DISTILL, DESIGN and DOCUMENT: Remote Learning in 3-D)

By Dan Ryder, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

The stress is real. 

Whether we teach kindergarten in pK-3 Reggio Emilia- inspired elementary schools or run library cum makerspaces for young adults in expeditionary learning programs, we are feeling the strain. We are balancing the needs of our students against the expectations of our curricula while responding to the concerns of our communities and challenges of the moment. And if those two sentences weren’t word soaked enough to overwhelm the most verbiage-resilient amongst us, add the terms “hybrid instruction” and “fluid public health conditions” and grab hold of something sturdy.  

And yet, I am hopeful that we may yet manage and — dare I dream — thrive in the rapid response remote learning environments into which we’ve been thrust.  As my good friend and stalwart Pacific Northwest educator, Darren Hudgins points out, Spring 2020 was not a time of distance education.  It was a time of emergency teaching.  How might we reframe the start of a new school year as a place of possibility and potential rather than pessimism and peril?

Because education loves a good acronym and who doesn’t adore a retro-futurism mnemonic, I’ve worked up a 3-D frame through which to look at remote learning instructional design.  It doesn’t require any special glasses or goggles.  (However, lesson planning at the drive-in can be a wonderful way to support local theater owners.)  The goal here isn’t to break new ground but instead to find a more peaceful pathway to planning quality instruction and deeper learning.  And if the alliteration hasn’t driven you from this blog yet, consider how this distill, design, and document framework might benefit you as well as your students and other stakeholders.  


What really matters? 

When face-to-face instruction went on hiatus during the spring of 2020, many educators started their planning by looking at their typical spring plans and attempted to retrofit the activities and lessons to remote learning conditions.  Other folx dropped familiarity entirely in favor of creating all-new assessments and extended learning opportunities aligned to their students’ current realities.  Both approaches met with success and struggle, with the latter tending to focus on the meaningful now and the former holding tight to the meaningful always.  

What if we just pause for a moment, examine our curricula, survey our students’ world, and ask, “What really matters?”  What if we were able to take our scopes and sequences and simplify them in the service of ensuring screen time is purpose-driven time? What if we were able to prioritize the habits of work valued highest in our communities and the social emotional learning outcomes students’ families need help with most?  And then asking that first question again, “Okay, what really matters?” 

For example, we might throw our hands up and say, “Well, we have to throw away the drama unit.  We can’t get all of the kids together online at the same time and even if we do half of their connections are lousy and I just want to eat cake.”  For the record, there’s nothing wrong with cake.  (Though I’ve learned recently that hugs last longer than cake.) 

Instead we might ask, “What are the skills and understandings students takeaway from the drama unit?”   Memorization.  Tone and inflection.   Relationship between speaker and audience.   Communicating emotion.  Creating a reality.  Collaborating with peers. 

Once that distillation occurs, opportunities emerge.  What if students composed monologues for their peers to deliver, record and publish?   What if those monologues told the stories of undervalued or under appreciated minor characters from well known works? What if those monologues portrayed emotion that character experiences in the story, but the audience doesn’t realize it?  How might such an assessment meet curricular goals and then serve as a bridge to discussions of under-represented voices in our communities and world?  

I’m not here to cast judgement on your conclusions about what really matters — visit my Twitter feed if you want to know how well our edu-values align.  I’m suggesting that the act of paring down helps all of us feel that much more calm and confident in our work during a time when those states are in short supply.  And I’m also suggesting that doing so fuels deeper learning, rather than diminishing rigor.  

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Photo courtesy of Unsplash


How might we meet the needs of students, school, family and community?

Perhaps now more than at any point in recent history, schools are being called upon to meet the needs of stakeholders both in their immediate communities and beyond.  Engaging students in their instruction may have much deeper stakes than good grades or successful achievement of learning outcomes.  Heightened student engagement may well translate into reduced familial stress and increased community involvement.  Providing more real world problem solving experience for students  contributes to the value added and return on investment arguments for supporting schools.  This may be even more true in a time of remote instruction substituting for face to face learning.

Making a quick list of needs for each of those four domains based on available information can put us into a more empathetic posture for our lesson designs.  Now, authentic empathy only comes from intentional and multi-faceted observation and inquiry into another’s point of view, and few of us have the capacity to do that sort of deep work in such tumultuous times.  Still, we have local surveys and news articles, social media and public polling.  We have conversations with our neighbors and communication with our students.  What if we take a moment to glean insights from those sources and apply those insights to our assessment design?

What if students read from a wide selection of poetry and lyrics related to social justice?  What if they then identified challenges of social justice facing their local communities, whether they be matters of systemic racism, multigenerational poverty, economic opportunity, LGBTQ equality, or such and similar?  What if the class  partnered with local non-profit organizations such as the United Way or community public health networks that work to address those issues?   Students might then compose poetry and lyrics that demonstrate both their understanding of poetic elements and the issues at hand.   Students could then design digital anthologies of their peers’ pieces, illustrate them with original artwork, and then publish those anthologies.   Along the way book editors, self-published authors, and social entrepreneurs might join video conferences for expert perspectives as those anthologies might be sold online with proceeds going to support a local cause.  Consider the layers of learning and understanding that one project might present.

The length of the preceding paragraph illustrates how easily one can get caught up ideating when passion and purpose overlap with pedagogical potential.   However, we should always take what the National Equity Project calls an “equity pause.”   Take a moment to consider our own unconscious and implicit biases, the impact they may be having on whatever work we are doing, and make a mindful effort to challenge those biases.   


How might we track process, provide evidence and unpack intention?

Without our typical face-to-face classrooms, we not only miss out on the rapport that builds from informal interactions with students, we miss out on the nuances we rely upon as we assess their understanding.   The body language that lets us know there is something bugging them and that is why they aren’t willing to share their drafts for a peer writing workshop.   The tendency to look longing out the windows and flip pages absent mindedly during reading sessions, while still logging those pages as “read” in their journals.

During remote instruction, it proves increasingly helpful to implement strategies that build routines and provide similar information about the context of student work.   Consider using color coded spreadsheets where students might track a variety of metrics about their daily reading experience.  To what extent did you feel your mind wander during reading today?  To what extent do you think you will need to re-read when you next sit down to dive into your book?  How excited are you to return to this book when you next get a chance?  

How often do we look at a piece of student writing or answers to a series of comprehension questions and say, “Oh, I know what they were trying to do here.  I get it they just . . . Oh. . . . I can hear them saying this.  I know they get it even if it doesn’t look like it right here to the untrained eye?”  Few of us likely use that many words, but I still believe it is a common pattern of thought amongst my fellow educators.   What if students created podcasts or audio journals explaining the intention and purpose behind each of their choices for a paper or project?   I often suggest the music podcast, Song Exploder, for older students as an example of creators breaking down the choices they made along the way to an artistic product.  For younger students, episodes of Mythbusters Jr. or clips from Master Chef Junior can serve a similar function.  

And if those approaches feel daunting, consider a fairly simple graphic organizer divided into three columns.   What did you do?  Why did you do it?  What might you do it differently next tme?  Ask students to identify three pieces of evidence of learning featured in their product.  This becomes increasingly valuable in projects and creative endeavors as so often students’ visions outweigh their capacities to execute.   When we hear that they were striving to achieve and where their thinking was headed, we often find that the learning is intact even if the demonstration was lacking.  

Remote learning has enough stresses and worries associated with its effective implementation, the last things any of us need is to be fretting about are complicated lesson plan design protocols and expansive curricula.   Try looking at our work through this 3-D lens of distill, design and document.   Despite its relative simplicity, just as much depth and excitement awaits us and our students alike.

Dan Ryder is a high school English teacher by title, idea wrangler, design thinker, improviser and educator by practice, co-author of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom.  Dan has taught for nearly 20 years at Mt. Blue Campus in Farmington, Maine.  Follow him on Twitter @WickedDecent.


How to Get the Most Out of a Virtual Author Visit

By Melanie Conklin, 2021 CCIRA Conference Author and Presenter

In the time of coronavirus, there is a lot of uncertainty about how to preserve the educational traditions that we cherish. Recess. Team sports. Clubs. Library visits. Maker spaces. Read-Alouds. Some of these activities are difficult if not impossible to re-imagine as a virtual activity in a distance learning setting, but technology has made great strides, and when it comes to author visits, there are options!

Author visits are a unique opportunity for students to interact with creators and gain insight into writing. Typically, an author visit involves an author attending your school in person for a portion of the day, during which the author gives various presentations, speeches, or writing workshops. I’ve been fortunate to visit many schools across the country. Young scholars have the best questions, the most enthusiasm, and an almost tangible energy for learning that is inspiring.

Now that it’s no longer possible (or wise) to visit schools in person, I’ve spent a good bit more time doing virtual author visits. Virtual visits have always been part of my work as an author, but now there is a key difference: the students on my screen are no longer in the same place. They are joining from different locations and environments. This can make a virtual visit a bit more challenging, but there are ways to ensure that you get the most out of your time with an author. Here are my tips for having a successful virtual author visit as part of your distance-learning school year.

Finding an Author for a Virtual Visit

One of the questions I hear regularly is: how do you find authors for an author visit? I think this really means how do I connect with authors or find authors who are local to me, but first I’ll address the larger question of how to find authors to invite for a school or library visit.

Start by tracking your reading and classroom reading. I use Goodreads, but you can also use Library Thing or Reader Tracker. This way you have a handy list of authors you would like to connect with. Tracking your reading can also help you identify areas where you are under-read to broaden and diversify your reading life.

Find authors who live in your area by contacting local bookstores or book festivals. There are many booking agencies such as The Booking Biz, Provato Events, and Phil Bidner’s Author Village. Author Kate Messner also maintains a list of authors who Skype for free.

Social media is perhaps the easiest way to find and contact an author. If you read an author’s book, tag them in a tweet or Instagram or FB post. Then, when you reach out to inquire about an virtual author visit, you can introduce yourself by mentioning that you recently tagged them about loving their book.

Most authors provide email or a contact form on their website. It’s okay to write with questions or rate inquiries. Your questions are not a burden. Just remember to be respectful of the author’s time by replying to their communications. No one likes to be left hanging!

Include scheduling details in your message. When reaching out to schedule a virtual visit, be sure to include your time zone, the days and hours that are best for you (several options is good), and any honorarium you may be able to provide. Many authors will provide a short virtual visit for free (15-20mins). Longer visits warrant an honorarium.

Preparing for a Virtual Visit

Once you’ve scheduled your virtual visit, it’s time to prepare. Like everything in school, success depends heavily on the work done in advance.

Be sure to introduce the author and their work to your classroom. This can be done by sharing virtual read-alouds, Youtube videos, and electronic previews. Include information about the virtual visit with parent communications so they can support the connection at home. Direct parents to your local independent bookstore for copies of the author’s books, and be sure to let the bookstore know. They will be thrilled to coordinate, and might even be able to get signed books!

Prepare questions for the author in advance. This can be a fun activity for the classroom. Students can submit questions and even vote on which ones to ask. Author visits have a limited timeframe, so a realistic number of questions is important (around 10 questions in a twenty minute visit). Developing questions as a team can help all students feel included.

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Use a pre-visit activity to allow all students to interact with the author. Many authors have printables, writing prompts, or educator guides on their websites. Share a printable activity with students so they can hold them up to share with the author during the virtual visit. This interactivity is key! Even if we can’t read all of their writing, we can cheer them all on!

Test your technology. Whether you are using Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or another platform to host your virtual visit, make sure you have practiced ahead of time. It’s a shame to lose time in a virtual visit due to technical issues, and familiarity can help with trouble-shooting. Some authors will do a quick technical check, too.

Day of the Virtual Visit

The logistics of a virtual visit are just as important as the logistics of an in-person visit. You want to get the most out of your limited time with the author, so be prepared to start on time and have a clear plan in hand.

Many authors will log in a few minutes early to get set for the visit. This gives you time to confirm any last-minute details and troubleshoot any sound or image quality issues.

Have an arrivals strategy in place. When dozens of students join a video chat from different locations, it can be even harder to wrangle them than in person! Make sure you know how to control volume and mute voices. Give students a Right-Now type of activity to engage in when they arrive to the visit. That can be as simple as holding up a drawing that is related to the author’s work, or showing off their pet, or dancing in their seat to show how excited they are. You can also utilize the comments section as an interaction tool, though it requires moderation to maintain a safe space for all.

Ask questions equitably and clearly. Some authors wish to call on students to ask questions, but that can be tough when only twenty faces fit on your zoom screen! Plan ahead so that all students feel included and utilize your mute button as needed.

Look for opportunities to interact. Some authors are well versed at virtual visits and will get your students engaged easily. Others may be new to this platform, so allow students to interact during the visit by raising their hands to indicate their choice, waving or wiggling fingers to show applause, or holding up pre-prepared signs or pictures.

After a Virtual Visit

Time flies during a virtual author visit, and your students may feel they did not get to interact as much as they would have liked. Give students an opportunity to communicate after the visit via written messages. These don’t have to be delivered on paper. You can collect photos of handwritten letters or compile typed thank-you messages into a follow up email to the author.

The way we connect may have changed during the age of COVID-19, but authors still want to visit schools and libraries. We share a common goal: literacy engagement. If you follow these tips, by the time the author visit arrives, the whole class will be buzzing in anticipation, and afterward the enthusiasm will last for weeks. That is the value of an author visit.

Happy planning to all!

Melanie Conklin grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer for ten years before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. Her second novel for young readers, Every Missing Piece, published with Little, Brown in May, 2020. When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Connect with her on twitter @MLConklin.



The Journey to Becoming Well Spoken

By Erik Palmer, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

Student voice. What a hot topic! I see tweets about it, conference sessions about it, articles in educational publications about it—it’s all the rage. How can we give students voice? Oddly, every single one of the mentions of student voice ignores the first and most important meaning of voice, speaking. 

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When you see the word voice used by educators, it might mean choice or options as in “give students voice instead of directing their learning.” Sometimes it means opinion as in “we need to value student voice and make them feel comfortable expressing their ideas.” Sometimes it means literary style as in “Hemingway has a unique voice in his writing, and we want students to develop their voice as well.” I’m not arguing with any of those: I think we should give students choices, we should value their opinions, and we should let them have their own style. But we should also give them the gift of being able to verbalize well, because when you see the word voice used by everyone else on the planet, it means sounds from the mouth. 

Dictionary.com defines it this way:



      1. the sound or sounds uttered through the mouth of living creatures, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc.
      2. the faculty or power of uttering sounds through the mouth by the controlled expulsion of air; speech


I think you’ll find every dictionary thinks of speaking first and foremost. How can so many educators, then, talk about giving students voice without thinking about oral communication? That’s the original and most important voice! How do we declare what we want? How do we express our opinions? How do we share information? How do we socialize? Overwhelmingly by speaking. We say things out loud. Often, that speaking is face-to-face, but increasingly digital media are used expanding the reach and importance of verbal communication. Tools such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, TikTok, Flipgrid, and so many more showcase oral communication. All students can make videos and podcasts designed to let us hear their voices. If we listen closely, we hear that students don’t speak well. You’ve noticed. You’ve struggled to listen to the end of a student’s two-minute podcast. And if you think back to how mediocre those in-class poetry recitations were, you shouldn’t be surprised.  

Remember how amazed people were when students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke? You heard many comments about how well they communicated, and some conspiracy types thought they must be paid actors because normal kids just don’t speak that well. Two important points: one, we were impressed because good speaking is not the norm for students and two, the way they captured America’s attention was by speaking. As much as we value writing, speaking is by far the number one to have an impact, to have voice, if you will. 

Why have we let kids down on their journey to become competent, confident oral communicators? We have been focused on reading and writing. I joke that we should have a new word: readinganwriting. Those words always seem to come together, and they are the only words mentioned by English and language arts teachers. No one ever says reading, writing, and speaking. We have an enormous blind spot. By consistently shortchanging and often downright ignoring the number one language art, speaking, we have robbed students of their most important voice. We have excuses: “Some kids are just naturally good at it and some aren’t.” “Speaking is not on the Big Test.” “I have activities where I make students speak so I have this covered.” These excuses keep us from giving the direct instruction needed to give students real voice. I especially worry about the last one. Making kids talk as an afterthought in some other activity does not teach speaking. At the end of the poetry unit, have students mutter a poem. After reading the book, make students give a book share that inspires none of the listeners. Listen to those with new ears. How many students demonstrated an effective voice? Few. They were never specifically taught the skills of verbal communication.

The truth is, it isn’t that hard to teach students how to speak well. Just as there are specific lessons on specific topics (e.g., punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure) to improve writing and specific lessons on specific topics (e.g., genre, setting, metaphor, plot line, textbook structure, character development), to improve reading there need to be specific lessons on each of the specific skills needed to improve speaking. I’ll give you an example of how to teach one speaking skill. 

The biggest weakness of almost all speakers is that their talks are dull. They speak in a lifeless way. We suffer through this in the classroom, but when we listen to recorded lifeless talks, we stop the podcast 30 seconds in. See if you can make it past that amount of time with this clip: https://youtu.be/BKRvk4-Xk70 I’m not criticizing the student, I’m criticizing us. We had this child in class for eleven years and did not teach her how to be well spoken. As we went to remote instruction and asked students to submit presentations digitally, these sorts of clips were the norm. Because recorded voices are always less impressive than voices in person, and because distance learning involves more recorded voices, maybe more of us will come to notice that students have never been taught how to avoid being dull. You taught how to choose better adjectives in writing, so teach how to add life in speaking.

Lesson one: to demonstrate the importance of adding inflection, let students practice with phrases where the meaning can change depending on how it is said.

I don’t think you are dumb. (But everyone else does?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You know I am?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You think he is?)

Lesson two: Play this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ouic59Gv0x0 There is a quick visual showing what a voice with no life looks like compared to a voice with life as well as an audio modeling the difference—1:20 of no life followed by the exact same words with life. 

Lesson three: Give a small practice speech where adding life makes a huge difference. Have different students speak encouraging each one to add lots of feeling. 

One time, we had a squirrel in our house. When we opened the door to let our dog out, it ran right in. Everything got crazy! The squirrel was running all over! My mom was yelling, “Do something! Do something! Get that thing out of here.” My sister jumped on a chair and stood there crying her eyes out. My dad was chasing the squirrel with a broom from room to room.  “Open all the doors!” he yelled to me. “I did already!” I yelled back. Finally, it ran out. After a minute or so, my dad started laughing. “That was interesting,” he said with a chuckle.

All three of those combined might take 40 minutes of instructional time, and every student will learn one on of the keys to effective speaking. Will all students master this? Of course not, just as not all master the skills of writing or of reading or of drawing or of anything. But all will get better, and all will understand one aspect of how to communicate better. 

One aspect? What are the others? When I ask teachers at workshops to give me descriptors of effective oral communication, answers vary wildly: inflection, articulation, enunciation, vocal modulation, loudly, slowly, clearly, pacing, body movement, expression, eye contact, gestures, stand still, humor, and many more. Some of the answers are wrong. You’d hate me if I talked loudly and slowly—obnoxious and boring! Many are confusing for kids. Vocal modulation? Say what? I created six-trait speaking to solve the problem. You know one of the traits, life. That’s a teaser. There isn’t time in this blog post to explain them, so visit pvlegs.com. The site name will make sense once you get there, but I bet you can guess what the “l” stands for.

Bottom line: do not ignore the most common and most important definition of voice. If you really want students to have voice, give them the gift of being well spoken. They can’t get there on their own, they can’t get there just by speaking a lot in class. They need you to be the guide.

Many more resources here: https://pvlegs.wordpress.com/2018/06/10/shortchanging-speaking/

Erik Palmer is a Denver-based education consultant who has published two books with Stenhouse: Well Spoken and Good Thinking. He presents often at the CCIRA conference and his sessions are favorites among attendees.

The Fab Four Comprehension Strategies: Accelerating Reading NOW!

By Lori Oczkus

Summer reading loss is real! We know that many students lose anywhere from two weeks to two months when they don’t read much in the summer. Couple that with the months of learning loss due to Covid 19 and researchers estimate that students could fall as much as 30% behind in their reading this school year. (NWEA, 2020) Our students desperately need a boost in their comprehension and engagement to catch them up in reading now and in the fall. 

My favorite go-to strategy to accelerate reading, is reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984), or the “ Fab Four” (Oczkus, 2018) Reciprocal teaching is a scaffolded discussion technique based on four of the strategies good readers use; predict, question, clarify, and summarize (Oczkus, 2018). Reciprocal teaching is backed by over 30 years of solid research with consistent gains of .74 or nearly two years in one year. (Hattie, 2008) An added bonus is that the Fab Four easily adapts to a digital setting at any grade level with any text. 

In my travels to schools around the globe, I collaborate with teachers and work in classrooms to find ways to engage students in reciprocal teaching while raising reading scores. Here are some tips, pointers, and my “go to” lessons to get you started. In February I will present more ideas at CCIRA 2021. I can’t wait to return to Colorado to meet more fabulous colleagues and to visit my “home” state where I grew up! 

Best Pointers to Yield Results 

Teach the Fab Four Package

Teach all four strategies in ONE lesson! Represent them in a poster to ensure you cover them all. Designate one student as the “checker” who checks off each strategy as the class discusses it. Students predict what they will learn; clarify tricky words and discuss how to figure them out; ask questions for the group to answer; and summarize what they read. Try color coding the four strategies live and in online discussion boards. 

Follow a Gradual Release Model with Discussion 

Ensure success with a gradual release model of teaching by modeling the strategies. Then provide opportunities for students to discuss the reading and the strategies in pairs and teams. Students may take on roles -predictor, questioner, clarifier, summarizer. Try using chat rooms in Zoom or Google Meets or responding to one another on Flip Grid or Google Docs. 

Teach Metacognition

Teach students to become metacognitive when using the strategies by making them their own. Students and the teacher record demonstrations and explanations of the strategies for each other on a platform such as See Saw.

Close Reading with Informational Text

One of my favorite ways to introduce the “The Fab Four” is with informational articles. In this demonstration I use an article from my series Close Reading with Paired Text k-12 co-authored with Dr. Rasinski (Shell, 2015) In my project schools we also use Newsela, Scholastic News, and other short articles once the class is familiar with the method. The students and the teacher each have copies of the text that they mark up using either on a device or a hard copy with colored pencils or highlighters. The teacher and students reread the text at least three times to discuss; what they will learn, words to clarify, questions to ask, and important points to summarize the reading. Here is my 7-minute video for educators and parents explaining how to participate with students in a Fab Four discussion. Scroll down for the bookmark lesson plans, question and answers for parents, and parent letter. How to Boost Reading Comprehension with the Fab Four https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9mkv8f6Hxo 

Fab Four Poetry Lesson for Comprehension and Fluency

Here is a comprehension lesson that includes predicting what the poem is about, clarifying words, phrases, and visual images, asking questions, and summarizing by sharing favorite lines and parts. The result is a peppy and engaging student-centered discussion. Students then reread the poetry to perform live in class or record on a digital platform. The demonstration here is from my series Close Reading with Paired Texts co- authored with Dr. Tim Rasinski. Here is a 7-minute video to show how to conduct a Fab Four poetry lesson for parents and teachers. Scroll down for bookmark lesson plans. 

How to Improve Comprehension & Fluency with Poetry https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rt7h9RGtAKU 

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See you at CCIRA! The research behind reciprocal teaching consistently delivers results in just a few months. For high-yield/ low prep strategies refer to my books and resources listed in the bibliography below for more information and follow me on twitter @LoriOczkus or contact me at loczkus52@earthlink.net and let’s connect. See you at CCIRA in February 2021! Please join me for one or all of my 3 CCIRA sessions on reading and writing 

 Reading Rescue with the Fab Four: Comprehension Strategies to Accelerate Learning Now! 

Literacy Strong All Year Long!

Teaching Guided Writing For Success 

Lori Oczkus is a literacy coach, author, and popular speaker across the United States and internationally. Tens of thousands of teachers have attended her motivating, fast paced workshops and read her practical, research-based professional books. She is the author of the best-selling book Reciprocal Teaching at Work (ASCD, 2018) with the foreword by John Hattie. Lori has extensive experience as a bilingual elementary teacher, intervention specialist working with struggling readers, and staff developer and literacy coach. She works with students in classrooms and really knows the challenges that teachers face in teaching students to read! Lori has been inducted in the California Reading Association Hall of Fame for her many contributions to the field of reading in California and internationally.

Some of Lori’s Books and Resources:  

Teaching Guided Writing: Scaffolding for Success QRG (NCTE, 2020)

Close Reading with Paired Texts k-12 Series co-author Tim Rasinski (Shell,2015)

Fabulous Four Comprehension Puppets ( Primary Concepts, 2008) 


Stepping Back-Moving Forward

By Patrick Allen, longtime CCIRA Presenter

Let’s step back for a moment.  Let’s think about our teaching.  Let’s think about the reasons we became teachers in the first place.  

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Colorado.  Summers, circa 1968, were spent riding bikes, digging tunnels, swinging in tire swings… and playing school!  The kids in my neighborhood would load up wagons with books and chalk and crayons and Big Chiefs and travel to the front porch “classrooms” of our friends (and stuffed animals).  Porch school.  Each week or so, a new teacher would take on the role.  If I close my eyes, I can still remember it.  I loved playing school.

Fast forward.  In the fall of 2020, God and COVID willing, I’ll begin my 35th year of teaching.  Three schools.  Approximately 850 students.  Numerous administrators.  Countless colleagues.  I student-taught with a brilliant teacher named Judy Gilkey and we’re still good friends.  I remember my first interview (at the same school).  Laura Harmon, the principal, said to me, “Before you come for your interview, I want you to read Understanding Reading and be ready to talk about it.” (Smith, 1971)  I did. I was.  Laura had incredible insight into learning and leaders and her nudge into Frank Smith’s world remains a building block of my success as a teacher of readers.  That was one of the smartest things anyone has asked me to do.  Prepare.  Know.  Understand.

My teaching journey has been incredible.  Along the way I’ve been influenced by the best of the best, both personally and professionally.  If I tried to name each person whose shoulders I stand on, this blog post would be 27 pages long.  I guess my question is:  Who’s shoulders are you willing to stand on?  

Year 35.  I am moving from fifth grade to second grade.  I am excited about the change in grade levels.  I am excited to learn from colleagues I admire and respect.  I am excited to challenge myself as a learner.  I am excited to dig into the work of the professionals writers I admire who understand the developmental needs of young learners.  Most of all, I am excited to work with burgeoning readers early on in their literacy journey.  

Recently, someone asked me, “What will you do differently?”   Brilliant Question. 

In When Writers Read, Jane Hansen reminds us that our mission is to help learners become better evaluators of their work.  She nudges engagement and encourages independence.  She says that to be effective, readers and writers, need:

  • Voices – need to be honored (all voices)
  • Decisions – decisions rest in the hands of the learner (ultimately)
  • Time – opportunities must be plentiful to “do” and “create” (daily)
  • Response – listening is key (always)
  • Self-Discipline – leads to engagement (proactively) 

(Hansen, 2001)

Voices.  Today, I think it’s as important as ever that we listen to the voices of young people; those that sit in our classrooms, in person or virtually, and those that sit outside our classrooms.  If I’ve learned nothing over the past few months, it’s that my students can and MUST know their world.  The voices of children must ruminate through our instruction and our interactions. 

Decisions.  Decisions must rest in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learner.  In my classroom, hang these words, “Where choice lives, learning prospers!”  It’s true.  Students must be in charge of the decisions they are making as learners – what to read, what to write, what to think about.  It’s my job to set up opportunities.  It’s their job to make the decisions that propel them forward with my support.

Time.  Thoreau says, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.”  We worry so much about time.  I know that large blocks of time give students the opportunity to make wise choices.  Time gives children opportunities to think, grow, and prosper without feeling rushed. 

Response.  I must respond with kindness and curiosity, if I’m going to create a classroom community in which learners thrive and prosper.  I must listen.  Children must, in turn, respond with kindness.  They must listen.  A response is only as good as the effort the listener puts into the situation.  My father used to say, “Look them in the eye.  Gather their thoughts in your head.  Respond with honor and humility.”  See.  Gather.  Respond.  Not bad advice. 

Self-Discipline.  A bold task.  It takes control.  Self-discipline means that one can actively “pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.”  It’s definitely not easy to overcome weaknesses and face difficulties, but that’s what it takes to be self-disciplined.  I think there’s a direct correlation between engagement and self-discipline.  Knowing what you don’t know so you can better understand what you do know.

So, with Jane’s voice in my head, here are the things that will remain constant:

  • The Workshop Structure.  There is no better format for ensuring consistency from day-to-day.  Crafting, composing, and reflecting will sit at the heart of my instruction.
  • Rich Print.  Children deserve to hear and read provocative and thought-provoking text.  They must see themselves in the books they read, but more importantly, they must see the big-wide world in the texts made available to them. 
  • Notebooks.  Children not only need to read every day, they need to write about their reading in wise ways every day.  They also need daily opportunities to write about what they deem important.
  • Talk.  Time to talk in pairs, in small groups, and in one-on-one conferences with me. Conferring is, afterall, the keystone of the reader’s workshop.
  • Thinking Strategies.  Thinking (comprehension) strategies are the glue that binds together days, weeks, the year.  Our work will be grounded in thinking.  Children must learn:  
    • Monitoring for Meaning and Problem Solving
    • Activating, Utilizing and Building Background Knowledge (Schema)
    • Asking Questions
    • Drawing Inferences
    • Creating Sensory Images
    • Determining Importance
    • Synthesizing Information (PEBC, 2014)
  • Engagement.  Thinking through the systems and structure that lead to deep, lasting engagement is critical.  Ellin Keene asks the questions, “What can we do to encourage motivation for students, or better yet, their engagement?” (Keene, 2018).
  • Stamina and Endurance.  Providing opportunities to develop their stamina over time is critical to help nourish and maintain their self-discipline.
  • Community.  Trust, Respect, Tone.  These three notions must continue to serve as “strong bulwarks in my classroom” if I want to “ensure that my classroom is primed and ready for literacy learning to flourish.” (Allen, 2009)

And, here are the things that will change:

  • Brilliance.  Recognizing the brilliance of 7-8 year olds is different than noticing the brilliance of 10-11 year olds.  “Children’s metacognition begins to develop across this age — their ability to know what they need to do to better, learn or understand (e.g., reread a passage, ask a question). They also begin to understand the permanent nature of items.” (Anthony, 2017)  I have got to keep learner’s developmental milestones in mind. 
  • Purposeful Play. “Play is one type of environment where children can be rigorous in their learning.” (Mraz, Porcelli, Tyler, 2016).  Opportunities for play – physical, social, emotional, and intellectual – must be integrated into a young learner’s day.
  • Celebrate Naivate.  There’s a joyous naivate in children, especially young children.  I’ve got to make sure to find time to celebrate the silliness.  Learning to laugh with learners is an important part of working with primary students.  There’s still an innocence to behold.
  • Recognizing Time.  The reckoning of time is important.  Helping students learn to manage their time and to understand how time works is an essential part of the primary grades.  I can develop stamina and endurance, but simultaneously I have to recognize that time is different for young learners. 
  • Scope and Sequence.  My friend, Lori Conrad, taught me long ago, “the scope is what we know children need and the sequence is what we pay attention to when they show us they need it.”  This is especially important with young learners.  No publisher knows our children better than us.

My second grade teacher was MIldred Henrie.  I loved her with all my heart.  She had beautiful white hair piled on top of her head.  Her blue eyes twinkled when she smiled at me and her blue eyes could shoot a glare of “stop that right now!”  But she never raised her voice and she always made me feel like I was the most important person in her world when she sat down beside me.  She turned sixteen the year I had her (Leap Day) and we celebrated with laughter and songs and joy.  It was a beautiful year. 

I guess that the most important thing I’ll keep in mind as I start my 35th year and work with younger learners is that, “Childhood is not preparation for anything.  Childhood just IS, and they only get one.  It’s up to us to protect it!”  (Laminack, 1995).  

It just is.  

Step back and refill your wagon with what’s most important.  I know I will be. 



Allen, Patrick.  Conferring:  The Keystone Of Reader’s Workshop. Stenhouse Publishers. 2009

Anthony, MIchelle.  “Cognitive Development in 6-7 Year Olds.” Scholastic, 2017.

Hansen, Jane.  When Writers Read. Heinemann, 2001.

Keene, Ellin.  Engaging Children:  Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning. Heinemann, 2018.

Laminack, Lester.  Learning with Zachary. Scholastic, 1995.

Mraz, Kristine, Porcelli, Allison, and Tyler, Cheryl.  Purposeful Play:  A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day.  Heinemann, 2016

Public Education and Business Coalition, Thinking Strategies for Learners, PEBC, 2014.

Smith, Frank.  Understanding Reading:  A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading. L. Erlbaum Associates, 1971.

Patrick Allen is a second grade teacher at Frontier Valley Elementary in Parker, Colorado and he has taught in Douglas County Schools for over 30 years.  He is the author of Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop and co-author of Put Thinking to the Test, both with Stenhouse Publishers.  Patrick’s work is highlighted in two video series, “Fact Finders” and “What are You Thinking?” (Stenhouse).  Patrick has worked with the Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC) as a staff developer and his classroom serves as a lab classroom for local and national visitors.  Patrick has presented locally, nationally, and internationally.  He is a regular attendee and presenter at the CCIRA Conference.  Patrick’s wife, Susan, is a first grade teacher.  He has four grown children (his oldest daughter teaches Kindergarten) and one grandson, Ryker.