reread again, highlighting three more words, of which I choose one and write again for three minutes. I read highlighting three words. I now decide. Choose anything I’ve started or any of the circled words and I draft from there.

Jumpstart Writing Example
It was a cold, crispy night before Homecoming. Go to the parade or not?  Stand in the cold or not? How would I decide? Loyalty, Determination, or Compliance. Which would win out? It would be easier to get ready for the game if I didn’t go. But if I did, I would know how to dress for the weather for the following
Compliance is the bane of my life. So many days the requirement is just to bite my tongue and do my job. Hired to think. Hired to be a leader. And, yet, now expected to be a puppet. What to do? When do I get to make the decision? Is this due to loyalty to my team? Is this due to really liking my job? What are my options? Any real choices? Or just pseudo-choices?
Puppets would be a source of entertainment for our holiday. The kids could pretend to have a concert, dig for dinosaurs, and anything else that their hearts desired. Something new. Something that they could talk about. What would we need? People, animals, and/or some type of backdrop. Better make sure there are some dogs and cats included so our fur families are represented. A short time to practice? Then a video presentation to preserve the memory for anyone not there? Who knows?  Maybe we will start a new tradition.
We have many interesting traditions in our family. One of my favorites began when I  (and continue writing)


5. Text 3 friends.


Ask three friends to give you two topics each that they think you might write about. Don’t get them in trouble by talking, texting, or emailing when you all are supposed to be writing! Respectfully, courteously, and if possible, ask in advance. “We start writing about something we are experts at tomorrow. Can you help me out?  What do you think I’m an expert at doing?” Three friends with two answers each means six answers. With any luck, one of those friends may give you more than two answers which will increase the likelihood that you will have something to write about. Here are the nine answers that I received from three friends and you can see that some answers overlapped.

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Writing is hard but the best advice for “stuck writers” is to write every day. When writing is a daily habit, you can stop in the middle of a sentence and the next day pick up exactly where you left off.  When you only write once a week or once a month, it’s tough to remember what you were thinking unless you left yourself a note. Write. Write. Write. Soon a confident writer you will be! And you will be writing paragraphs, not sentences!

What works for you when you can’t think of what to write about?  How do you get unstuck?

What might you try after reading this post?


Gantos, J. (2018). WRITING RADAR: Using your journal to snoop out and craft great stories. S.l.: Faber and Faber.

Heard, G. (2016). Heart maps: Helping students create and craft authentic writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fran McVeigh is an Assistant Academic Coordinator for Morningside College as well as a Literacy Consultant in Iowa. Previously she has been an elementary teacher, a special education teacher, principal, district curriculum and professional development coordinator and a regional literacy consultant for multiple school districts. Fran is also a co-moderator of the #G2Great chat, can be found on twitter @franmcveigh, and on her blog “Resource-Full”.


Teach Like an Expert: Using the EMPOWER model

By Adam Fachler and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Professor of English Education at Boise State University; Director of the Boise State Writing Project, featured speakers at the CCIRA Conference in February 

Previously on this blog, literacy powerhouse Dr. Mary Howard wrote:

“…we are so busy filling our schools with programs, packages, quick fixes and magic bullets that we forgot to ‘fill the heads of our teachers with the body of knowledge’ that would make those programs null and void and help us realize just how stupid many of their suggestions are.”

This specialized body of knowledge has a name, pedagogical content knowledge, and it’s the hallmark of teacher expertise. It’s what enables a teacher to know:

  • how to apprentice novice learners into expertise with a given strategy or problem-solving task
  • the best ways to represent a particular concept or strategy (e.g. through analogies, examples/non-examples, demonstrations, etc.) and to help learners develop a mental model for understanding and using what they’ve learned
  • How to help learners navigate the productive struggle that inevitably arises when learning how to do a new complex task, like reading a new genre or using a new reading or composing strategy.

Here’s the big takeaway: without pedagogical content knowledge, we will lack the mindful capacity to guide learners to develop and apply deep and transferable expertise.

So, how do teachers actually develop and use expertise?

One way to develop this specialized understanding of pedagogical content knowledge (knowing how to teach learners how to do something) is to use a planning format that mirrors and reinforces the moves of highly effective teachers.

If you peruse curriculum sources like publishers’ websites, Teachers Pay Teachers, blogs, and Pinterest, then you will observe the nearly limitless variability of teacher planning templates. While we are all for open-endedness and creativity, very few of these planning formats actually meet the high bar of the correspondence concept in that they do not correspond with how effective teachers plan nor how successful learners learn in the real-world contexts of college and career.

Just as artists practice their craft and create anew on canvas, educators, too, need a space where they can practice their craft, move towards expertise, and design the highest quality instructional experiences possible.

Introducing EMPOWER

EMPOWER is a seven step process for teaching anyone anything. It is based on research from human development, cognitive science, the development of expertise and other fields.  It organizes the seven “must make moves” that expert educators enact in designing effective instruction into a convenient, powerful model for learning design. Further, EMPOWER is the kind of mental model and map that guides expertise of any kind (Ericsson & Poole, 2016). It is an example of the kind of mental model that we must help students to understand and use to guide them when they read or compose an argument of judgment, a story with a twist, an ironic monologue or any other kind of genre that is new to them:

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Unlike more “schoolish” formats, EMPOWER draws from real-world teaching-learning situations and organizes them into a powerful story:

First, educators ENVISION a future destination for learners and MAP out a proven path to achieving that outcome. Then they PRIME learners for the journey ahead by tapping into background knowledge and interests, and ORIENT the learning by pointing towards the destination, the purpose and payoff of reaching it, and laying out a plan for getting there. They then WALKTHROUGH a new strategy—modeling a new way of thinking about or solving a problem or task that can become a mental model or map to guide future use—and EXTEND learners’ expertise in that strategy through deliberate practice, fading as learners’ skills develop. Ultimately, the educator offers—or helps the learners find—a “call to action” that challenges them to EXPLORE new territory. Throughout the journey, the educator invites learners to REFLECT on progress and process.

The framework naturally organizes into two categories, behind-the-scenes big picture planning and student-facing instructional planning.

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Rather than having you reinvent the wheel, EMPOWER probably links to much of the brainstorming you are doing anyway, but does so in a consistent pattern that reflects what is known about effective teaching and learning:

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Educators who wish to build a new canvas work through each stage of the framework, populating it with ideas that can be captured via sticky notes or shorthand.  For example, when designing a unit on civil rights, a first pass at the EMPOWER canvas might look something like this:

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On a finished canvas like the one above, each sticky note serves as a “placeholder” for what will become a more evolved instructional activity or plan. (Want a FREE blank EMPOWER canvas? Click here.) For example, the “Civil Rights survey” and vocabulary sticky notes are shown in “expanded form” below:

EMPOWER-ing your curriculum at every level

While most designs for learning only allow you to design at one level–either the unit or the lesson–EMPOWER works at every level of the instructional design process because of its grounding in generative principles about all teaching and learning. Educators who EMPOWER their curriculum infuse research-based principles, design thinking, and thoughtful strategy throughout each level of their planning as more macro-level unit canvases inform modules and instructional sequences that inform individual lessons.  This develops curricular coherence, an important feature of instruction that most assists the most struggling learners.

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In our session at the upcoming CCIRA conference as well as in our forthcoming book, EMPOWER Your Teaching (Spring 2019, Corwin Press), we will provide you with ideas for planning powerful units and lessons that will move you from your goals to concrete teaching strategies that will help learners meet those goals. Our intention in this blog is to help you internalize our big picture thinking around the unit level (what’s captured on sticky notes) before circling back to explore each strategy (and lesson-level canvases) of cognitively apprenticing learners towards expertise as readers, composers and problem-solvers.

Getting to your first draft

When you (a) have extremely clear targets for what each must-make move of your unit plan should contain, and  (b) can write these out in shorthand, creatively constricted by the confines of a sticky note, your planning efforts will be highly focused, effective, and productive.

Like a painter who obsesses over every brush stroke of a new painting, educators engaged in the nitty gritty work of curriculum design can find it taking days and weeks to truly nail down their learning plans. But in an environment where we often need our curricular solutions done yesterday, this process can be inefficient.

Therefore, we recommend the following tips:

  1. Sketch a canvas in one sitting. While a unit plan can take weeks or months to write, your initial canvas should be sketched quickly. Yes, you read that right. Set a timer and get your first draft down in the space of one prep period. You are going to come back to the document anyway, and as the saying goes “1>0”; having most of the canvas boxes completed with 50% detail beats one complete, thoroughly detailed box any day.  It can also be very productive and fun to work with a colleague to draft out a unit or lesson plan with EMPOWER. Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 6.33.39 AM2. It’s okay to leave sections incomplete… Rather than trying to research or debate the “right” answers, put something down quickly or leave it blank and come back to it later. Some elements like your unit’s mental models of expertise may take time to figure out. The canvas is meant to be an organic document that evolves over time. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” right now.
    3. …but not the first two sections. Remember: if you’re adopting a learning-centric approach, your learning designs will be less about what you will teach and more about what students will learn to do to independence. If you skip Envisioning and Mapping, you have no chance of successfully POWER-ing the rest of your unit. We advocate flexibility but starting with [E] and [M] is a must.

Conclusion: We cannot defy gravity

Whether we “believe” in it or not, we are still subject to the inescapable effects of gravity. We feel similarly about EMPOWER. Whether or not educators acknowledge that the EMPOWER pattern underlies the most effective teaching-learning situations, we (and by extension, our learners) are still subject to its effects.

An immediate example: imagine a teacher who does not Envision their students’ learning outcomes in sufficient enough detail and the resulting aimlessness that teacher’s students are likely to feel. After all, if the educator does not know the direction of the unit, how can students?

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Similarly, if an educator fails to Map out the unit into digestible pieces, it can lead to learners feeling overwhelmed at the depth or breadth of the content; and if that same educator chooses not to Prime or Orient students at the beginning of the unit, then those students may feel too disconnected or unmotivated to pursue the energy-intensive act of learning.

Suffice it to say that we cannot defy gravity anymore than we can defy the  “science laws” (as determined by the sciences of human development and cognition!) embodied in a principled paradigm like EMPOWER. In fact, once we started using EMPOWER, we started noticing missed opportunities in even our most successful lessons and units and steps we were tempted to skip in the instructional design process that would have come back to haunt us later.

With the “must make moves” embedded into our toolkit, we are guided to include all the essential elements of sound pedagogy, and we are deepening pedagogical content knowledge every single day.

If you are interested in a free copy of our canvas tool prior to our CCIRA session, get a blank EMPOWER canvas here (By the bye, our session is: 169. EMPOWER YOUR TEACHING! Teaching with Inquiry!) Our website provides other resources for using EMPOWER and how to enact pedagogical moves aligned to each of these principles of effective teaching and learning.

Ericcson, A. & Poole, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.

Adam Fachler, Education Consultant, Creator of the EMPOWER Method. Adam worked as an educator, coach, and interim principal at the Bronx School for Young Leaders, a public middle school. Adam completed the NYCDOE’s Leaders in Education Apprenticeship Program in 2014. In 2015, he co-authored the proposal for the School in the Square Public Charter School, a Washington Heights middle school, now open and in its second year.

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is an internationally-known teacher, author, and presenter. He is driven by a desire to help teachers to help their students to more powerful literacy and compassionate, democratic living. A classroom teacher for fifteen years, Jeff is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students.  He is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project. Wilhelm co-authored numerous books and articles, most notably, Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys.

Fall and the Rhythms of Assessment

Dr. Tim Kubik

October is the month when most of us settle into a rhythm as educators. It’s a wonderful time in most schools. As the leaves turn, so to do our lessons turn from earlier, more diagnostic efforts, to the heart of our teaching—moving our learners toward our ultimate objectives for the year. Most are off and running, and the last thing you may have time for is a blog. I hope you’ll slow down, and take the time to “sharpen your axe” (Covey, 2013), and maybe to learn how to swing it a little differently.

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Photo by Kerstin Wrba on Unsplash

If you pause, even for the six minutes it will take to read this blog, you’ll recognize that there are also some disquieting rhythms that surface in our classrooms this time of year.

Like the leaves, some of our students are beginning to fall behind. We’re tempted to think that it is their axe that is dulling, and so we intervene with recommendations to help them “sharpen their axe.”

Alternatively, we take comfort in the rhythms of the season, and celebrate those students who will remain ‘evergreen’ through the long winter ahead.


Rarely, however, is there an opportunity for educators to receive feedback on how we’re doing, especially when it comes to assessing students’ ability to access and utilize the texts that are still our primary vehicle for learning.

Assessing disciplinary literacy

Despite the attempts to standardize approaches to literacy through the Common Core or Colorado Academic Standards, every discipline has it’s own criteria for assessing disciplinary literacy (Sedita, 2015). While I’ve seen many well-intentioned attempts at “writing across the curriculum” in some of the schools I’ve coached, and while Colorado’s new Writing, Reading, and Communicating (WRS) Standards set lofty goals here, practice is usually something very different when it comes to assessment of those goals.

Most will be familiar with theoretical distinction between assessmentof learning, and assessment for learningthat “inform(s) instructional decisions and…motivate(s) students to try to learn” (Stiggins 2005:1). Most of us experience this distinction as a challenging, day-to-day balancing act, and the Colorado Teacher Quality Standards (especially IIIb and VIb), hold professional educators accountable for applying this distinction with deft and precision in our classrooms.

Yet too often this is daily challenge falls to us, alone. Too often, when the leaves start falling, we keep hacking at the trees with the same, dull axe. Too often, that makes the leaves fall faster.

Don’t just sharpen, swing with new rhythms!

In my role as an independent instructional coach, I am mindful that this time of year is crucial to “sharpening the axe” of our own practice. I have also learned that this is best done in a way that allows teachers to learn from one another. Fall is the perfect time of year for this work. There is still time for better rhythms of assessment for learningto sow the seeds of success in the year to come.

Earlier in October teachers in the Blended Collaborative cohort in St. Vrain Valley School District were given some time to “sharpen their axe” together. We took up the question of how advances in technology can support better feedback loops in assessment for learning, and we asked teachers how they might transfer and apply a new technology, such as or Padlet. Part of this was making sure that teachers understood how to use these tools. A more important part was to ask how these tools could be deployed in a sequence of assessments for learningthat would scaffold a rhythm for students’ learning experiences with, and around, that technology.

From a student’s point of view, no assessment stands alone (Laur & Clayton, 2018). Each is a part of a larger whole that makes up a learning experience, or a unit. Students must master each of these parts in turn to achieve the learning targets that we can already see as the end in mind.

Collaborating with colleagues helps us to understand how confusing this can be for students. What you might see as a logical sequence for your planning, or your discipline, may clash with a colleague who struggled with your subject area when they were in school. That perspective is a valuable whetstone not just for “sharpening your axe,” but also for discovering new rhythms in your swing!

Launching learning

Early in the rhythms of our assessment for learning, it is important for students to show not only what they are learning, but also what they understand about the learning opportunity before them.

It’s one thing for English/Language Arts teachers to assess whether Prepared Graduates can “read a wide range of literature (American and world literature) to understand important universal themes and the human experience” (CAS RWC, Standard 2). It’s another thing altogether for a History or Social Studies teacher to assess whether Prepared Graduates can transfer and apply this skill to “understand[ing] the nature of historical knowledge as a process of inquiry that examines and analyzes how history is viewed, constructed, and interpreted. (CAS, SS PGS 1). The complexity that arises for students when we mix these two, is yet a third opportunity for assessment. That opportunity must be easy to access, and easy to understand, because it launches learning toward the two required standards. If students cannot show us they us they understand this learning launch, they will quickly become frustrated, check out, and start falling like leaves.

Simple self-assessments, such as an exit ticket or a Padlet reflection can be powerful tools in the launch phase of learning. They are low-stakes, and they require a student to articulate their own understanding of the learning opportunity before we ask them to demonstrate that learning.

Sustaining the learning arc

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Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Midway through a learning experience, assessments can be opportunities first to learn–assessments as learning(Earl, 2012)–or they can be assessments for learningthat tell us how students are learning, how they are feeling about their learning, and also what they are learning. Our rhythms must not be built solely on what we need to know, but what our assessments are telling us students want, and need to know about the learning we’re offering. It is here that peer assessment can be a very powerful opportunity for those falling students to “sharpen their axe.”

In our St. Vrain workshop, we encouraged teachers to think about how they were scaffolding assessments for learningsuch as peer critiques, or team progress logs, so that students could not only demonstrate what they’re learning, but also how students are directing their own learning in a way that is sustains the learning arc of the lesson or unit. Collaborating to design a rhythm of assessments that allowed students to share their learning arc empowered the teachers to return to their classrooms with a slightly different swing for their “sharper axes!”

Landing learning

Finally, as our assessments for learningcome to an end they should offer us crucial information about what students still need to learn in order to stick their landing on our summative assessments of learning.

It matters little whether these summative assessments take the form of projects or standardized end of unit tests of common assignments. What matters most in this phase is whether we are using our assessments for learning, such as a Mentimeter word cloud or a protocol based class discussion such as a Socratic Seminar, to understand what instruction we need to offer to ensure success for each and every student.

If your assessments for learning in this phase are only telling you who will succeed in the end, and who won’t, you may need to “sharpen your axe” to include a more student-centered sequence of assessments for learning.

Complexity: small variations make big differences

To everything, there is a season, and the rhythms of the season may actually be more complex than you notice once you settle in. The rhythms of how we use assessment as learning, and assessment for learning, play out for our students week-by-week, and even day-by-day. Small variations can make a big difference in whether students keep learning with you. Talking with your colleagues about those day-to-day rhythms—and how you can adjust them for better teaching and learning—can be one of the joys of this season, too.

Dr. Tim Kubik has coached over 2000 teachers via @Kubikhan on Twitter, the Kubik Perspectives blog, one-on-one Skype sessions and in traditional face-to-face workshops around the United States. Professional development can be serious fun!


Covey, S. (2013). Seven habits of highly effective people: powerful lessons in personal change:Simon & Schuster.

Earl, L. M. (2012). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning: Corwin Press.

Laur, D. & Clayton, J. (2018). Developing natural curiosity through project-based learning: five strategies for the pre-K through 3 classroom:Routledge.

Sedita, J. (2015, April 1). “What is disciplinary literacy?” Literacy Lines: Keys to Literacy Blog, Retrieved from

Stiggins, R. (2005). “Assessment forlearning defined.” Pearson. Retrieved from

A Literacy-Rich Environment in the Classroom

By Jan Anttila

Getting students absorbed in meaningful, purposeful literacy activities requires a number of significant changes in the classroom – in the physical environment, in the events and activities, and in the nature and quality of the interactions. – Noel Jones

By now, your classrooms are all set up, decorated and in full use by your students, and I’m sure they look wonderful. But I have a question for you. Is your classroom Literacy-Rich?  This was a question I asked many teachers during my tenure as a district literacy trainer for Douglas County Schools in Colorado. I trained hundreds of elementary and secondary teachers in  best practices in teaching literacy, called LIFT (Literacy Instructional Framework for Teaching). This program was based on the California Early Literacy Learning program (CELL).

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One of the most important components of LIFT was ensuring that all teachers, but especially those in elementary schools and teaching secondary Language Arts, had a “literacy-rich environment” in their classroom.  Dr. Kimberly Tyson defines this environment as: “a setting that encourages and supports speaking, listening, reading, and writing in a variety of authentic ways – through print & digital media”. During our LIFT training, we focused on the following components of the environment: classroom design and materials, and reading and writing through authentic activities.

Classroom Materials: The Classroom Library

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 8.06.41 AMAt our training sessions, I began by asking our teachers these questions:  Is the classroom library inviting? Does it  provide a range of quality books and other types of text at all appropriate levels?  How is it organized? When creating their libraries, teachers need to take a cue from public libraries and bookstores where books are facing out to entice readers and comfortable seating is available for readers. Teachers can use many methods to organize, such as using bins/baskets separated by popular authors, topics, genre, etc. However, I don’t recommend  “leveling” the classroom librar

y. Fountas and Pinnell agree: “It is our belief that levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards.” Students need to be able to choose books based on interest and favorite authors or genres, just as they do at the public library. Leveled books can be used in guided reading, and the teacher can certainly suggest certain books that would be appropriate for kids, but ultimately they must have choice in selecting books from the library.

Classroom Design: Words All Over the Place!

“A print-rich environment is one in which “children interact with many forms of print, including signs, labeled centers, wall stories, word displays, labeled murals, bulletin boards, charts, poems, and other printed materials” (Kadlic and Lesiak, 2003).

What goes on your classroom walls is important as well!  All classrooms should have print on the walls that assist students with (depending on the grade level) the alphabet, sight words, phonics concepts, writing and content vocabulary.  Of course, you can buy commercial posters, make some online, or print on chart paper. But more ownership comes when these materials are created with the help of the students through Interactive Writing (sometimes also called Shared Writing). When a teacher and students create text together, students are more likely to use it in their literacy activities.

Word Walls are another crucial element of a literacy-rich classroom and help student remember words they will see in their reading and use in their writing. In addition, they help students strengthen their vocabulary.  There are so many ways to create word walls: the traditional one on the classroom wall, personal word walls, or digital word walls. Content area classrooms in secondary schools have them, too, as well as art, music, and PE teachers.

Classroom Layout

“The room arrangement should encourage repeated opportunities to interact with literacy materials and activities to practice skills that students are learning.” (Gunn, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995)

Another question teachers need to ask themselves is:  Does the room arrangement support all literacy activities of the instructional framework? How your room is set-up can affect how successful your literacy activities are!  What area will allow for a large enough classroom library, where students can both read and browse for books? Where will print be hung so that students can see it clearly and use as a reference? Most importantly, where is your whole class meeting area?  This is something that I never had in my 90’s intermediate classroom. But in my classroom visits, I saw the power of this space, not only in primary classrooms but also in intermediate! These areas are used for read-aloud, shared reading, interactive writing, interactive editing and mini-lessons. And of course, they can be used for class meetings as well.  An area for your small group instruction work is also important.

Authentic Literacy

Children who are successful at becoming literate view reading and writing as authentic activities from which they get information and pleasure, and by which they communicate with others. – Richard Allington, Classrooms That Work

Finally, a literacy-rich environment needs to include authentic literacy activities, not ones created by publishing companies (disclaimer: nothing wrong with using these occasionally, but authentic activities create better readers and writers!). NWEA states that: “Authentic learning occurs when activities or projects offer students an opportunity to directly apply their knowledge or skills to real-world situations.”  In an ASCD blog, Amber Teamann writes “George Couros has shared that when students are creating for their teacher it only has to be good enough, but when they are creating for the world, it has to be GREAT”.

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So what are examples of authentic literacy activities?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Daily class news taken home to parents
  • “Text messages” between novel characters (I used
  • Actual text messages from students to the teacher or a parent using new vocabulary words
  • Thank you notes to classmates, teachers, school staff and parents
  • Novel character “Fakebook” page using, or this Google Doc template
  • Novel character Instagram post
  • Student submissions to classroom or school newsletter
  • Interactive Writing to use as a resource for students
  • Book reviews posted online
  • Letters to government officials about community issues or letters to editor of local paper
  • Letters to authors of books students read
  • Biographies of family members/family history stories
  • Information brochures or letters to next year’s students and their parents
  • Tweeting on classroom Twitter account or posts on classroom Instagram account
  • Student written blog for parents on classroom activities and learning (Kidblog is great!

Our students definitely need teachers trained in all aspects of literacy. But teachers also need to be “interior literacy decorators” who strive to make their classroom literacy-rich. By ensuring that all classrooms have daily opportunities for authentic activities, easy access to a wide range of books and text, print displays and literacy learning centers and areas, our students will become literate citizens of the world.

Thank you to the following teachers for allowing me to use photos of their classrooms:

  • Kelly Broecker, 5th grade, Gold Rush Elementary in Parker, CO
  • Carol McRae, 6th grade Writing, Sagewood Middle School, Parker, CO
  • Abby Schmitz, 2nd grade, Ruth Hill, Lincoln NE
  • Leslie Schlag, Preschool, Cherokee Trails Elementary, Parker, CO
  • Angela Davis, Kindergarten, Saddle Ranch Elementary, Highlands Ranch, CO


Jan Anttila recently retired from Douglas County Schools after working as a classroom teacher, teacher mentor, staff developer, literacy specialist and GT facilitator. In addition, she was a faculty practitioner at the University of Phoenix, teaching preservice teachers. Jan currently has her own business, 21st Century Tutoring and Consulting, providing services for today’s students and teachers. She also blogs about teaching and education at  Look for Jan’s sessions at the CCIRA conference in February, 2019.


Playing the School Game without Sacrificing our Star Players

By Mary Howard

I always feel like I should start with a warning when I’m about to launch into a long angst-filled passionate pondering-rant – so consider yourself warned. These wonderings on paper are entirely selfish on my part as it’s my form of therapy and much cheaper than the real deal. I’ve talked about this topic on many occasions, but it seems to warrant repeated discussion since it’s having an increasingly negative impact on this profession.

Over the past year, as I have worked in schools from one side of the country to the other I have personally witnessed the tragic recipients of poor decision-making by those who don’t even seem aware of the negative impact they’re putting into motion. What motivates me to keep writing about this is that the situation is growing worse and it’s not an issue in one school one district or one state but many schools, districts and states. In fact, it’s become so pervasive that it is impacting educators everywhere and my view from outside-in as a literacy consultant allows me to witness the sad aftermath of these failed efforts.

Before I begin, I want to share the brilliant words of someone I have admired for many years since the immense wisdom of others inspires and fuels me when my energy and patience wanes. Here, Billie Askew reflects on Marie Clay’s work:
“When teachers address individual differences, children will take different paths to similar outcomes. Rather than a map of sequence through which children should pass, the crucial factor is the body of knowledge in the heads of teachers that guides their interactions with students.”Billie J. Askew, 2012 (page 18)

Well folks those waters have reached a level of “turbulence” the likes of which we have never seen in education. Actually, that’s not entirely true since scripted programs were a thing even when I began teaching in 1972. But then that sad little history doesn’t hold a candle to the situation we now face since it was long before we knew better. That’s what makes the professional crossroads we find ourselves standing before so scary. Now we know better but we’re doing it anyway. I find it alarming that in spite of the gift of decades of rich research support that goes against the grain of these highly scripted one-size-fits-all programs, we still can’t seem to let go. Our renewed obsession with programs

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Peter Forster on Unsplash

is at a staggering all-time financial high (millions when it’s district wide) with epic proportions of stupidity that seems to be growing as I type these words. I use the word stupidity because I see no intelligent decision-making in blindly trusting companies led by snake oil salesmen as we are slowly sacrificing the literacy lives of children and the professional lives of teachers. Quite frankly, I am increasingly frustrated by the impact I see in our schools as we leave our most dedicated teachers helplessly littered across a tragic trail of forced rigid compliance where professional judgement has no place. It seems as if schools want these teachers to forget everything they know about good teaching and instead trust someone to take the lead who doesn’t know their children, and in many cases doesn’t even have a foundation of literacy knowledge. There is no professional wisdom in making our teachers the sacrificial lamb of others.

Every day there a new “magic bullet program” that has somehow made its way into our schools. I can’t open my computer without seeing or hearing about a new one and my inbox is full of the name of programs shared by frustrated educators who want to put the brakes on this travesty of awful. I think that at least in part this highly suspect STUFF is feeding our deep love of glowing adjectives, phrases or descriptors that accompany the program and give us a false sense of hope with words like:

empowered, student-centered, standards based, formative assessment, kids at the center, holistic, learner friendly, research based, best practices, high-quality, authentic, rigorous, gradual release of responsibility model, integrated, balanced approach, workshop model, responsive, scaffolded differentiation, forward-thinking, framework, foundational, comprehensive, aligned, challenging, meaningful, purposeful

Who could argue with those pretty awesome terms, right? Yet, when those terms are attached to these rigid programs, they transform into shallow promises that demean the instructional process and elevate the underlying financial agenda that motivated them in the first place. These awesome words are used to spout marketing claims in showy websites with colorful slideshow presentations by nicely dressed people with a dramatic flair. How could we possibly resist the emotional battle cry of “We can save you’? Couple that with a website filled with really awesome quotes we love and photos of awesome smiling children who went from sad passive tormented to joyful engaged successful because someone had the wisdom to buy this awesome program. Oh, and you’ve got to love the awesome sad-to-happy teachers standing beside newly happy children celebrating this magical transformation with an all-is-right-with-my-teaching-world smile brought to you by this totally awesome company. If you detect a facetious tone in my words, you would be accurate.

But the scariest part of all is not the clever marketing frenzy filled with empty promises since legally they have the right to spread one-size-fits-all lies. My growing sense of utter frustration is not that these things are out there. No, I’m astonished, confounded confused and a little depressed that we’re buying their brazen dribble (metaphorically and literally). How is it that we are allowing ourselves to be duped into reaching for the checkbook without even thinking about the long-term implications? Do we even care about the impact it’s having on teachers and kids? And I’m not talking about teachers who are begging for those boxes in the first place, since complacency and lack of professional ownership is a whole other issue. I’m also not talking about new teachers who need a resource, although I’d argue that an awful resource is an ill-conceived Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 12.25.27 AMprofessional model. I’m talking about teachers who are begging NOT to have those boxes or at the very least to have the right to use them as a resource or even (shock warning) not use them at all. Do you know how many brilliant, amazing and dedicated teachers we have in this country? Well I do but clearly those who are force feeding them boxed programs and then tethering them to someone else’s agenda surely don’t. And again, I’m well aware that there are teachers who either don’t want to do the work or truly need a reference to support their efforts. But why are we punishing every teacher by pushing these programs on those who don’t need a teacher’s guide to tell them what to say and do? I hate to tell you this astonishing news, but many teachers know what to say and do and they can do it far better than these boxes ever could. The box obviously doesn’t know the research that we hold dear and knowing this would make us walk the other way. Worse, the box doesn’t know the kids the iffy box is purportedly for. Teaching without agenda-driven research or knowledge of children isn’t teaching at all. And following a script is as far removed from student-learning teaching as one can get.

For the past year (well actually, for decades, but it’s worse now) I go into districts all over the country where I am personally witnessing the frustration and unhappiness that is putting the very professionalism of our teachers at stake. I sadly watching as teacher agency is being ripped from the hands of those who stand helplessly in the wake of irresponsible mandates. Yes, I go to schools who are now suffering from a severe case of buyer’s remorse in the aftermath of the failure of these quick fixes. I could have told you that would happen if you’d asked. I can’t help but wonder why we don’t adopt a Buyer Beware mentality before we write that check in the first place? And even if we didn’t, why are we more worried about the loss of money when we abandon these failed experiments than we are about the loss of professionalism. “But we spent a lot of money on this” isn’t an excuse, but a reminder that we should be more careful about the money we spend in the first place. I mean really, are we that desperate for fast results and so deluded into thinking that there’s such a thing as fast results? Do we truly have so little faith in our teachers? Are we that unwilling to admit that we’re wrong and do whatever it takes to right that wrong?

Adding to my sense of astonished, confounded confused and a little depressed state over the massive dollars we have squandered is that we could have spent those dollars in ways that would be worthy of our teachers and kids and actually have a positive impact. Just imagine the high-quality books, literacy coaches and ongoing professional learning that would have been possible with that money. I’m sorry, folks, but we don’t have a money issue; we have a common-sense issue and it’s hurting our schools and demeaning this profession. We are reducing the work that I have spent nearly five decades engaged in to understand to something that requires literally no thinking. In fact, much of it requires us to abandon everything that we’ve spent our careers reading, thinking, pondering, growing, and researching in the name of kids. In the process, we’re turning this profession into a grab and go mentality. To make matters worse, we are putting texts in front of kids that are robbing them of the joy that should accompany the learning process and cheating teachers of the immense joy that comes from responsive teaching with kids (not boxes) at the center of those efforts. At what point did we alleviate our commitment to teachers and children and hand it over to publishers?

So, what do we do? Well, for starters, we recognize that we are being duped before they have a chance to dupe us. We quit foolishly writing checks just because we believe in the educational version of the tooth fairy. We invite teachers to the thinking and discussion table and stop disrespecting them as incapable decision-makers. We opt to trust professional knowledge grounded in years of growing understanding over shallow marketing ploys. We refuse to get stuck in the muck and mire of the marketing mess surrounding us and look in the professional mirror. We insist on making professional learning a priority and stop allowing any teacher to opt for thoughtless teaching over professional wisdom. We support the knowledge-fueled efforts of teachers across the learning year and engage them in real conversations about their student-centered work. We question every penny we spend before we even think about spending it. We take the checkbook away from those who don’t know the first thing about literacy research. We make professional reading and learning the heartbeat of our schools and make room in every single day to celebrate it in the company of others. We look beyond glowing adjectives of marketeers and see the business at work;  we refuse to fill their pockets at the expense of our values. We stand up. We speak up. We rise up.
The stakes are high, folks, because we are holding the professional lives of our teachers and the learning lives of our children in our hands. I see what happens when we refuse to do these things and I can’t help but wonder why we all don’t all see what’s happening right in front of our eyes. I believe our silence is destroying, not lifting up this profession. We are relegating kids to mind numbing scripted cookie-cutter programs and then sending kids who need the most off to the fix-it-room to undo the damage of those mind numbing scripted cookie-cutter programs. We are trading children with teachers who don’t even know or care about them rather than taking responsibility for them ourselves. We are relinquishing responsibility for intervention from the classroom teacher and sending them to scripted intervention prison with little chance of escape. We are allowing levels, tests scores and labels to define our kids (and our teachers) and then relegating children to the book bins that fit the label we ask them to wear across their foreheads. We are celebrating rising scores of stupid tests based on stupid programs that are always going to rise when you pay homage to stupid and then test stupid. What exactly are we celebrating when this is a pure and simple sellout?
And for the record, I’m not just talking about basal programs. I’m talking about programs like Accelerated Reader and the old wine in new bottle clones that are reducing our readers to meaningless numbers more relevant than the hearts and minds of readers free to choose what they read. I’m talking about Teachers Pay Teachers scripts that are turning beautiful books into mindless activities with 100+ pages riddles with a task master mentality. I’m talking about the myriad of ‘cutesy’ that we bring into our teaching that usurp the time that could be spent in far more purposeful ways. It’s not just the foolish expenditure of dollars that is harming us all, but an even more foolish and dangerous expenditure of TIME. We need to value every second we are blessed to have children in our care. These things do not honor children – they honor THINGS.
SO let me repeat Billie Askew’s brilliant message once again:

“…Rather than a map of sequence through which children should pass, the crucial factor is the body of knowledge in the heads of teachers that guides their interactions with students.”

Thanks to the plethora of marketing ploys and snake oil salesmen desperate for our money, we are so busy filling our schools with programs, packages, quick fixes and magic bullets that we forgot to ‘fill the heads of our teachers with the body of knowledge’ that would make those programs null and void and help us realize just how stupid many of their suggestions are. We are mandating teachers to do the bidding of the program rather than to draw from their knowledge in true responsive teaching that is impossible within a dictatorial process. Calling the program “research-based” or any other lovely descriptor does NOT make it so. It just makes both of us look foolish; marketers for creating these programs and educational suckers for investing in them. We aren’t just wasting our money. We are telling teachers that their knowledge is irrelevant. Here’s a thought: if you want to pollute your school with one-size-fits-all garbage, fire all the teachers who could actually make a difference and hire a school full of non-educators who don’t know diddly-doo-doo about effective student-centered teaching. Because the results would be the same but at least we wouldn’t be hurting educators who are wise enough to know that. Or better yet, quit searching for instructional nirvana and turn your attention to the only nirvana I know – teachers who know kids and literacy. I’d put my money on them any day.
I see teachers trying to play the program game and either deluding themselves into thinking they’re doing the right thing or drowning, trying to find the teacher they want to be. Why would we ever put teachers in a position where they must choose between their dedication to professional ownership and other-driven obligatory compliance? For that matter, why would we even think that other-driven obligatory compliance is a worthy goal? If schools and districts want to waste money on these programs, I can’t stop them, but please don’t take teachers down with you who actually know what they’re doing and want to do it. Give them the option to put the program aside. Don’t ask our star players (knowledgeable teachers) to choose between the rules of the game and the deep-rooted commitment to their beliefs and values that were the guiding force of their efforts long before marketing came along. And for heaven’s sake, stop subjecting our youngest players (our kids) to curriculum that treats them as if they are one-size-fits-all when nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t force feed our children too-hard joyless texts they couldn’t care anything about. Because if I feel like vomiting when I read these contrived fake texts riddled with a marketing agenda, then why would you think that kids wouldn’t feel the same? We are beating the joyful learning that our children and teachers deserve to death with a stick and I fear we may never again resurrect the sense of excitement that comes from meaningful, purposeful, relevant, responsive teaching in the hands of a teacher who knows literacy research and kids and wants to do the right thing in their honor. Boxes aren’t the right thing my friends – filling our teachers heads with knowledge and hearts with our faith in them is.

Can someone please explain this to me because I’m baffled and exhausted watching the impact these programs are having on our schools, our teachers, and our kids? And frankly, I’m not sure this profession can withstand another year of the tragic aftermath of program-fueled professional sameness.

Dr. Mary Howard is the author of several books and co-host of the Good 2 Great (#G2Great) weekly Twitter chat. Find her on Twitter at @DrMaryHoward.


Billie J. Askew (Fall 2012). A Standard Boat in Turbulent Waters. Journal of Reading Recovery, 12 (1), page 17- 25)