An Inquiry into Inquiry

By Jessie Meeks

For quite awhile now, I’ve been heartbroken by research that finds that students ask fewer questions the longer they spend in school (Engel, 2013). One of my own students proved this to be true when she said, “We’re so used to answering questions that it might be hard to ask any of our own.” Sadly, schools seem to be squelching our students’ innate curiosity into nonexistence!

As it turns out, though, curiosity makes a huge difference to students’ retention of learning and motivation to learn. As Wendy L. Ostroff pointed out in Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms (2016), when we’re curious about something, we not only remember the information about which we’re curious, but we also remember unrelated information that we simultaneously encounter. It’s no wonder that curious students score higher on standardized tests (Goodwin, 2014). And question asking actually makes students more motivated to learn. When faced with curiosity, we feel a drive “to answer the questions tickling our mind” (Harvey & Daniels, 2015, p. 11), which provides us with “espresso shots of intrinsic motivation to learn” (Goodwin, 2014, pg. 73). Inspired by the power of curiosity and question asking, I undertook an action research project into student inquiry. The work my third grade students did with me last year led to five important shifts in my classroom that help honor students’ questions.

Shift 1: A question rich environment

To develop a more “question rich” environment, I started by placing a Wonder Wall (Daniels, 2017) in our room and gave students a chance to explore their wonders for a half hour every day. On a Wonder Wall, students can post any questions that they have about the world (Why are pigs pink?) or about our content (How old are metamorphic rocks?) From these wonders, students might choose a question they would like to explore more in depth, such as the student who decided to answer the question she had posted about what skin is. And, boy, did the opportunity to answer their own interesting questions give the kids that espresso shot of motivation! I had a waiting list for presentations that went on for weeks, and every Wednesday I inwardly celebrated how excited kids were to share and to view research presentations on everything from the closest relatives to dinosaurs to what blacksmiths do.

Having structures in our classroom that honored students’ questions felt like a great starting place. I knew I wanted to take that work further, though. Student inquiry seems almost natural in a subject like science, but what if you could do inquiry in a subject like reading? Then you would be able to do inquiry anywhere! So my students’ curiosity became a driving force in our Reading Workshop and led to some more dramatic shifts.


Shift 2: Student questions drive the Reading Workshop

We began each reading unit with a session for students to ask questions about the unit’s driving idea. My coach and I crafted these questions based on the unit’s essential learnings. We started our first unit of the year with the question “What’s my role as a member of our reading community?”

There are several research-based ways for structuring question-generating sessions for students. After some trial and error, which included trying the Question Formulation Technique out of Harvard’s School of Education, I landed on a procedure adapted from John Barell’s Developing More Curious Minds (2005). He suggests starting an inquiry with a KWHLAQ chart like the one shown below.

In addition to the pieces of your typical KWL chart, our class discussed how kids would find the answers, how they would apply the learning, and what lingering questions they had (not shown on the example above). These last three pieces created the third and fourth shifts that happened in our classroom.

Shift 3: Authentically demonstrating the learning

Knowing that their learning was going to be shared and would matter to someone else helped my students generate enthusiasm for the work that we did together. Throughout the year they chose many interesting ways to demonstrate their learning. By October they had already written and performed plays for the second graders about how to be a productive member of a reading community. They made websites to recommend similar-themed books and advertised the websites to other students through the use of QR codes. And to share what they knew about literary theories and to continue to explore how others think and write about literature, they crafted and sent an email to Peter H. Reynolds (to which he kindly replied within 12 hours!).

Shift 4: Students drive the content of mini lessons

As the year started, I was a bit terrified when my students said they wanted to find the answers to their questions in ways that went beyond the thoroughly planned Lucy Calkins mini lessons I normally taught. Pushing my worries aside, we researched videos, discussed answers to students’ interview questions for adult readers, traded strategies with fourth grade readers, and researched ourselves as readers.


Each time I used student suggestions for our lessons, I connected the work to the questions the kids had asked and the suggestions they had given. For example, when students needed a lesson about adding craft to nonfiction writing, I made sure they knew we were answering E.G.’s question. When we watched a video to investigate how nonfiction reading should sound in our head and, therefore, how we should write it, I let K.H. know her idea inspired the lesson. Soon, modifying the Units of Study in response to my students’ ideas would go to a whole new level.

Shift 5: Problem-based lessons

My stance toward lessons was evolving. This evolution started simply, with my language. I stopped introducing my teaching point with “Today I want to teach you…;” instead, I introduced our learning goal with “Today, let’s investigate…”

Then, using inspiration from Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading (2017), I began to flip some typical I-Do-We-Do-You-Do mini lessons on their head. Instead, during the lessons kids discovered which reading strategies worked best, and I noticed and named what they were doing. For a couple of lessons, I even tried out a math-inspired, problem-based approach (Sussman, 2017). Groups of students worked to answer the question: Where do mystery authors hide clues? Each group presented their answers so that we could build a collaborative understanding of how hidden clues work in the mystery genre. The best part? These groups were able to name all of the key understandings that I would have taught them, but they did it collaboratively and in a way that tapped into their sense of curiosity.

Curious About the Outcome

To progress monitor my students’ growth as curious people, I developed a curiosity assessment and learning progression. Using a See Think Wonder format, students looked at a picture from National Geographic and wrote about what they observed, what ideas they had about the unfamiliar image, and what questions they had related to it. I then scored their work using the progression (see below). By the end of the year, every single student either stayed at the higher levels or had gone up to the next level on the progression. Incredibly, only one student in one area (Brainstorm ideas & solutions) stayed at the Not Really Curious level!


The “soft” data felt even more satisfying. Parents shared with me that their kids were excited about their work at school and were asking interesting questions at home (Why do people speak different languages? Who made up words?). I saw the same in class. Many, many days brought joyful celebrations of the powerful work and deep thinking kids were doing. But above all, I had a sense that more students owned their learning, and the blank stare no longer had a place in our room.

Jessie Meeks is a third-grade teacher at Maple Grove Elementary in Golden, Colorado. She has a board member of JCIRA and a member of the 2019 CCIRA Conference Committee. Jessie started teaching while she was earning her Masters of Arts in English at the University of Maine. She started working at Maple Grove in 2007, while going to school to earn a Masters in Elementary Education. Teaching literacy is one of her passions.

Barell, J. (2005). Developing more curious minds. Heatherton, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Daniels, H. (2017). The curious classroom: 10 structures for teaching with student-directed inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Engel, S. (2013). The case for curiosity. Educational Leadership,70(5), 36-40.

Goodwin, B. (2014). Research says curiosity is fleeting, but teachable. Educational Leadership,72(1), 73-74.1

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2015). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles for curiosity, engagement, and understanding. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ostroff, W. L. (2016). Cultivating curiosity in K-12 classrooms. ASCD.

Sussman, D. (2017). Reading, writing,… and arithmetic? Educational Leadership,75(2), 76-80.

Vinton, V. (2017). Dynamic teaching for deeper reading: Shifting to a problem-based approach. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.




A Well-Balanced Diet

By Shawna Coppola, 2019 CCIRA Featured Speaker

I am often asked by colleagues how to help their students break out of comfortable habits as readers and writers in order to facilitate new discoveries, provide greater challenge, and broaden their horizons. As someone who enjoys the security and steadfastness of reading the same kinds of texts (memoir, true crime, YA) and writing within a limited pool of forms and genres (memoir, essays, comics), I understand both students’ desire to stick with what’s “working” for them as well as teachers’ desire–and often, the outside pressure–to nudge students toward a more “well-rounded” reading and writing identity.

It is important to tread lightly when doing this work. Many of the literacy giants whose shoulders we continue to stand on have made a rock-hard case for providing students with lots of choice around their reading and writing (Guthrie & Humenick, 2014, Kittle, 2013; Krashen, 2011; Graves, 1985), which, many have argued, leads to both greater motivation to read and write as well as greater gains in reading and writing “achievement.” (I put the word “achievement” in quotes because I find that many of our collective ideas around what constitutes literacy achievement are problematic, but that’s another discussion for another time.) However, it is also important to note that many readers, in particular, may not fully comprehend what they are “missing” when they stick to a small number of forms, topics, and genres. For example, in my almost two decades of being a literacy educator, I have noticed that many readers who identify as male read very few texts in which the main character is female, just as few readers who identify as White tend to self-choose texts that feature a protagonist of color. In addition, many of my colleagues have reported–and I myself have witnessed–that when given choice about what to write, a great number of students stick with the same old “tried and true” topics, forms, and genres, whether we’re talking about kindergartners writing picture books about families and other relationships or third graders writing Minecraft comics (soooo many Minecraft comics).

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So what do we do? How can we continue to honor student choice while also nudging students toward choices that will significantly broaden their literacy horizons?

One suggestion is to consider student choices around reading and writing using a reflective or inquiry lens. Encourage students to ask questions about their choices as a reader and a writer–questions like, “What genres do I tend to read? What topics do I tend to write about? Do I notice any patterns in my literacy practices? Where are there gaps in my practice?” This form, which my colleagues and I used with third and fourth grade students last Spring, is just one of many, many ways that you might invite students to reflect on their choices.

Another suggestion is to use identity as a driving lens through which to consider the kinds of reading and writing choices students make. Two big questions that teachers and students can use all year long are, “Who am I as a reader? Who am I as a writer?” Understanding that our identities are fluid and dynamic, we can use these reflections to create goals that can help us develop our identities as readers and writers over the course of a semester or school year.

Finally, we can use the metaphor of a “well-balanced diet” to help us more effectively balance our reading and writing lives. In this post I wrote for my blog, My So-Called Literacy Life, I encourage educators to “milk the food analogy” by comparing the nutritional benefits of eating a wide variety of foods to the cognitive benefits of reading different text types/modalities–and I would add, by reading a wide variety of topics representing a wide variety of lives and experiences. We can do this with writing as well, using play as a driving reason to “try out” different kinds of topics, genres, craft moves, and forms in our writers’ notebooks (Buckner, 2004).

We can do both–we can honor students’ choices around their literacy practices while also nudging them toward a wider, more balanced set of experiences as readers and writers. In doing so, however, let’s remember that our role as educators is not just to attempt to justify the benefits of this kind of nudging, but–ultimately–to model it ourselves.


Shawna Coppola is a literacy specialist with almost two decades of public school teaching experience. She has worked as a K-6 literacy specialist/coach, a language arts teachers for students in grades 6-8, and a children’s librarian. Coppola is a national speaker, a member of The Educator Collaborative, and the author of RENEW! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher from Stenhouse Publishers, which you can preview here. Her next book for Stenhouse is due out in the fall of 2019–yay!


The Co-Teaching Kaleidoscope

By Anne Beninghof, Featured Speaker at the 2019 CCIRA Conference

Kaleidoscopes are the perfect metaphor for co-teaching. A kaleidoscope is a tube of mirrors that contains loose beads or small objects that can vary in color and size. By turning the tube, an unlimited number of combinations occur to create unique designs. The colors and shapes shift easily to produce a new picture, a new blending of ingredients. The possibilities are endless. So it is with co-teaching. When two adults work closely together to teach a heterogeneous group of students, the classroom portrait will be unique and ever-changing, based on the students, the curriculum and the strengths each person contributes to the picture. Partnerships might form between the classroom teacher and a literacy specialist, a special educator, an ELL specialist, a technology teacher or even two general education teachers. The arrangements are almost endless.

Whatever your partnership, designing the best possible picture requires intentional discussions between you. The following Top 12 questions guide this conversation.

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  1. How will we introduce ourselves to our students? To parents? How do we explain co-teaching?
  2. What format will we use for lesson planning?
  3. When and where will we meet for co-planning and reflection?
  4. What formative and summative assessment data will we collect? Where will we keep this information?
  5. Will there be a designated space (desk, storage) in the room for the second teacher?
  6. How will we arrange the room?
  7. How will sub plans reflect our co-teaching relationship?
  8. What classroom routines do we want to establish (restroom breaks, students late to class, missing assignments, attendance, pencil sharpening)?
  9. What behavior management practices will we have in place? How will we respond to inappropriate behavior?
  10. Which methods of communication will work best for us (email, text, wikis, phone, face-to-face, online)?
  11. How will we handle correspondence: parents, newsletters, emails, report cards?
  12. What pet peeves do we each have?

Successful co-teaching requires effective communication. As the year progresses, you may need to have courageous conversations. Perhaps a pet peeve has arisen that you didn’t think to talk about and it is starting to really annoy you. Perhaps a student’s behavior plan is not being implemented with fidelity, causing a lack of success. Perhaps you recognize a significant difference in your literacy practices. Open, honest, professional discussions are necessary to become a highly effective co-teaching team. Return to these Top 12 questions a few times throughout the year to reflect on your practices and adjust where necessary. Just as a kaleidoscope image changes with a new twist, so will your co-teaching arrangements.

Anne M. Beninghof, an internationally recognized consultant and trainer, has more than thirty 35 years of experience working with students and teachers. In her teaching, presenting and writing, Anne focuses on creative, practical solutions for more effectively including students with diverse learning needs in general education classrooms. You can follow Anne’s blog @, on Facebook @ Ideas for Educators, or on Twitter @annebeninghof.



Go Slow to Go Fast

By Shelly Schuckers

Starting the school year off always presents a challenge of priorities.  Whether you are a brand new teacher wanting to have the perfect bulletin boards while scavenging the “free tables” for supplies, the veteran teacher wanting to be the first to get their copies made, or the veteran new-hire wanting to figure out their role in their new team,  the need for more time is the first bond that brings you together. Everything feels rushed until you are sitting in the annual staff meeting going over the handbook of procedures…then time seems to stop as you contemplate the best place to go to lunch. Good times.

Take a deep breath.  Inhale the scent of freshly sharpened pencils and recycled air.  The year isn’t made or lost in the first few days…however, how you start will impact your sanity.  Give yourself permission to take your time. Those of us that spent part of the summer drooling over the Food Network might understand this better as the “mise en place” which simply means having everything ready before your start.  Get to know your people…your curriculum…your building. Dig through and unpack your shelves. Organize yourself now because once those kids show up, there will not be time. This is the time to prep more than your lessons…you need to prep your life.

There are two important segments to your school year prep…the “before student” and “just kids” contract hours.  I am offering a few suggestions that will assist you in your literacy success as well as the general fluidity of your school year.  I am well aware that this list is not all-inclusive, however, it is my sincere hope that it helps you and your team. The “before student” (I will refer to this time as BS) time is probably the most crucial for anyone using a new literacy curriculum or philosophy. This is what our building did this year under the guidance of our school designer and administrator.  I did tweak some of the curriculum specific items but overall this is the process our grade level teams used to reflect on our curriculum.


  • How well do you and your team understand your curriculum?


      • Does each team member have the materials they need?
      • Can each teammate access the resources from last year?
      • Does each team member have a basic understanding of the materials?
      • What supports do new teachers need from returning staff?


  • How does the literacy curriculum fit in with the rest of your day?


      • Can the literacy be flexible to other content (science, social studies, math…)
      • Are there any pieces/parts to the unit(s) that we are NOT going to teach?


  • What do your assessments look like?


      • Is everyone clear on student outcomes?
      • How is the data used? How is it collected?
      • What outside assessments are there? (DIBELS, NWEA, iReady, etc)
    • How is your team going to maintain consistency?
      • Projects
      • Short Assignments
      • Rubrics
      • Criteria lists


  • How can you design your instruction for the best outcomes(backwards design)?
  • Are we all clear on where we are going with this unit? (grading, outcomes, planning, etc)


    • How are we going to differentiate? (ELL, SPED, Gifted, etc)


Reference:  Beginning of year agenda from our principal and school designer at Bea Underwood Elementary 2018.

Now, once all the BS is in place it is crucial that students are also given time to become familiar with your expectations.  This is the “just kids” (referred to as JK) part of your preparations. Most students are new to you and you are new to them.  All they know of you is your name and maybe the gossip from some former students. All you know of them is their names and maybe the gossip from former teachers.  Just like your curriculum, your need to figure each other out. Before quality literacy (really any learning) can happen you need to turn those 24 individuals into a crew that work under that same flag. It is truly just about the kids.

There are two excellent resources that I have used to help this become a sanity-saving Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 11.23.10 PMreality.  The first is called Teach To’s by Rick Dahlgren.  It is filled with basic behavior expectations from the mundane (how to line up) to the critical (fire drills).  No matter how wonderful your lesson plans are, if students don’t know the fundamental routines within and outside of your classroom, you will find yourself doing damage control in the form of discipline and lesson interruptions.  Taking the JK time to go ov

er and practice these simple routines will free up the rest of your year to quality, uninterrupted instruction.

The second resource is specific to your literacy block.  I lived by this book when I was in the classroom. It showed me that it is not how quickly you get to small groups and instruction but how e

ffective it can be when the students know what they are supposed to do.  This book is The Daily 5: Fostering Literacy in the Elementary Grades by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser  The “sisters” simply introduce each independen


t activity with purpose and rigor.  Students are expected to build stamina and celebrated when they succeed. Like the Teach To‘s book, the expectations are laid out with the students so that they not only understand the teacher’s expectations but they also have ownership of their learning.  Even if you do not use the “daily five” within your literacy 


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block the idea of laying out the steps and expectations for your students will all but guarantee successful literacy lessons, especially when the students are doing independent work.  

There are several blogs and resources on the “go slow to go fast” philosophy.  If you would like to dig deeper into this way of thinking one book is Go Slow to Go Fast by Damian Pitts.  There are also several blogs that advise of the benefits of slowing down in the beginning.  

So, this year, my wish for you and your team is that you can “go slow to go fast.”  Give yourselves permission to take the time to perfect the small things. Build relationships with your colleagues and students.  Enjoy each other. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the year.
Shelly Schuckers, president of Tall Timbers,  has been working for Bea Underwood Elementary for 21 years in a variety of positions including kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, ½ multiage, ⅔ multiage, 4th grade, art teacher, literacy coach, reading interventionist and ELL interventionist.  Currently she is the art teacher as well as assisting with reading/ELL intervention. Shelly and her husband are busy adapting to their new roles of Army parents/empty nesters in Parachute, Colorado with their pack of dogs.


A Writing Lesson that Works

A Writing Lesson that “works” for English Language Learners:  Finding their voice

By Debbie Arechiga

A writer goes through a remarkable journey in their lifetime.  Writing begins with the earliest forms of written representation whether it is scribbles, marks, or partially formed pictures, and over time, progresses to eloquently written prose.  Composing text is one of the more cognitively demanding tasks required of our students.  The task involves cognitive, physical, linguistic and content skills.  Yet, at the same time, the writer has to consider the audience and purpose of communication. The spoken word is often fleeting and is always in a state of revision; we repeat, rehearse, change thoughts quickly, self-correct often without conscious attention, use the same words over and over, use words incorrectly often without knowing, and the list could go on!  Yet, the written word is permanent in that it represents a writer’s thought at a certain moment in time.  Certainly, a writer can make changes but in the early stages, the effort of going from thoughts to forming a word and then a complete thought takes so much energy that changing the form is not a reasonable expectation.  So what does all of this mean for how we approach writing instruction with our English Language Learners?

  1. If learning to speak a new language is a trial and error process then learning to write in that new language will evolve in much the same way.
  2. Commit to the process:  Celebrate the writer’s attempts and encourage every step of the way.  In other words, teach the writer, not the writing!
  3. Believe that the writer is capable of performing the writing task through your actions and words.  Demonstration is the most powerful tool for learning something new!

As a literacy consultant I am blessed with the opportunity to demonstrate lessons in teachers’ classrooms.  I want to share a writing lesson that I have taught with great success in classrooms where students haven’t yet found their voices as writers. So many of our students find writing a daunting task especially when trying to overcome the “writing as you speak” stage of writing.  To learn the craft and feel comfortable as a writer takes a lifetime.  Our English Language Learners deserve writing experiences where they can observe and interact with a teacher demonstrating writing techniques and have the tools to make attempts with this skill under the guidance of supportive teachers.  Too often, we expect too much…  too soon.. with minimal support.  The result is a classroom full of passive learners, afraid to take risks, confused and frustrated about the process.

This lesson was developed in response to the common questions received in dialogue with teachers about this topic.  How can I help my students write with more detail?  What is the secret to helping students develop topics more fully and write with more voice?  My students write with the same boring sentences… what do I do?  While reading Georgia Heard’s book, Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary Classrooms,  it occurred to me that our students, especially our English Language Learners, need to dig into their feelings and experience emotion in order to discover their voice as a writer.  This lesson is an adaptation of one of her ideas found within this book: Four Room Poem:  Writing to an object.

It is obvious as I walk into the room that students will have opportunities to engage in their learning. Students are seated in small groups next to writing partners so to encourage the language of writers – talking through ideas – so crucial to getting ideas on the paper.  I walk around the room handing out various objects one at a time from my shopping bag.  I pose a few questions:  “When I hand you this object will you take some time to feel it, smell it, and describe it to your partner.” The motivation is high and the room is buzzing with quality talk about the sights, smells and feelings of their objects. Every object is different ranging from small toys, school tools to home necessities. It only took me about 15 minutes to gather enough objects laying around my house for this lesson – it’s amazing how quickly something useless can be used for something purposeful!  “You have noticed that I have placed an object on your desk and I bet you are wondering why… Today, you are going to write to an object.  I post the objectives written from the first person perspective so that each student can take ownership for their learning today.

I will plan and draft a descriptive poem about an object.

I will express my own thinking and ideas by participating in partner discussion.

This may sound odd talking to something that is not real like a person but you will quickly discover that there are many ways we can talk about and write to an object.  I have placed a paper divided into four squares on your desk, please take your paper and number it into four rooms like mine…  We will be writing something different in each of these rooms.  I have an object in this bag yet I am not going to show you because I want you to see if you can guess what it is through the use of my words on the page.  As writers we must learn to show and not just tell.”  Using one student as an example,  “Rather than just tell me that you have a necklace, we will write in specific ways to show others what makes this object unique.  In the first room I demonstrate for the students how I am going to write a description of my object by telling you what I see, feel, or smell.

Room #1 - Description
Round like an orange

As I write more words I mention how I can compare my object to something else like by telling you that it is round like an orange. “Maybe some of you can compare your object to something else. Now Writers, will you talk with your partner and describe your object by telling them the color and size of your object. Maybe you can think of a word that describes how it feels when you touch it.”  As I walk the room I help students use their language of description and quickly put it on the paper.  One of the ELL students grins with confidence when he realizes that he naturally used a simile with his words, “flat like a pancake”. I always carry around some sticky notes so that I can quickly write down some language that a student uses that will help them “hold” that idea for their writing.  I call these sticky notes, “vocabulary holders”.    I move on to Room number two where I model for students how to write the action to best describe what their object does.  We have a short conversation about verbs and I ask them to underline the action word(s) once it is written down.

Room #2 - Action
Bounces high in the air
Rolls on the ground

In room three, students talk to their object.  I ask students to think about some questions that they would ask their object or maybe there is something important that your object needs to know.  The students find this task appealing and a bit funny.  I demonstrate my thinking as I write down my conversation with my object.

Room #3 – Talk to your object
Why do you spin so fast? 
Why can’t I hit you all the time? 
You better watch out for those rackets.

I ask students to take some time to talk to their object.  This exercise really helps bring out their true voices as a writer.  By breaking the task into four separate rooms, students are able to focus on one craft of good writing at a time – in the first room: description, in the second room: using precise verbs, the third and fourth room: writing with voice using emotion and feelings.

In the fourth room, I ask students to consider a memory, wish or a feeling that they have about their object.  I model three different possibilities.  If I were wishing something I might say, “I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.”  My feeling would be, “I am thrilled when you help me win a game.”  Can you think of more feeling words than sad, mad and glad?  We generate a few different feeling words. If I were writing a memory about this object I would say, “I remember when I first learned to hit you with my racket.”

Room #4 – A memory, wish or feeling
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.  
I remember when I first learned to hit you with my racket.

By this time students have figured out my object and I remind them of all of the words I used to “show” them rather than “tell” them that I had a tennis ball.  As I walk around the room I remind students that they might start their writing with phrases like “I wish.. or I remember…”  Supporting writers with language probes helps our English Language Learners find the proper syntax for communicating their ideas. 

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The energy in the room is growing. Students are all abuzz about their writing – very excited to share their writing.  The lesson could easily culminate for the day after the completion of their plans but I take the opportunity to show the visiting teachers and this group of students how to take their four rooms and write a free verse poem.  In your classroom you may divide this lesson over two days.

“Writers, now that you have four rooms where you have spent time writing to and about your object, let me show you how to take your great ideas and create a free verse poem.”  This class has discussed elements of poetry and they understand that all poetry does not need to rhyme.  “My job as a writer is to take a look in all four rooms and decide how to put these ideas into a coherent piece that makes sense and communicates my ideas.  Lets see…. (I begin to think-aloud to show my students how I think about how to organize my ideas.) I am going to start with the third room where I talk to the object.  I like the idea of starting with my questions.  I begin to draft…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?

I think I will write my description of the object from my first room next…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,

You notice that I can decide if I want to put a capital on every line to begin and what punctuation I will use.  You have a lot of freedom when you write free verse poetry because as the author you determine the form and flow of your piece.  I think it makes sense to put in my action words next…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,

As a writer I constantly reread my piece to listen to how the ideas flow together. Let’s read it together… What do you think?  I think I am ready to finish with my feeling and my wish about this object.  Which should I put first?  The class likes the idea of ending with my feeling so I draft…


Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.

I am going to finish my piece by naming the object at the end of the poem.

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.
A tennis ball. 

In the debriefing with several teachers after the lesson, they are amazed at student’s output.  We discuss what makes this lesson work for all learners.  Some key ideas surface:

  1. Motivation occurs when students have opportunities to write with purpose and have some knowledge of the topic! (in this instance, writing to a concrete object.)
  2. Engagement with the writing experience occurs through ample opportunities for talk with their peers and feedback from the teacher.
  3. Writers need four variables in place to feel successful – knowledge of some content; vocabulary to express their ideas; structure to guide and help break down the task; and an ease with conventions, initially, to help ease the flow of ideas.  All four variables were met in this lesson.

The beauty in this type of lesson is the writer can carry what is learned or experimented with today toward future writing experiences.  You can compare this idea to that of a seed that scatters and spreads to sprout in new places.  For example, students have a better idea of how to paint a picture with their words using attributes in a narrative piece.  Students can think in new ways about how to end a piece with a memory, wish or a feeling.

Debbie Arechiga spent almost 20 years in Tucson, AZ  as a classroom teacher, teacher mentor and staff developer before branching out as an independent consultant with Tools for Literacy.   She has been a presenter at many national conferences and is recognized by those who have worked with her as a true practitioner in the field of literacy. In 2005, she received her masters in the Art of Teaching from Grand Canyon University.  Debbie is recognized for her abilities to help schools and districts make rapid strides in student achievement with children of poverty and children learning a second language.  She just recently published her first book, Reaching English Language Learners in Every Classroom: Energizers for Teaching and Learning. 

Students Won’t Read? Start with Their Beliefs

By Dave Stuart, Jr.

For reading in any course to matter as much as it can, the students have to 1) do the reading, and 2) do the reading actively, with care (e.g., asking questions, looking up new terms, taking notes).

Many teachers — myself included — encounter a few common situations in which kids don’t naturally do this with the reading we’d ask them to do:

  • They do it, but barely. Caleb was a locker reader. He’d show up to school each morning, get out the assigned world history reading, and scramble through it during the ten minutes before his first hour class started with me. He did it, but not with care.
  • They don’t do it, but they pretend they do. (Often called “fake reading.”) Kids like Caleb end up in this category when there is no consequence or reward attached to reading. By giving frequent, low-stakes quizzes to my students, I’m able to push Caleb into the “do it but barely” category, and when I slack off on giving quizzes, Caleb and his peers slip into this one.
  • They don’t do it, and they don’t pretend that they do. All kinds of things can cause this, but you know what I’m talking about.

I often see teachers and edu-authors respond to these scenarios by calling for curricular change — Less reading and more doing! Less teacher-selected texts and more student-selected ones! I can empathize with and respect these approaches, but I think they are often founded on foggy notions of what actually makes a young person 1) do the reading, and 2) do it with care. Before we jump to radical shifts, we need to better understand what’s happening in our learners.

These are the five things that determine whether or not a child will 1) do the reading and 2) do it with care in my classroom, and in yours.


Does the child believe I am a good teacher? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do what I ask. So if I say, “Hey, work really, really, really hard on your reading,” she’ll be more likely to do that if she thinks I’m a good teacher. Or if I instead say, “Hey, here’s why I’d like you to read this text, and here’s how I’d like you to read it, and now let me teach you how to read in that active and purposeful way that we’re after,” then she’ll be more likely to do those things.

What I’m trying to illustrate with those two examples is that teacher credibility isn’t a magic bullet — it’s only as powerful as the teaching behind it. The most credible teacher in the world who just tells a kid to “work, work, work” isn’t going to get as much long-term flourishing potential out of that kid as the moderately credible one who is exceptionally clear about the What-Why-How of every reading assignment.

There’s no escaping the need to be a fundamentally good teacher. Ditch the distractions and start investing here and now.

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Does the child think of herself as the kind of person who reads things like this? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do it. Daphna Oysermanhas a beautiful term — “identity-congruent behavior.” People like doing identity-congruent things — things that line up with their sense of who they are. A good line to use here is, “People like us do things like this.”

Belonging, like all the five beliefs, is hugely malleable, and it shifts based on where we are and who we’re with. This is good news: even if a child hates reading in history class, she need not hate it in English or science.


Does the child believe that she can get better at reading through her own effort? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do it, especially when her teacher does a good job gradually ramping up reading demands as the year progresses. It’s not just about effort here — it’s about smart effort. Strategic effort. This is where the teacher comes in: “Hey, I’ve read a lot of things. I know how to do this strategically. Let me show you.”


Does she think she can succeed at this? Or here’s an even more important question: can she? The teacher has the tough job of deciding where the line is between challenging and worthy and too hard and a waste of time. In the early years of my AP course, the students read through the whole college-level textbook over the course of the year. It was too much and it was too hard and it was not worthy (because the text wasn’t written in the straightforward, helpful teaching fashion that my ninth-grade students deserved). So, what happened? A lot of kids fake read.

As I learned which content mattered most in getting my kids to mastery of the course material, I started assigning smaller chunks each night, and then I started using excerpts from various texts.

Administrators: This is why you need to do all in your power to let teachers do the same work, year after year. You’ve got to give them the conditions within which to get wise about the work. I understand that it’s difficult and requires out of the box thinking.

Teachers: This is is why we must work so hard to focus, despite the ceaseless distractions that permeate our lives. There aren’t shortcuts — it’s just sustained engagement with the work.

We must make success challenging and manageable.


Does she think this matters to her life? The value belief is my favorite because of the diverse paths through which human beings come to value things. Some are motivated by grades, others by the entertainment value of reading.

What we want is for them to value learning, to value mastery, to value every day of their lives so that they won’t let an assignment become wasted. “Yes, I don’t particularly care about the topic of this week’s AoW, but I care about learning, and I know that Mr. Stuart wouldn’t have given it to me unless he thought it was important, so I’m going to apply myself to this.” Kids who think like that don’t fall into our three problem categories: they do the reading and do it with care because they believe it matters.

The Gist

Before you change the curriculum, analyze the five key beliefs. That way, you’ll make better and more effective changes.


Bio: Dave Stuart Jr. has been teaching English and world history for more than a decade. His blog on teaching,, is read by over 35,000 colleagues per month. His new book, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most, aims to help teachers accomplish more with their students by focusing in on six key areas of practice.  Follow him on Twitter at

Media Literacy vs. Fake News

By Meenoo Rami

For most of us, since the election of 2016, we start each day with fear, an almost out-of-body experience predicated on “What else can go wrong?” We stare our screens in horror as each day brings more bad news than the day before. Our body politic is unwell, we are unable to have a civil dialogue, to disagree. We are being further divided by trolls on the internet. As author Michiko Kakutani writes in her new book, The Death of Truth describes our contemporary civic life as “as people locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines’. As educators who have taught 1984  and Animal Farm to countless students, we are even more keenly aware of danger flags that make people susceptible to lies, misinformation, and further divide.

The Washington Post estimates that our president lies on average about 9 times a day.  In these times when truth depends on your filter bubble, it is more important than ever that we teach our students to be critical thinkers. As we look ahead to the new school year ahead of us, the imperative to furnish our students with media literacy skills is stronger than ever. Our students need us to help them gain the skills to analyze, evaluate, and critically examine endless amounts of information that can be easily accessed through the phone in their pocket. If we fail to seize this moment for critical thought, and guarding against anti-intellectualism sentiment that is strong in our country, then we fail our students. We fail them in becoming sharp, independent thinkers who are engaged in the work of caring for the world.

From flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, to armies of faithful ones committed to gospel according to InfoWars, or Breitbart, there are endless examples of lack of understanding of science or inability to adhere to logic creates waves of misinformation that pull others in its tides. Here are two examples to share with students if you want to begin a dialogue about “Fake News” and the peril of forgoing doing one’s own research and fact-checking.

The first example comes from NFL team Seattle Seahawks, when the defensive end for the team Michael Bennett was accused of burning the American flag, while the coach Pete Caroll looked on with glee. The image was photoshopped, yet some chose to believe the lies that a flag burning took place in their locker-room. The  two images are included below for you to share with your students. You can also ask students to identify other examples of “Fake News” that spread via a social network but were later debunked.

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The next example comes from India. In India, nearly 13.7 Billion WhatsApps messages are sent everyday. With cost of smart phones falling and data becoming cheaper, it has become a hub where the second most populated country gathers and chats. During the election cycle it is normal for a typical person to receive 1000 WhatsApp messages encouraging them to cast a vote for a specific candidate or party. When the largest democracy relies on learning about candidates in this way, things can go wrong very quickly as they did in the recent election cycle. The New York Times recently reported that, “Right-wing Hindu groups employed WhatsApp to spread a grisly video that was described as an attack on a Hindu woman by a Muslim mob but was in fact a lynching in Guatemala.”

The work of teaching young people to be independent and critical thinkers is not small or easy, but it is the work of our present times.

How do we begin this work of Media Literacy? Here are some examples and places to begin:

Let me know your thoughts on this post and please share your resources for teaching media literacy in the comments below.

Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive, is a national board certified teacher who taught students English in Philadelphia for ten years, at the Science Leadership Academy and in other public schools in the city. The founder of #engchat, an international Twitter chat for English teachers, Meenoo is a teacher-consultant for the National Writing Project and an instructor in Arcadia University’s Connected Learning Certificate Program. Meenoo has also served as a teaching fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she led the portfolio to help teachers refine their practice through collaboration. Currently, Meenoo works as Manager for Minecraft Education at Microsoft where she helps educators, districts, and organizations reimagine game-based learning for classroom practice. Follow Meenoo on Twitter @meenoorami.