How to Help Teachers Work Smarter, Together

By Samantha Bennett

As an instructional coach, I spend my days in classrooms with teachers and their students. We plan together, we notice together, we wonder together, we set up the conditions for learning together and then we study kids. Together.  

In all of this work together, I’ve learned that the highest leverage practice to affect student learning is… cloning.

Wait, what?!?

Yep. As an instructional coach, if I can help teachers replicate themselves so there are multiple teachers in the room, students get smarter, faster.

How can a teacher clone herself? Take a walk with me through a two-day sequence of coaching Stephanie, a 4th grade teacher in Washington State.

Her students are getting smarter about plant and animal adaptations and narrative writing. Before our coaching cycle begins, I ask Stephanie to write to me about her beliefs, her students, her current unit and what she is wondering about.  

Stephanie’s letter is heartfelt, honest and vulnerable. As Stephanie’s coach, my job is to help her get even smarter and more skilled. I need to raise her Professional Capital by building her background knowledge, helping her use that knowledge to make better minute by minute instructional decisions, and do it within a network of supportive colleagues. (Fullan and Hargreaves, 2012) So, where do I start? I listen, I notice, I name, I label, I connect to research, I watch, I ask questions, and then, we plan together to figure out next risks and layers to add to her lessons. All because we both believe that no matter how skilled and knowledgeable students are today, we have the responsibility to ensure they feel 75 minutes smarter after her workshop lesson tomorrow. Every single kid.

As you peek in on Stephanie’s reflection, see if you can make some inferences about what she cares MOST about and what she needs next to work smarter.

Dear Sam,

I am a control freak, and in the past, I put too much emphasis on perfection. Now that that’s out of the way, here is some more information about me and my class.

One of the most important factors in our classroom is the relationships. I work very hard and purposefully at fostering an atmosphere of “family.” My purpose is to help kids realize they have the power to chart their own course, know when to move, how to move, how to solve their own problems and not need me every time for approval. My purpose is to show them that they are so much more capable then they give themselves credit. I am part of their safety net to help them navigate through that failure and to be their coach and support system through the process of learning…

My students have kind hearts and show great concern and care for each other. A large handful of students lack confidence and second guess themselves. I feel the worst behaviors are avoidance techniques employed by a handful. They are a dependent group and constantly seek teacher approval or direction. I continue to work with them on having the confidence to know what they can do and feeling okay with their decisions.

The big ideas of this unit include, 1) animals share behavioral and structural adaptations that help them survive, 2) readers read with a critical eye and learn from stories, and 3) writers have a responsibility to their reader to be accurate. During this unit, students are being challenged to create an informational narrative that details physical adaptations of their chosen animal. They will be using this story to teach their first grade buddy during their life science unit…

I’m wondering if I know my students as well as I need to to help them grow. I don’t get to meet with as many kids as I want or need because my groups run over and I feel I end up sacrificing meeting with students because my time management is not the best.  I wonder if I have given my kids enough direction in being researchers. I wonder if I have taught them the skills necessary for what they needed in order to write their stories.  

I know there is a freedom in letting go of control.  The risk in this is are they going to grow with less of my control? I worry that by releasing control that I’m not doing right by my students.  My instinct tells me yes, so I’m sticking with what feels good to me and by my observations, to my kids. Have I told you I love my job?

I’m excited for you to see my students in action and to plan with you tomorrow.



Listening to Coach

One of my foundational beliefs as a coach, is that I must know my teachers deeply to coach them well. In order to do this, I need to “listen” —  to their reflection, to their beliefs, and to their classroom practice.  I need to be able to determine importance, notice and name practices that might have the most impact on student learning, be a conduit to the research that explains why some practices are more effective than others, and label possible next steps for teachers to answer their own questions about student learning. Listening to Stephanie’s letter, there are a few things that stand out to me…

Stephanie writes: Now I’m wondering…
My purpose is to show them that they are so much more capable then they give themselves credit.

I am part of their safety net to help them navigate through that failure and to be their coach and support system through the process of learning…

What structures does she have in place to allow students to show themselves what they are capable of?
What conditions does she have in place so that she is not the only “safety net” in the room? Where else can students go for support when they feel stuck?  
I’m wondering if I know my students as well as I need to know them. I don’t get to meet with as many kids as I want or need because my groups run over and I feel I end up sacrificing meeting with students because my time management is not the best. What does Stephanie know about each student? How is she keeping track? What structures does she have in place for students to track their own growth towards goals? How is she sharing the responsibility of assessment WITH her students?
How is she structuring time in her workshop?
I am a control freak, and in the past, I put too much emphasis on perfection
The risk in this is are they going to grow with less of my control? Am I doing the right thing by them?
What does Stephanie know about the use of mentor texts to help students have a vision of quality to work towards?  What mentor texts are students using as they craft their narratives about animal adaptation?
How is she using learning targets, multiple drafts and critique protocols (self, peer, and teacher) to help students own a vision of quality to work towards?

My next step is to see Stephanie’s students in action and be an extra set of eyes and ears. I want to help her notice and name what students know and are able to do, and what they need next to grow. I observe her class the next day, and write her this letter:

Dear Stephanie,
Thank you so much for your open door today. Here are some things I noticed today and why they matter to student learning: 

  • The emotional engagement in here is off the charts! Students are riveted to you, to each other, and to the task. They jump when you say jump, but not just because you say, but because they WANT to. They trust you, they trust each other and they trust that the lesson is FOR THEM to get smarter and more skilled. This matters to student learning because the trifecta of student agency: choice, voice, and ownership at work. (Lucy Calkins, Dick Allington, Ralph Fletcher, and Don Graves all have your back on the systems, structures, rituals and routines of your classroom that have led to this culture and climate!)                  
  • Here are some questions I heard from you throughout the lesson: 
    ○ What do you think your story needs next? 
    ○ What is your goal? 
    ○ What strategy do you think you should use? 
    ○ What’s next? 
    ○ So now what is your character thinking? 
    ○ What is your next action step? 
    ○ What’s next for you? 
    ○ What did you figure out? 
    ○ What are you wondering? 
    ○ What is your next goal? 
    ○ What might you connect to that sentence? 
    ○ Share what’s going on in your head? What do you see?     

 This quote came to mind as I was listening to you confer: “I learned to talk with children in a way that kept them interested in the discussion and invited them to say what they thought about the topic. And I learned the importance and the challenge of listening well enough to understand what they were saying….My ways of trying to follow their thoughts turned out to be excellent ways to excite their learning.” Eleanor Duckworth (2001, p. xiii)

  • You had a strategic list of students to confer with today, based on what you noticed in their writing yesterday. (I’m inferring!) This matters to student learning because it shows that you GOT feedback from your learners by reading their work (Hattie says we should spend 80% of our time doing this) and then were able to GIVE targeted feedback based on what you noticed. (20% – just what they need, just in time)      
  • Students had a ton of choice on how to continue their stories – I saw kids story boarding, writing on sentence strips, adding to a word document, writing by hand in stapled books, using a plot map. Whew! This matters to student learning because writers in the world choose their tools and their process and with 22 writers in a room, you’ll find 22 different processes. Again, choice, voice, and ownership. 

    Now I’m wondering:
  • Lucy Calkins says that in order to maximize growth, every student should write for at least 60 minutes a day. What are your thoughts on that goal?  
  • How would you articulate the difference between an activity “around” writing, or “related” to writing vs. getting better at writing by writing? The impact?
  • What are you noticing and wondering about the role of a mentor text in a unit? 
  • What was YOUR PROCESS when you wrote your own story? What did you do first, second, third? How did that inform how you figured out your calendar and prioritized mini-lessons?

How is your planning changing now that you are getting a volume of writing from every kid, every day?      

Please print out and annotate this letter. We’ll use your thinking to kick off our planning session today at 12. Thank you again for all your thinking, planning, and intentional work for kids. I can’t wait to hear your thinking. 

So, reader, based on the questions I asked her, what can you infer about the lesson?

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If you inferred that students didn’t spend very much time actually writing, you are correct! In a 70-minute lesson, students wrote for about 20 minutes. The rest of the time was spent with activities related to writing – but not actually writing. The problem is, the students only have 11 instructional days to craft high-quality stories to teach their first grade buddies about animal adaptation. If Stephanie wants students to have enough time to write and rewrite and revise to meet her goals for their growth as writers, she HAS to give them time to do that complex work, as well as feedback on a daily basis.  She needs to use a few structures to clone herself.

Stephaine and I used this learning target to help her plan more strategically:

I can use multiple resources as ‘teachers in the room’ to affect student agency, autonomy, and the quality of their work.

Here is the lesson we planned together – going for (at least) 40 minutes of students writing – each part of the workshop structured to increase student agency so they keep going.

Long Term Learning Target

  • Supporting Targets
Summative Assessment

  • Formative Assessments
I can use a variety of strategies to get unstuck as a writer.

  • I can use a mentor text to inspire and influence my writing
  • I can use learning targets to help me figure out next steps for revision.
Informational Narrative on Plant/Animal Adaptations

  • Annotations on rubric & mentor text
  • Drafts of Informational Narrative
  • Reflection

And the resources for the lesson:

Mentor Text:

Learning Target Rubric:

My Informational Narrative Rubric
Learning Target Self-reflection Peer-reflection Teacher-reflection
I can explain how structural and behavioral adaptations help animals survive.
I can use credible scientific information and vocabulary so my reader trusts me as an author.
I can include plot structure to keep my reader engaged in my story.
I can include enough detail to help my reader visualize the story and bring my story to life.
I can use appropriate conventions and spelling to help my reader make meaning.  

What matters most about this lesson is that the yellow highlighted workshop “pie pieces’ are the times when students will read, write, and talk to make meaning. It is their time to practice the behaviors of scientists who read to build their background knowledge on animal adaptation, and write to communicate their understanding to others. In a 70-minute lesson, the goal is that 2/3 of that time – 46.2 minutes to be exact, is for students to practice writing an informational narrative. Every other piece of the lesson is designed to help them do that with more agency, and more skill than they would if they were alone.

If you are more of a linear thinker, here is the step by step of the lesson:

Workshop Lesson Sequence (Goal for 70 minute lesson: Students read, write, talk for 46 minutes)

  • Opening: students gain clarity on the learning targets and what they’ll make during worktime to show they are approaching the targets (3 minutes teacher time)
    • Students read and annotate learning target rubric (see below) (3 minutes student time)
  • Mini-lesson: Stephanie models using the rubric to analyze and critique the mentor text. How did this author communicate how an octopus uses adaptations to survive and thrive through a story? (4 minutes teacher time)
  • Worktime 1 (7 minutes student time):
    • Students work with a partner to notice and name how the mentor author met the targets
    • Stephanie listens in to student conversations to see what students understand and what they might need next to grow as scientists, readers, and/or writers
  • Catch:  (2 minutes teacher time)
  • Students share out what they noticed about the mentor text
  • Stephanie asks students to turn to the student next to them and share out how they are going to get started writing today – and what resources they might use to keep going – the goal for stamina today is 30 minutes of engaged writing
  • Worktime 2: (30 minutes student time)
  • Students write
  • Stephanie confers:  kid by kid – what do they get? What can they do? What do they need next to grow? Implications for future learning targets? Tasks? Mentor texts?
  • Catch 2: (if needed for stamina – 5 minutes teacher time) Stephanie models either where she feels stuck in her narrative, or (hopefully) a conversation she had with one of the students and how that student got “unstuck” using the mentor text, rubric, or other resources
  • Worktime 3: (student choice: talk to your table partner or just keep writing or a little of both! Whatever you need to keep going! 12 minutes student time)
    • Students reread their writing and share their thinking about their writing with a partner
    • Dig back in to writing when they are ready
  • Debrief: Share out – what helped you keep going today? (4 minutes teacher time)

Through strategic planning, Stephanie explicitly increased the number of teachers in the room from 1 to 10:

  1. Stephanie
  2. Intentional sequence of tasks to influence and inspire student engagement and stamina as writers
  3. A clear and understandable vision of the learning targets in the first minutes of class
  4. Student to student talk and connection
  5. Learning Target Rubric
  6. Mentor text
  7. Students’ Scientific Journals (filled with student questions, notes about their plant/animal, scientific vocabulary, ‘I wonder’ journal entries, reflections over time)
  8. Variety of Non-fiction texts around the room
  9. Anchor charts that captured thinking from prior mini-lessons
  10. Time to write

So, how did it go? Here is the letter I sent to Stephanie after the lesson:

  • Dear Stephanie,
    Here is the quote of the day: “I want him to do what he needs to do to get his story on paper.” 

    Wow! This might be worthy of a tattoo – should we get matching ones? Thank you so much for all the risks you took today to help your students get smarter faster! It was a blast to see your kids in action, layering all the goals we talked about yesterday into your powerful writers’ workshop. 

    Some things I noticed today and why they matter to student learning: 

    • You asked students to take a few minutes to gain clarity around the targets. I heard so many voices chime in and anticipate what they’d do during the worktime. I heard Timmy say:  “I think we are going to read a book and then use it to make our own writing better.” Stiggins has your back on this practice as the NUMBER ONE thing that matters to student ownership of their learning: “A clear and understandable vision of the learning target.” Every other practice can build from this strong foundation of clarity and ownership of a worthy goal. 

    • You said, “I made this rubric so it is one you can use yourself to give yourself feedback and figure out next steps.” This matters to student learning because their understanding of the goals of the rubric allows them to have more agency in their own learning. With this rubric AND the mentor text next to them as they write (and explicit instruction and feedback and conferring over time), they can get unstuck and build their writing stamina over time in order to create a high quality book about animal adaptation. You’re setting up the conditions for them to be the deep thinkers and passionate learners, readers, and writers that you want to share the world with. 
    • When you released kids to talk about the rubric and the mentor text I heard Eric say: “She is picking out the adaptations. The author was really specific.” This matters to Eric’s learning because hopefully, it will inspire him to write with more detail, and if he feels stuck, to look at the mentor text to see how that author did it. He has another “teacher” in the room to help him keep going.
    • Xavier and Eric were discussing the mentor text. Eric said, “Hmmm…change colors. Should that go in the adaptation section or the credible scientific evidence?”… Xavier: “I think it can go in both… because it is a true fact about the adaptation.” This matters to student learning because if they can notice and name the goal, they can work diligently to meet it. (Stiggins, Routman, Miller, Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray and Ron Berger have your back on students’ use of mentor texts and authors to learn the craft – learning from published authors in order to grow – the apprentice-master model works in ALL areas of life, which helps us become the “better humans” that you named in your context letter.) 

    • I saw students using a variety of tools to drive their writing today: their adaptation research, story boards, spelling books, plot maps, their computers, their writing journals, the rubric, the mentor text page in front of them, talking to the person next to them…. so many resources at their disposal. YOU created the conditions they need most to write with agency, urgency, and specificity.Wow.

    Now I’m wondering: 
  • What did you notice today about how the SEQUENCE of tasks contributes to student thinking more deeply (one of the big goals you labeled in your context letter). 
  • What did you learn about individual writers today? What sort of “activation energy” do you have now from listening more than you talked today? 
  • What possible mini-lesson topics EMERGED from reading students’ writing and listening to their talk today? What do you envision happening over the next 11 days? (Think about just FIVE mini-lessons and then LOTS OF TIME to write, rewrite, and rewrite some more.)

    There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when you called the kids back together for debrief… we were ALL so in awe.

Ok, new tattoo from your reflection right after the lesson — “I’m doing less so they can do more.” This gets at the core belief of who we are as teachers and what matters MOST. I can’t wait to hear your thinking about all of this. Please type for 5 minutes and press send. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your powerful work for the learners in your educational care. I want to be in 4th grade again. I’m so grateful for you. So are your students. 

Please write me back,

And how did Stephanie feel after all of this? Here is the letter she wrote to me the next day:

Dear Sam,

Yesterday I told you I loved my job – I love it more now! 

The sequence of the lesson was important today. I felt their ownership. They predicted what they were going to be doing, which activated their schema and created that anticipation. There was no doubt when I taught the first mini-lesson (truly mini) there was no confusion about what was going to happen. I could see how not reviewing learning targets cause “an unknown”. If kids don’t know what they are learning, it won’t be as deep for the kids or can cause time lost for having to stop mid lesson and “tell” the kids what they are going to rather than be part of the process. When I forgot to have them review the rubric before using it on the book, I felt a disconnect. Although I reviewed it quickly beforehand, they connected more when they could “unwrap” it and discuss it first.  When I just reviewed it and asked for thumbs up, I didn’t have a true picture of who understood the tool I was using and a tool I was expecting them to use. Even though I eventually had them review it with a partner, I can see lost minutes here and there. BUT, I was able to feel and see how important it was for them to interact with the text themselves. Them interacting built connections and gave them the opportunity to ask questions of their partner. 

Oh my goodness, what I learned about the kids today as writers! They love to write and just want the time to do it. Not only want, but I see the need. “In the past” I wouldn’t know where the kids were as writers because I wasn’t able to manage groups, helping those who asked, and monitoring. When the time is structured for maximum kid work time, I can touch base with all of them. I honestly never thought it would be possible and I’m excited about that. It’s the ultimate work smarter, not harder. Not only do they love to write, but they are capable of knowing themselves as writers. Just by asking them if they need me (even if it’s a no) activates their thinking about what they need as a writer. They are thinking about writing! I cannot believe the quality of work they are producing. Not only the quality, but they are looking for ways to utilize the skills they are learning. I am not pulling teeth to get them to write, and it feels so good! I feel it’s the way the unit was set up that made them the true authors of their story. I just wish I had understood the power of the mentor text previously. I understand it now as another teacher, and the importance of how to choose ones for the purpose I want. This experience has truly changed me as a writing teacher. THANK YOU!

 Based on student writing, I think the next 3 mini-lessons are going to be: 

  • Model: How I use the rubric to find next steps for my writing 
  • Model: The process of rough drafting. I’m not sure how this one will be worded, but I saw this a lot. I saw many kids ask if they can or need to write their work over onto computer from their paper or onto their paper from their computer. I also saw kids erase entire pages to add one sentence. I saw a student not be able to move forward until his work was rewritten with all the changes he had made using arrows and carrots. I want to model for them that rough drafts are messy and how writers can make a beautiful piece of writing out of that mess. 
  • Model: How different transitions help stories flow.

Thank you again for coaching me this week. I’m so excited and I know the students are too!

Have a great weekend,


Stephanie, it is because of teachers like you, that I love my job too! Thank you for cloning yourself so kids could get what they needed, just in time.


Fullan, M. and Andy Hargreaves. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hattie, J. (2011) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Stiggins, R. and Jan Chappuis. (2014) Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing it Right – Using it Well (2nd Edition). New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Samantha Bennett is an instructional coach, educational consultant, and writer. She is the author of That Workshop Book (Heinemann, 2007), and a contributing author to several publications including Imagine it Better (Heinemann,2014), Comprehension Going Forward (Heinemann, 2011), and The Right to Literacy in Secondary Schools (Teachers College Press, 2009). She has worked as a middle school teacher, an instructional coach, a district literacy specialist, and as Cris Tovani’s lab-facilitator and coach.  Sam is currently doing both classroom-based and systems-level work, helping districts set up a variety of coaching and professional development structures to support teachers, including the development of Learning Labs — the antidote to “sit and get” professional development. Find her on Twitter @sambennett2


Let’s Think Broadly About Digital Literacy

By Eric Sheninger

With 1:1 technology, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), blended, and personalized learning  programs increasingly being implemented in schools across the globe, the need for digital literacy education has become more important than ever. Although technology enables students to access more information in much less time, it does not always foster learning. Teaching digital literacy helps to manage all of the benefits of technology while helping students understand how to safely weed through the vast amounts of information online.

Technology in the classroom has the following advantages:

  • Allows students to manipulate information and media to construct their own meanings
  • Enables students to share their ideas quickly and easily
  • Engages students of all cognitive levels and abilities
  • Prepares students to be college and career ready

These benefits, among others, are why technology has become a major part of the global curriculum. However, teaching digital literacy has its challenges. The aspects of e-safety, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and finding and evaluating information must all be addressed. Many teachers lose sight of creativity and collaboration because mandates and directives initiatives focus on gathering and evaluating information with very little emphasis on creativity.

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Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Educators need to embrace the creative and collaborative aspects of digital literacy to help students evolve into competent learners. So much great learning happens through the creative and collaborative processes. Bridget Burns, Michael Crow and Mark Becker noted the benefits of collaboration in their article Innovating Together: Collaboration as a Driving Force to Improve Student Success.  They state that collaboration spurs innovation because bringing together groups of people who have different ideas, approaches, experiences, and areas of expertise creates a fertile environment for generating new concepts and methods. Sharing insights allows ideas to be refined and improved. Charging a group with developing a promising idea incentivizes the group—not just a single individual—to commit to its success and paves the way for trusted collaboration.

Giving students the opportunity to broaden their ideas and experiences opens up pathways of learning that can be extremely beneficial.

Brianna Crowley, an educator in Hershey, PA, successfully teaches her students digital literacy while infusing creativity throughout. She says it took a series of small steps to begin the process. One thing in particular she does is refrain from introducing any new tools into her classroom unless she knows they are going to enhance learning. Often she utilizes tools to engage her students, such as A Google a Day which is teaching her students to search for information in a safe yet creative way.

Another challenge teachers face while teaching digital literacy is the differing views on social media in education. Many schools have strict policies in place to avoid educational use of social media, while others feel that these restrictions are stifling the creativity and collaboration capabilities of today’s students. Dan Haesler, a teacher and educational consultant, believes in proactive social media education, and allowing students to make use of all that it has to offer.

When asked by Common Sense Media about social media bans in schools Haesler replied, “What if we approached driver’s education in the same way?” He concluded: Driving lessons would be taught by adults with little or no driving experience, they would only focus on what not to do, and they would never take place in an actual car. Both driving a vehicle, and navigating the internet require experience and knowledge of safety precautions so as to avoid any major incidents.

The students at Maker’s Place in Homewood, Philadelphia, PA, are a prime example of digital literacy at its finest. Children from the inner city get together to work on their digital literacy through creative and collaborative projects. Instructor Jomari Peterson has taught students to “take control of your destiny and change the world.” Her students work together to utilize different apps and programs that help them first build a business idea and then use collaborative tools to bring that idea to life.

Although there is no “secret sauce” to effectively help educators teach their students digital literacy, there are some key points to focus on:

  • Allow students to maintain blogs or webpages that enable them to track their own learning. Google Drive easily allows students to create blogs and sites that they can share and collaborate on with their peers.
  • Have students create digital stories that they can share and publish. is a site where students can utilize hundreds of custom stickers, animations, multimedia and even record their voice into their project so they can make it “their” own, both figuratively and literally. Offer students the ability to email and video chat with students in other countries. Skype Translate allows students to have a real time conversation with immediate translation.
  • Don’t get caught up in the need for strictly finding information and evaluating it. Always allow for creative ways to learn and produce.

With the help of great edtech tools and dedicated educators, students can gain digital literacy and become fluent in safely finding and evaluating information, creating, and collaborating.

Eric Sheninger is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this he was the award-winning Principal at New Milford High School. Under his leadership his school became a globally recognized model for innovative practices. Eric oversaw the successful implementation of several sustainable change initiatives that radically transformed the learning culture at his school while increasing achievement. Find him on Twitter @E_Sheninger

Rethinking Resistant Writers

by Mark Overmeyer

One truth I have learned about resistant writers has helped me more than any other:
Many resistant writers are better at resisting than they are at writing. They resist because they have practiced resistance, and this leads to less and less writing. To change this pattern, I need to move these students in the opposite direction – toward practicing writing more than practicing resistance.


Our initial response to resistant students is important, and these kind of negative thoughts won’t help: “They just won’t write! They hate writing. I’ve tried everything, but if they won’t write, I can’t do anything about it.” This kind of thinking is negative because it assumes the writer cannot change.

This kind of thinking is more helpful: “I wonder why this writer resists so much… I notice some days are better for him than others. What do I need to know about this writer to help him write more?” When we take an inquiry stance, we are more likely to support a positive change.

When I think about my resisters as opportunities to learn – when I study their resistance – then I am more likely to provide meaningful support.

One resistant writer who taught me more than any other was in my fifth grade class a few years ago. Jonathan was passive: he didn’t say much at all during writing time, and he preferred to be left alone, hoping that I wouldn’t push him to produce. Here are a few things I learned from Jonathan during that year:

Invite the resister into a conversation

Some days, Jonathan wrote nothing. Other days, he would write a few lines of text during writing workshop.

As I observed Jonathan, he taught me that some resisters respond to an invitation to talk. Instead of being too enthusiastic – “That’s awesome, Jonathan! You wrote so much today! I knew you could do it!” – I started to talk to him more like this:

“Jonathan, I noticed you wrote more today than yesterday. What do you think made the difference for you?”

Inviting Jonathan into the conversation was the key change that moved him to less of a resister and more of a writer. When I started asking him what he thought as a writer, he engaged more willingly. I began respecting Jonathan as a writer who could articulate something about his own process –something Eric Toshalis is speaking about in an article about student behavior:

At the end of the day, students will want to learn with us when they’re confident they won’t feel cruddy in the process. Engaging their resistance and analyzing how we may have provoked their misbehaviors will help us take advantage of opportunities to learn about their perspectives, appreciate their experiences, and improve our practices. (Toshalis, 2015)

Even though Toshalis is discussing students who misbehave rather than resist writing, it is instructive that he encourages us to engage their resistance. If we lower grades or withdraw privileges from students when they resist, we are punishing rather than engaging.

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My breakthroughs with Jonathan began with a conversation that led to strategy talk.

Notice and name specific strategies

Talks with Jonathan allowed him to learn strategies that he could replicate

later. This kind of strategy instruction is key to supporting student success in the writing workshop, as Deborah Dean notes in her research brief What Works in Writing Instruction:

Strategy instruction helps students learn multiple methods for solving a variety of problems they may face in all kinds of writing situations, not just the kind of writing they do for school. Helping students learn and practice strategies, as well as the regulatory practices that will help them apply those strategies effectively in a variety of future situations, is at the heart of strategy instruction. (Dean, 2010)

Making strategies visible and clear to students is an important part of this process. If our conference revealed that choice made a difference, I named that for Jonathan: “So today, it seems like choice helped you. I gave you some choices, but you also made a good choice about what to write. So one strategy that works for you as a writer is to choose topics you care about.” This naming is important, since strategy work is invisible. Once students begin to feel success, they can capitalize on this success and slowly become less resistant.

Increase positive experiences to increase self-efficacy

In the past, Jonathan had negative experiences as a writer. Negative comments peppered his report card from his previous school. His teachers labeled him non-compliant, and since he was reluctant to do work, he spent a lot of time being punished. Students who resist often become students who lack efficacy because they have few successful experiences, and low efficacy results in lower achievement:

Hattie & Marzano both found that students’ self-efficacy had a substantial impact on their subsequent achievement. Students who believed they would master fractions were more likely to do so, while students who saw themselves as poor readers were less likely to improve their reading. (Killian, 2015)

Jonathan did not believe he was a writer, so he then became a non-writer. In order to increase his feeling of efficacy, I often chunked writing assignments into smaller parts so that he could feel success along the way. My feedback (mainly in the form of naming, as mentioned above) helped because it was actionable along the way. Success builds on success for resisters, and once they feel successful they will begin to push themselves further.

Focus on the relationship beyond the walls of the classroom

One of my biggest breakthroughs with Jonathan came from an unexpected place.

In my district, when it snowed, we often had delayed start days. Jonathan showed up at the regular time when a delayed start had been called, and school was not set to begin for another hour. All students who arrived early could wait in the gym for school to start, but when I saw Jonathan at my classroom door, I invited him in to help me get ready for the day.

He helped me rearrange desks, and I taught him how to use the copy machine. We talked about everything except school. I learned that his dad was trying to quit smoking, and that he recently added a puppy to his family. In less than an hour, I learned more about Jonathan than I knew about many students in my class that year. I think the comfortable dialogue helped Jonathan trust me in ways he may not have before. Rather than being in trouble for arriving at school early on a delayed start day, I welcomed him. From that day on, we had short talks about his family and his puppy, and these talks built on our strengthening relationship. He began to respond to being pushed as a writer because he viewed me as a trusted adult, not a teacher who would mainly criticize him for not accomplishing tasks.

I did not see immediate results with Jonathan that year. It took time and patience on both of our parts to see the change. Sometimes, Jonathan resisted after a week of writing nearly every day. Other times, his progress seemed to accelerate at a rapid pace. The progress was not a steady upward trend, but rather a series of hills with some dips along the way. But once the upward trend became clear, Jonathan became more independent and more willing to try strategies on his own.

All of our students are teachers, but resisters have taught me more than any other type of learner. Embrace the challenge they provide. Be curious rather than frustrated. Don’t resist what they can teach you.


Mark Overmeyer worked as a teacher and a literacy coordinator near Cherry Creek Schools near Denver for 28 years. He has published 4 titles on writing workshop with Stenhouse and now works as a consultant in schools across the country and internationally. Find him on Twitter @markovermeyer.


Dean, D. (2010). What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practices. Chicago, IL:         National Council of Teachers of English.

Killian, S. (2015). 8 Strategies Robert Marzano and John Hattie agree on. Australian         Society for Evidence Based Teaching.

Toshalis, E. (2015). Five practices that provoke misbehavior. Educational Leadership. 73    (2), 34-40.


Am I Doing Enough?

by Dorothy Barnhouse

At the beginning of this month, Maria Walther invited readers of this blog to share three words to guide their teaching in 2018. Although I tend not to make formal New Year’s resolutions, I naturally reflect on and focus my priorities as a new year rolls around. I therefore welcomed Maria’s exercise as I returned to work after the holidays.

Three words bobbed to the surface of almost every conversation I had during that first weekback: “Not long enough” (in response to the question, “How were your holidays?”), but I know that’s not what Maria had in mind. I proceeded with my work attuned to other words that might serve as a mantra for me this year.

One classroom, a fourth grade in a New York City public school where I’ve been consulting, offered just the opportunity. But before I reveal the three guiding words that came to me, some background: When I began my work with this teacher last fall, she had complained to me that the scripted curriculum the school had chosen wasn’t working for her students. “They’re not engaged,” she told me, and proceeded to describe how they would groan at the prospect of opening the single text that steered the lessons and tasks, how they would wiggle and misbehave, and how she would spend more time managing the class than teaching. “I want my students to love reading,” she said. “And this curriculum is not doing it.”

I praised the teacher’s instincts to teach her students rather than the curriculum and welcomed the opportunity to rethink her reading classroom (Barnhouse, 2014). Together we began to plan an alternative unit. We pulled from the essential questions and skills that were required of students but chose what we thought would be another, more engaging read-aloud, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. The chapters of this book are short, the characters deeply sympathetic and the themes applicable to any number of issues these students might be facing. I hoped therefore that they would have an opportunity to experience the impact a book can have on their lives. “Why read?” became one of our essential questions, and after reading The One and Only Ivan, we expected the answers to that question to go beyond “because the teacher is telling me to” or “to pass the State tests.”

Additionally, I knew that through the reading of this book, these students would be able to experience what deep comprehension looks, sounds and feels like. The answer-driven scripted curriculum would certainly not do this. Applegate’s prose invites interpretation. It is spare without being overly complex, and students would therefore have lots of opportunities to notice details, generate questions and formulate ‘maybe’ answers that they could confirm or revise as we kept reading (Barnhouse and Vinton, 2012).

And so, in December we got started. We gathered the students together, established partners and talk routines and started reading The One and Only Ivan. Sure enough, through simple open-ended engagements such as asking students to talk with their partners about what they were noticing or what they were wondering, we began to unveil the process of making meaning that I first wrote about with Vicki Vinton in What Readers Really Do. The initial chart of the students’ thinking looked like this:

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.36.33 PM

Once students internalized the way readers hang onto details (“Know”) and read on with questions in their minds (“Wonder”), we stopped charting but continued to offer students opportunities to talk and share with one another and with the group.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.37.30 PM

During the second week of this work, the teacher and I noticed that students’ wonderings were often focused on ‘why’ questions, in particular why characters were doing or saying or thinking what they were. Knowing that ‘why’ questions usually indicate the seeds of an inference, we decided to slow down and linger on making these processes more visible for the students. We wrote down some of their questions and invited themto fit details from the text together in order to draft ‘maybe’ answers to those questions. We demonstrated this thought process by focusing on one student’s question, which was “Why does Ivan name his toy gorilla Not-Tag?” Students pieced details together to make an inference that Ivan misses his sister.

That is where we left off when the holidays rolled around. I was confident that the students and teacher were in a good place. The students were doing authentic reading work and the teacher was facilitating thinking rather than managing tasks.

Fast forward to my return that first week in January: the teacher started our planning session a bit sheepishly, as if making a confession. “I got nervous,” she said. “I felt that I wasn’t doing enough. So I went on Teachers Pay Teachers and got some comprehension questions for the chapters we’re going to read this week.”

Now there has been a lot of chatter recently about Teachers Pay Teachers, taking issue with copyright infringement and discussing the implications of the site on teacher collaboration, but I didn’t want to get into any of that with this teacher. What I wanted to do was respond to her very real fear of “not doing enough.” This teacher had taken a big risk in abandoning the curriculum that had been sanctioned by her administrators and the district. She was going rogue, and I needed to support her and respond to her discomfort.

“Let’s take a look at some of the questions you found,” I suggested, and she handed me a sheet of paper with a decorative border, inside of which was the following question: What does Stella mean on page 53 when she says, “There’s a difference between ‘can’t remember’ and ‘won’t remember.’”? Use details from the text to support your answer.

I was both disappointed and relieved. Relieved because the question was, in fact, simply a different phrasing of a ‘why’ question. It could easily have been stated, “Why does Stella say…?” But I was also disappointed. Students had already been doing this work: asking questions that were giving rise to inferences, which, in turn, were blooming into interpretations and big ideas. Did the teacher not recognize that?

I tried to articulate my thinking. “We’ve been focusing on powerful questions with the students,” I said, “and they seem to have experienced the power of their thinking. It’s helped them make deep inferences and be deeply engaged in the process. Do you think if we read these next few pages and remind them of their thinking, they might ask similar questions that TPT did?” I pointed to the photocopy.

“They might,” the teacher conceded. “But what if they don’t? And they need experience answering these kinds of questions for the test.”

I agreed that they did. “But maybe they’ll do better on canned questions,” I argued, “if we first give them writing experiences from their own questions.” We agreed and decided that it was a good time to move students from talking to writing, perhaps first on post-its and then in their reading notebooks.

And so when we settled the students into the read-aloud, we reminded them, via the anchor charts, about the power of drafting answers to their why questions and told them that today they would be talking and writing. We read a few pages, stopping at the same spot that the TPT question came from, and said to them, “Turn and talk. What questions do you have right now? What are thinking?”

We hunkered down to listen. Sure enough, many partnerships shared versions of the same question the teacher had paid for on TPT, and many posed answers to those questions. Others went even deeper, noticing that the idea of memory and remembering “keeps repeating,” and developing theories about what that pattern could mean. All the students did thinking that was deeper, more satisfying and more authentic than the short-answer task that TPT had suggested. It was time to send them back to their desks to write.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.40.11 PM

When I returned to the school the following week, the teacher had created a bulletin board detailing the journey her students had embarked on. Partners had made posters of their thought processes, choosing a ‘why’ question to answer and examining details from the text to formulate a ‘maybe answer’ to that question (‘idea’).  They had also written one-paragraph responses in the manner of the test, some of which were also displayed on the bulletin board.


As I looked at the work, I knew I had my three words for the year.  Here they are, in sentence form:  Trust Authentic Processes.
– We have to trust the authentic processes of our teaching (yes, that teacher was doing enough — more than enough, really);
– We have trust the authentic processes of our students (yes, given the
opportunity, students can, and will, do thinking that is as deep and deeper than
any curriculum or prepared comprehension questions);
– We have to trust the authentic processes of reading. The readers in this fourth-grade classroom were not all arriving at the same answers to their ‘why’
questions at the same moment. No doubt some of them would have “failed” to
accurately answer the TPT question if we had stopped at that page and expected correct thinking right then and there. But as we gave students opportunities to draft and revise, as we made visible how readers postpone clarity but expect it at the same time – to say, “I don’t know yet” – we began to hear the wonderful‘oh’s’ and ‘ah’s’ that show us how deeply satisfying and stimulating reading can be when we allow our students to throw their whole selves into the meaning-making process.

.Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.43.38 PMScreen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.43.49 PM

Authentic processes will work in classrooms if we put our trust in well-written texts. Good books can be our best teachers, if we’re willing to step aside and offer students authentic ways to engage with them. That, certainly, will always be enough.

Happy New Year – and see you at CCIRA in February.

References:Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Reading. Heinemann, 2012.

Dorothy Barnhouse. Readers Front and Center: Helping All Students Engage with Complex Texts. Stenhouse, 2014.

Katherine Applegate. The One and Only Ivan. HarperCollins, 2012.

Dorothy Barnhouse is a literacy consultant and instructional coach with experience working in elementary, middle and high schools in New York City and across the U.S. She recently completed a two-year residency at the American School of Bombay, where she provided reading and writing support for content-area teachersin Grades 6-12. She is a regular presenter at national literacy conferences and can be found on Twitter <ahref=””>@dorobarn

Looking Forward to a Rebirth of Literacy Teaching and Learning

Like many people, I was more than ready to say good riddance to 2017, which was as disruptive, divisive and depressing a year as any I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yet as I think about 2018, I’ve found myself strangely hopeful that something is stirring in literacy education. And one of the indications of that for me is the theme for this year’s CCIRA conference, where I’ll be presenting two sessions in February.

The theme for this year is Literacy Renaissance, which was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s life, and I have to say that I found the idea of a literacy renaissance incredibly exciting. You see, way before I ever imagined myself working in classrooms and being a writer, I was on my way to becoming an art history major in college, where I studied and fell in love with Renaissance art—especially frescoes and portraits, like Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine,” whose soulful eyes you see above.

Leonardo definitely captures the spirit of the Renaissance and seems as powerful a role model as any I can think of. But knowing a bit more about the Renaissance than your average person might, I found myself thinking about that theme in a slightly different way.

I know, for instance, that the word renaissance literally means rebirth, and the historical period known as the Renaissance was seen as the rebirth of the classical traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, where artists had developed and mastered the skill to paint and sculpt figures that actually seemed life-like, with a range of gestures and expressions that conveyed the whole spectrum of human emotions.

Those skills, however, were lost or forgotten during what’s alternately called the Medieval, Middle or Dark Ages. In that period artists struggled with perspective and proportions, with people’s heads sometimes as large as their torsos and their bodies as tall as buildings. The subject matter was also much bleaker than Ancient Greek and Roman art, which is characterized by beauty, ease and grace. Medieval art, on the other hand, reflects a time of plague and superstition, where life was seen as little more than a vale of tears. And that got me wondering: If we’re in or entering a Literacy Renaissance, what was our Classical Age and what were our Dark Ages?

When it comes to the Dark Ages, I think we’ve been living in pretty dark times, where data, accountability and mandates are deemed more important than a teacher’s professional knowledge and judgement—and where teachers and students alike often feel an enormous amount of stress. Unfortunately, though, there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of teachers in classrooms across the country who came of age during these times. And many of them may simply be unable to imagine an alternative way of teaching because this world of numbers, packaged programs, and rubrics for everything under the sun is the only one they’ve experienced. And that’s why I think it’s so important to consider what our Classical Age was.

Personally, I see it as the period when figures like Don Graves in writing and Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds in reading were developing the concept of readers and writers workshop. Compared to today, where teachers are often overwhelmed by the volume of content they’re expected to cover and the paperwork they’re required to complete, the work of these educators—as can be seen in books like Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Graves, 1983) and Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action (Peterson & Eeds, 1983)—can seem almost leisurely. They took time to listen carefully to children, not just to find an opportunity to teach them, but to more deeply understand their thinking. And there’s an authentic, natural feel to the conversations they had with kids, which, in our age of acceleration, we seem to have forgotten or lost.

Here, for instance, is an anecdote that Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle share in their book about Don Grave’s work. Children Want to Write. Don and his team of researchers were puzzled by a girl named Amy, whose first drafts were so lovely and thoughtful that she never needed to revise. What was her process? they wonder and asked Amy herself. At first, she said she wasn’t sure, but one morning she came to school and shared what she thought was the answer to Lucy Calkins, who was then one of Don’s researchers:

“I think I know how I write. The other night I was lying in bed and I couldn’t get to sleep. I was thinking, “I wonder how I will start my fox piece in the morning.” It was 9:30 at night and Sidney my car was next to me on the bed. I thought and thought and couldn’t figure how to start it. Finally, about 10:30, my sister came home and she turned on the hall light. Now my door has a round hole where there ought to be a lock. A beam of light came through the hole and struck Sidney in the face. Sidney went squint. Then I knew how I would start my fox piece: There was a fox who lived in a den and over the den was a stump and in the stump was a crack and a beam of light came through the crack and struck the fox full in the face.”

Now just imagine Amy for a moment in a typical classroom today. There’s a good chance she’d be required to write a flash draft first, because supposedly that’s what all writers do (FYI, I don’t), then be presented with a sequence of predetermined lessons—often accompanied by checklists and worksheets—that marched her through a process aimed less at developing her identity as a writer than at completing a task.

In this Classical Age, however, teachers believed in and trusted the capacity of children as meaning makers, which I fear is something we’ve lost. Graves, for instance, firmly believed that “Children will continually surprise us if we let them. It’s what happens when we slow down, listen, and let the children lead.” And here’s what Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds have to say about this in Grand Conversations:

“If we accept that literature is another way of understanding the world and that it will illuminate our lives, if we accept the value of the interpretations that all children bring to their reading with a heart-to-heartedness that shows we want to understand why they say what they saw, if we trust that making sense of the world is inherent in being human, and if we walk alongside our students in the collaboration of true dialogue, then we can expect that remarkable insights about literature will occur.”

This vision of teachers as learners who “walk alongside their students in the collaboration of true dialogue,” is also something we seem to have lost, though it was a hallmark of that time. Graves, for instance, firmly believed that “the teacher is the chief learner in the classroom.” And like the Greek and Roman artists of the Classical Age—and the Renaissance artists who came after—Graves’s vision of learners encompasses the whole spectrum of human emotion, including uncertainty and vulnerability. “A teacher,”

who shows what she is trying to learn through writing isn’t afraid to ask children what they are trying to learn through their own writing . . . Truth seekers have a way of helping others to get at the truth. They question children just as they question themselves.

And here’s Peterson and Eeds again echoing that idea:

Teachers need to remember that teaching is easy only when students are asked to become consumers of conventional views. Teachers who use dialogue as a means for [children to] interpret a text must value the dynamic, ever-changing characters of meaning making . . . The words ‘I think I’m changing my mind‘ should come to be valued, whether uttered by students or teachers.

Of course, a learning stance is hard to take if you’re worried about test scores and evaluations. But with Leonardo as inspiration, CCIRA is inviting us to leave the Dark Ages of fear and compliance behind and step into the light of a new Renaissance. And to do that, I think it behooves us to look back and remember those early workshop pioneers from our own Classical Age. There’s much that we can learn from them and much that should be revived. I’m looking forward to it!

Vicki Vinton is a literacy consultant and writer who  has worked in schools and districts across the country and around the world.  She is the author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach (2017), and coauthor of What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making and The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language.  Vicki is also author of the novel The Jungle Law. Additionally, you can find Vicki online, at the popular literacy blog To Make a Prairie ( Find her on Twitter @vickivintonTMAP.