These Kids, Our Kids

By Pernille Ripp

She tells us that she is not smart.  That school is not a place she wants to go to because that’s where all the smart kids go.  The ones who can read.  The ones who can do things so much easier than her.

She shows us that she is trying.  That every word that sits in front of her is a mountain to be climbed, seemingly no matter how many times she has seen it before, the climb is still there.  The doubt is still there.  The wanting to give up, because “This so hard, Mommy..” and we tell her to sound it out, to try again, to see the letters, even as they move and squiggle and run away from her eyes as she tries once again.  Everything taking twice as long as her twin brother.  Everything coming at a price of time that seemingly no other child has to give up because to them it just comes easy.

So we search for answers, for teachers who see the girl before they see the problem, for others who like us, sit with a child where reading does not come easy.  Where reading is not a magical adventure but instead dreaded work that doesn’t bring happiness but only affirmation of her supposed lack of can.  And we get the doctors involved and they tell us their diagnosis and I cry in the meeting because wouldn’t it have been nice if it wasn’t a specific learning disorder but instead just something that hadn’t clicked?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if we had it all wrong and she had us all fooled?  Wouldn’t it have been nice?

So we sit down with our little girl, who really isn’t so little anymore, and tell her that we did get answers and as we thought it turns out her brain just learns differently.  That reading is, indeed, hard to figure out but not impossible.  That now that we know more, we can do more, we can get help, we can get support, and we can go in the right direction rather than searching in the dark hoping for something to help us.  We can tell she doesn’t believe us, not yet, anyway.

And as summer unfolds, we hope that having this time can give us the time we need to build her back up, not because anyone tore her down, but because this mountain of reading has been telling her for too long that she is not as good as she thought she was.  And once those whispers started they were awfully hard to drown out when the proof is right there in front of her on the page.

And I think of how the systems of school play into this self-evaluation.  How the grades and the labels so often harm.  How we, as educators, sometimes confuse good grades with dedication, as if a child who is failing a class isn’t dedicated?  As if all a child needs is to just work harder, or hard enough because then the learning will surely come, and how for some of our kids, that is simply not true.  That I can see my child work hard.  That I can see my child stay at the table longer.  That I can see my child give her best every single day.  That I can see my child get extra teaching, tutoring outside of school, and yet the results don’t come because it turns out that hard work doesn’t always equal results.

And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones working the hardest if we really had to compare.

And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones pulled out of recess and fun activities in order to go work more.

And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones given fewer opportunity for choice because it turns out that when you need extra support we have to cut something out of your schedule.

And these kids, our kids, sit with the same kids year after year, traveling as a group because the only thing we have identified them by is their lack of ability.

And these kids, our kids notice.

And these kids, our kids, know it.

And these kids, our kids, feel it.

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Photo courtesy of Janko Ferlič

And these kids, our kids, slowly start to take on the new identities we have created for them in our data meetings, in our hallway conversations, in our quick meetups when we make our lists, where we make our groups, where we share the stories that we think define these kids.

And these kids, our kids, are honored for their efforts by being given new names; struggling readers, lower level learners, behind, and you wonder how they lose themselves in the process.

And you wonder why one day, despite our best intentions, they tell us that they don’t think they are smart and that they don’t want to go to school.

So as my family once again adjusts itself in our pursuit of learning for all.  As we celebrate the answers we have been given this week while nurturing the child who is at the center of it all, I ask you to please consider this.  My child, our daughter, is not a struggling reader, she is a reader.  Period.  To tell her otherwise would break her heart.

And so these kids, our kids, deserve to be fully spoken about, to be fully known.  For us to start a conversation asking how they see themselves and if it is through a negative lens we actively fight against that.  And we tell them we see their effort, we tell them we see their progress.  We tell them we see they are smart, and we stop with the labels, and the assumptions, and we see the kid for who they are rather than what the data tells us.

Because this kid, my kid, doesn’t think that reading will ever be something she can do, and I need, she needs, everyone that works with her to believe otherwise and loudly, because my voice is not enough.


Pernille Ripp is an expert in literacy and technology integration and dedicates her research and practice to developing engaged and empowered students and communities.

She is a teacher, speaker, author, blogger, and passionate advocate for education. She is a Skype Master Teacher; recipient of the 2015 WEMTA Making IT Happen Award; and the 2015 ISTE Award for Innovation in Global Collaboration.

One Teacher’s Survival Guide to a Long Career: How to feel the joy, work through the hard stuff and embrace humanity.

By Barbara Watson

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(Pictured second from left with: Nicole Stout; Stephanie Jackman; and Julie Marquez)

I am pictured here with my colleagues a couple of years ago at the Tointon Institute for Leadership in Vail, Colorado (sponsored by UNC). I am a proud member of the school Leadership Team at Lafayette Elementary; where we work hard to create a welcoming and warm learning environment, where all students can reach their potential.  It’s a great little school, and I am so happy to be a fourth grade teacher there with the best teammates ever: Carolan Covington and Steve Lohn. As I enter my thirty-second year as an educator, with a continued passion to teach, I believe I can pass on some pearls of wisdom, you might be interested in to stay the course, as long as I have. This is my teachers’ survival guide for a long career.


First of all, it is important to remember that being a teacher is a VOCATIONAL PROFESSION,  it is not just a job. We are expected to work independently, and collaboratively toward the goal of successfully educating a group of people, or individuals about a given number of standards, within a given set of subject areas. This is HARD work, and not everyone is cut out for it. The question is are you?

As you continue to read, I am inviting you to reflect; to take a deep dive into your choices, behaviors and beliefs about your profession. Through reflection, it is my hope that you may make some decisions which might help you as you progress in your career.


When I became a teacher, no one sat me down and asked me to consider my values and what I believed in. But when I completed my principal’s license they did. I found it to be a very valuable exercise. Maybe you could take out a journal, and honestly respond to each question posed.

    1. Explore and seek to understand why you became a teacher in the first place. Try to ground your feet. Did you take this path because you couldn’t think of anything better to do? Did you like the idea of long school holidays? Did you have experience with working with youngsters, and wanted to work in a career that would help them grow and learn. Maybe you had some other motivation, or a combination of some of the above. There are no right or wrong answers here. It is good to be honest with yourself. I stumbled upon divine inspiration, but that’s a whole different story.
    2. Find your drivers. What do you believe in? What are your core values that provide the foundation or bedrock of your vocation? You will never make enough money in the classroom to call it anything else. My drivers are: honesty, integrity, compassion and kindness. If I look through these lenses, and what I am doing doesn’t fit with those values, I’m not doing something right. I need to speak up perhaps and talk to my colleagues or principal, or I need to rethink my classroom practice in some way. 
    3. Decide whether you are in it for the content or the students. It’s good to be passionate about a content area, but if you are more in love with it, than the idea of sharing that passion with someone else you might have a problem. If you do not like working with students, and being a teacher is only a job, then find the exit ramp now! Teaching is NOT for you. Well, not for the long haul anyway.




As an educator, you have been through college and been taught most of the stuff you are supposed to know to do your work of teaching. However, most of us land in the classroom, for the first time by ourselves, and feel woefully unprepared. I know I did. The plain fact of the matter is, you will have to spend time acquiring the tools of the trade, and the expertise to use them. This is the time to be humble. If you are like me, and became a teacher after a first career, you might think you are Miss Smarty Pants. I had to learn so much to get to the point where I was truly proficient as a teacher. Learn to ask questions. Listen a lot, and offer ideas gently. In addition:

    1. Build your knowledge base in all areas you teach. Take the time to seek out professional development in areas where you feel weak, or lacking in depth of knowledge. Become a lifelong learner. Read. Ask for help from your peers to grow.
    2. Learn all you can about classroom management. If you cannot manage your classroom environment in a safe and productive way, you are way behind the eightball already. If you are struggling, seek advice. 
    3. Look for mentorship in two directions: Mentors who can help you navigate the requirements of your district through the early years to tenureship; mentors who are successful at their craft and who are willing to share and support your thinking.
    4. Choose professional development in areas that will build your capacity to understand how people (especially children and peers) tick. Professional development can mean personal development outside of school too. Take up Tai Chi, play golf, learn to fly a plane. Whatever it is, learn to give others space, so that you can accept and enjoy the personality traits and quirks of others. It will make life a lot easier.
    5. Accept that truth is often in the eye of the beholder. I have heard so many people tell me that their teaching is research driven and children are not developmentally ready for this or that because so and so said so. Just because someone thinks they are right, doesn’t make them right. Do your own legwork to find good practice while still collaborating with others. Pilot new ideas and share out. You may be the leader you were hoping to follow!



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Let’s face it, the first three years as a teacher are brutal. The learning curve is almost a vertical cliff face. You are in boot camp, with many levels of scrutiny, before you find yourself in a position to attain tenureship.

You have no choice other than to suck it up, or leave the profession. Many people choose the exit ramp at this point. It does get better for most of us. Once you are on the pathway to security in your profession it may be time to take stock. Even if you have been teaching for a few years, I would encourage taking the time to stop and evaluate where you are at. 

Try this checklist:

  • I have read, digested and understood all of the standards I am expected to teach.
  • I have been provided with or developed a scope and sequence for the delivery of those standards. That document is also alive and flexible; revisited at least once a year for updates and improvements.
  • I have developed units of study using Backward Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 1999) to ensure that I meet all essential learning targets within that scope and sequence.
  • I have thought about, and planned for future professional development choices to support my growth as an educator.
  • I have developed strategies to work collaboratively with colleagues while maintaining my own sense of ownership and autonomy. I accept and follow norms.
  • I have come to the conclusion that gossip is toxic, and a happy work environment is one where teachers and colleagues assume positive intent from those around them.
  • I have established a safe and well-managed learning environment with and for my students, and have taught them, and practised with them, specific behaviors to meet expectations.
  • I know that being friendly with students and creating a warm and loving class environment is NOT the same as being their friend. I am still the authority figure in the room. I have fun with my kids, but can make sure we learn too.
  • I know that fair is not always equal. I have to be flexible about expectations and outcomes. Being reasonable builds respect.
  • I know that children feel safe when there are clear expectations and boundaries. They may give push back, but they prefer clarity around their behavior decisions and a bar set high for achievement.
  • I have a well-developed sense of humor. If I can’t laugh about many of the things that happen in any given day, then I will cry an awful lot.
  • Parents can be challenging. I am friendly, professional and courteous. However, I do not give out my personal contact information to everyone, and I certainly don’t become friends on FACEBOOK. Building a deep relationship with parents takes time, and may backfire on me if I become an open target.
  • I don’t get sucked into negative email communications. I thank parents for their feedback, I acknowledge any area that needs work, I seek a parent conference where needed. If I need administration to respond, I defer. Most parents want to vent in long emails because they are frustrated with their child and don’t know what to do.
  • I have become a union member, knowing that I might need their support at some point in my career, and through the union I have better pay and working conditions.
  • I apologise when I am wrong. Admitting mistakes is better in the long run. We all screw up at some point. Been there, done that, got too many t-shirts to mention.
  • OTHERS – My list is not exhaustive. It’s a starting point. HERE YOU GET TO PUT IN YOUR OWN CHECK POINTS. What are you still hoping to improve in?

HOW DID YOU DO? ARE YOU THERE YET? NO! Me neither, but I am closer to this point than I used to be. Many of us get wrapped so much in planning everything down to the last detail, that we forget that this is work involves young humans and their families. People rarely respond the way we expect them to, and so we must learn to be flexible and to grow.


The key to time use is to work smarter, not harder. Easier said than done, I know. But we have to work out a sensible life/work balance, otherwise we explode from the effort. Without it, many teachers burnout and take the exit ramp before retirement. The pie-chart below may be a little unrealistic. However, if you consider your overall time balance of work, play and sleep, it really is important to seek a fairly equal distribution. When I shifted the balance in my life a few years ago, the sky did not fall, and the students learned just as well. Food for thought!

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  • Get enough sleep. Preferably 8 hours.
  • Try to do your work at school in an 8hr time frame. Work during plans instead of visiting. Go home.
  • Rest. Enjoy family, friends, and food. Do something enriching to feed your own soul.


FURTHERMORE: DO NOT GRADE EVERYTHING! Most of the time students don’t read half of what you write. Talk to them instead! This is worth repeating: DO NOT GRADE EVERYTHING BELIEVING ANYONE IS GOING TO READ AND DIGEST YOUR COMMENTS!

Learning is a process. There needs to be space and time to grow and to fail. If all tasks in the classroom are high stakes, then students will not take risks to try something new. Life is too stressful for them and you. Identify vital and necessary check points and make clear to the students that you are going to grade them on the work associated with that checkpoint. You are going to use those grades in your gradebook to determine mastery. Guess what? More time is released to you to do a better job all around.

I don’t mean that you back away from knowing their progress and sit at your computer and shop online. Absolutely not! Being present during instruction; discussing their work and paying attention to details will give you tons of information about their progress. Record your anecdotes in a notebook if needed, but take the released time to educate yourself about your students as learners and people. Listen. Listen in on their conversations. Pay attention to struggles, and check in with those who have little support at home.

Contact parents early if there are issues or if you have a concern. Let them know what you are experiencing, and ask for their input. “Have you noticed any changes at home? Is there anything going on that I should be aware of? Can you offer some advice, so that I can help your child better?” Parents are generally happy when you have paid attention to their child, and are grateful for your interest and questions. Realise that most parents love their kids and are trying their best. Humanity is really messy, and everyone has got something going on in their lives we are probably unaware of. Try to give others grace and space even if they are really annoying!


If you can’t find the joy in your daily exchanges with students and colleagues, get out of the profession now! Look for the small moments and the victories that make the hard slog worth it: the student who smiles at you when they finally get it; the hug you receive from a past student who remembered the activity they liked in class; the student who writes you a note to thank you for raising the bar and helping them to reach their potential. This is the motherlode of gold lying deep within that rockface; sometimes hidden between the multiple and complex layers of this profession. You have to care; you have to be present. Ultimately, if you don’t turn up and tune in, everyone suffers and ultimately your administrator will notice too. (You know right! That evaluation thing?)

Be aware too, that there are a lot of bandwagons in education. If you have been in the business of education for a long time like me, this can be exasperating, and we feel like our expertise is being undermined. New people at management and district levels are often unaware of a district’s history and bring back old ideas, as though they are new. The latest research becomes the “secret code” to student achievement. However, we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater every time this happens. Be patient, do your due diligence to what is expected of you, and breathe. This too shall pass! 


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Barbara Watson is a fourth grade teacher at LAFAYETTE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, BOULDER VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT. She has been an educator since 1987, beginning her career in the U.K, before moving to Colorado in 1997. In 2006, she received the IMPACT ON EDUCATION award for her proactive initiatives at Louisville Elementary, in areas of Science and Math. She was also an administrator for three years at ELDORADO K-8 SCHOOL. A life- long learner, Barbara became one of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s cohort of educators, who have brought OPEN INQUIRY to ELEMENTARY science education, and in 2012 she became a NOYCE Scholar at CU Boulder, fostering science investigation in the elementary classroom. She has just completed the COLORADO WRITING PROJECT, is enthusiastic about using WRITER’S WORKSHOP in her class, and is actively engaged in writing her first novel. Contact her at



When Reading Comprehension Work is Hard, Close the Book and Pick Up a Pen

By M.Colleen Cruz, 2020 CCIRA Conference Featured Speaker

Because I am a book nerd, I was one of the first of my friends to read the first Harry Potter book. I frequented a bookstore that regularly carried imports, and the first Harry Potter I read was the British version. I dressed up as Harry for Halloween that year, complete with lightning bolt scar and broom, and no one at the part, a party filled with teachers, knew who I was dressed as. This is laughable now because Harry Potter is a character who has become so much a part of the literary culture. But I had to wait months until most of my friends had read that first book and we could all talk about it. (Spoiler alert: skip the next couple paragraphs if you haven’t yet read the Harry Potter books.)

When we finally did talk about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I said something that angered my friends more than almost anything I had ever said: “I really liked the book. But the real bummer is that my favorite character is Dumbledore, and his going to have to die before the series ends.”

My friends were aghast and disgusted: “Why would you say that?”

“Dumbledore is the best wizard in the world. He can’t die.”

“He’s the most powerful!”

I shook my head. “I know. But I also know that Harry is clearly the main character and the hero. He will need to take on Voldemort on his own in order to have his own story arc. That means Dumbledore will need to be out of the picture. Because he’s so powerful, it’s unlikely he can be put aside or captured. And I also know that names matter. J.K. Rowling named him Dumbledore for a reason. I know I name all my characters for vert specific reasons. And because Dumbledore’s name is an Old English term that means bumblebee, and we know bumblebees will die to defend…”

My friends glared. They argued. I felt bad that they were annoyed. But I knew, as someone who writes narratives, that I was right. So convinced was I that I wrote down my prediction on a piece of paper and placed it in a sealed envelope for all of us to open when the last book came out. The vindication was bittersweet; although I was chuffed to be right, I did miss the beloved character.

The point of this story is not to brag about a moment (because, quite frankly, as I type this I realize what a self-satisfied jerk I sound like). Instead, I want to unpack how I was able to make a long-term prediction about a character. It was not because I was a voracious reader, although I am, because all of the friends I was speaking with are also voracious readers, if not more so. No, the reason I was able to make that prediction, as well as other predictions, inferences and interpretations in the stories I read, is because I am also a frequent writer of narrative, both personal and fictional.

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Photo courtesy of Simson Petrol at Unsplash

When one writes, one build stories from the inside out. And in the building, we know, because we have done it ourselves, how writers choose which characters to include, names to bestow, settings to describe, and plots to embellish or tamp down. Much like the archetypical hero of many a sci-fi movie, the creator of the bode or the builder of the reactor who knows its flaws and strengths better than anyone, narrative writers are uniquely positioned to be stronger readers than others.

If you teach your students both reading and writing, chances are good you are familiar with leaning on reading to support your writing work. You have likely read aloud or asked students to read examples of genres you’d like them to read. You live by the adage: “The more you read, the better you write.” You point out beautiful sentences and word choices in books and encourage students to try similar work in their own writing. And all of these things are vital and valuable. My life and teaching were forever changed the first time I picked up Katie Wood Ray’s seminal text Wondrous Words, which describes the power and independence writers are given when we teach them to mentor themselves to other writers.

That said, the notion that sometimes there are certain reading skills that not only might be more accessible if taught from a writing entry point first, let alone perhaps even better taught, is not yet as widespread as one would think.

When we choose to teach anything, but especially literacy skills, it’s important for us to think about how kids will most successfully access the skills and strategies we’re targeting. Many literacy skills have reciprocal relationship that can be put to powerful use. Some are best taught from the reading side of the desk. Topics such as genre characteristics, retelling and intertextuality often seem easier to teaching in reading before writing. But other topics, in my experiences some of the trickiest to teach, can be more readily accessed if we explore them first in writing. Teaching students to infer is notoriously challenging, for example. But when I first taught it from the other side of the desk, that as writers we “show don’t tell,” suddenly the reading-between-the-lines-work needed for inference became so much more accessible. 

Examples of this sort of side-door teaching are many – and backed by research.

One of the most influential studies to my thinking was “Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” a goose-bump inducing report by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert (2010). In this report, Graham and Hebert look to answer the question of how writing can support reading and vice versa. The first is that students benefit from writing about their texts, which comes as a surprise to no one. The second is that “Students’ reading skills and comprehension are improved by learning the skills and processes that go into creating text…” The third recommendation is to “Increase how much students write. Students’ reading comprehension is improved by having them increase how often they produce their own texts.”

If this sort of thinking about the connections between writing and reading feels new to you, but you are intrigued by it, I encourage you to try it. Some steps you might want to take:

  1. Choose a reading skill that flummoxes you or your students.
  2. Figure out the reciprocal writing skill 
  3. Try out that writing move in a piece of writing – this can be simple notebook exploration or full on drafting and revision work
  4. Annotate the work you did with comment boxes or in the margin
  5. Visit a place in a text that calls you to try the tricky reading work
  6. With your annotated writing by your side, try applying what you know as a writer to understanding what the author of the text you’re reading is doing
  7. Demonstrate your work to students

Adapted from Writers Read Better: Narrative

M. Colleen Cruz  is the author of WRITERS READ BETTER: NONFICTION, THE UNSTOPPABLE WRITING TEACHER, INDEPENDENT WRITING and A QUICK GUIDE TO REACHING STRUGGLING WRITERS, as well as the author of the young adult novel BORDER CROSSING, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award Finalist.  Cruz was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Cruz currently supports schools, teachers and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant. Follow her on Twitter



Storytelling as an Instructional Tool

By Liz Prather, CCIRA 2020 Featured Speaker

We are “storytelling animals,” says author Jonathan Gottschall (2012) in his book of the same title. “Story is the glue of human social life.” In every known human culture,
storytelling binds communities with gossip, warning, and instruction. Stories help us make sense of our existence.

Writer and teacher Joy Hakim (2010) has spent a lifetime writing textbooks that sound like storybooks. During her acceptance speech for the 1997 James A Michener Prize in Writing, she said, “It is the storyteller’s job to make the world around us understandable. Think of teaching and storytelling as entwined disciplines and you will bring coherence and inspiration to your classrooms. Finding the story in a subject is to discover its essence. If we can train our students to pattern the world into stories we can turn them into powerful, analytical learners.”

This quote has been one of my instructional north stars since discovering it, and I have come to depend on storytelling as one of the most powerful instructional tools at my disposal. Developing the art of storytelling costs nothing, requires no real training, and can be impromptu.

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Photo by Mike Erskine via Unsplash

So how can a teacher use this most basic of communicative stances in the
classroom to engage students? Here are three ways I use this potent tool.

1) Tell a story of your own struggle.
Introducing a writing mini-lesson with a story about my own writing process is
incredibly powerful. Telling a story from my own experience does a couple of things: it makes it permissible to talk about process as well as the product of writing; it shows students I’m vulnerable to the slippery, often frustrating nature of writing; and it shows them that writing is a valuable, worthy activity, not just something we do for school. It also gives me a certain amount of credibility if I’ve done something that I’m asking them to do. When I’m teaching students the rhetorical moves of an argumentative text, I share with them the letters I write to my legislative representatives that are, in essence, mini-arguments with claims, counter-claims, and evidence. I model my process, show them a real-world example of writing, and share my misgivings and successes with them. I tell them about what led me to write the letter and what I hope the response will be. Whether you teach Math or Agriculture or French, you can share with your students a story of your own struggle to master or even attempt the content and/or the skill you are asking them to attempt.

2) Tell a story that creates context for your content.
If I assign a reading to my students, I like to introduce the reading with a story about the author, and if I can find a story about the work that we are reading, even better. If we are studying James Baldwin, for example, telling the story of his love-hate relationship with America or his childhood or his family is a great place to start. With a little research, you can find many stories about the personal lives of writers and poets and how those events influenced their work. These human stories make the writer real to the students in a way that merely reading a work would not. Telling a story that provides context and engages my students with the writer as a person who may have experienced the same frustrations as they have as a writer.

3) Dedicate time in your classroom for storytelling.
One Friday, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill. My classroom has
a closet in the back. After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories. The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark. There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones. After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again. “We should do this every Friday,” somebody said. “Can we?”another student asked. “I like that idea,” I said. Telling stories to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to tell stories to each other can be an even more powerful one, both as a speaking and listening activity and a way to build community.

Gottschall, Jonathon. 2012. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
New York: Mariner Books.

Hakim, Joy. 1997. Acceptance speech upon receipt of the 1997 James A. Michener
Prize in Writing. Accessed June 23, 2019.

Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin. She is the author of Project-Based Learning: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose.

The Importance of Choice in Writers Workshop

By Katie Keier, 2020 Conference Featured Speaker

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Photos courtesy of Katie Keier

Choice. It’s at the heart of engaging children in meaningful literacy work. We can’t expect children, or anyone, for that matter, to engage deeply and passionately about something they don’t care about. Our youngest learners come to school excited and eager to learn. Starting right away with a Writers Workshop or Writers Playshop (as my kindergarten class and I renamed it this year since the time felt more like play than work), is a powerful place for children to begin creating an identity as readers and writers, to discover the joy of writing and illustrating, to see themselves as authors and illustrators, to communicate and have their voices heard. This is a time that we can provide tremendous opportunities for choice.

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So what does choice look like in a Writers Workshop? 
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Writers choose their topics. Everyone has something to write about. When Writers Workshop is presented as a time to make books, posters, stories and to write and draw about something you love, that is important to you, everyone has an idea. I’ve never had a child tell me they don’t know what to write about. Whether it’s a book about their family, a poster about Frozen, a story about a Superhero or a book about sharks – writers have things close to their heart to write about. And they need to be able to choose what to write about.

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Writers choose where they write. I have different places in my house where I like to write, depending on my purpose and my mood. I think it’s important to give kids that choice, as well. Perhaps they enjoy being sprawled out on the floor. Maybe sitting or standing at a table works best for them. Perhaps they like to be curled up under a table. Having lots of choice as to where they do their work as writers is important and can make a huge difference in how engaged and focused they are on their writing.

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Writers choose what they write with. I’m a huge fan of Flair pens and my new discovery, the Paper Mate Ink Joy gel pens. I need the right color and the right thickness to write and not be distracted by my tool. Our young writers need to have many choices and the freedom to choose what works best for them. Having a wide selection of crayons, thick markers, thin markers, pencils, pastels, and paint available for them to choose what tool works best for their particular project is an important part of writing.

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Writers choose the paper they use. There are many choices available to kids in our classroom. We have pre-stapled full page blank books with 5 pages, blank paper for kids to staple into books with however many pages they choose, half-page stapled books and half-page blank paper, mini-books, colored paper, scrapbooking paper, large poster size paper and big rolls of butcher paper to cut. There are also scissors, glue, yarn, staplers, staples and staple removers and a variety of writing and drawing tools available for kids to use. I don’t use lined paper because I find it to be very limiting and controlling. I want kids to explore with text placement and illustration placement and to have the freedom to make the pages in their books look how they choose. I want them to learn that authors and illustrators make decisions. Having a blank page allows for this. If a young writer wants to use speech bubbles like Mo Willems does in his Piggie and Elephant books, how are they able to do that if they are confined to the pre-placed lines or illustration box on a page?

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Writers choose what they write. For many years, our Writers Workshop consisted of making books, thanks to the wonderful work of Katie Wood Ray, Lisa Cleveland and Matt Glover in About the Authors and Already Ready. This is still how I launch Writers Workshop on Day 1 of kindergarten. Making books just makes sense. Picture books are the genre that kids are most familiar with. They most likely have had picture books read to them for many years, and we read aloud several each day. It’s a genre they know and know well.  How often do we read a journal? Or a single piece of paper that we call a story? Making books is authentic and meaningful and we are surrounded by mentor authors and mentor texts that we can use in our teaching to show kids what authors do and help them develop their own identity as an author. While making books is how I start our Writers Workshop, there are other choices during Writers Playshop that kids can choose as the idea of composing and creating begins to develop. Writers can make a book by themselves or with a co-author, they can make characters to act out a story before moving the story into a book, they can use loose parts to create a story setting and characters and spend some time playing with the story before making it into a book, they can make costumes to act out a story before it becomes a book or they can make a poster to share information or tell a story. It’s truly a time to play with language, with writing, with illustrating and communicating something that’s important to them with others.
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Writers Workshop or Playshop is a joyful time to help our learners develop as writers and readers. With abundant choice, it’s also a time to help these young authors, illustrators and readers make important decisions, be engaged in meaningful literacy work and have a sense of self-efficacy in their own literacy learning. How might you create more opportunities for choice in your Writers Workshop? 

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Katie Keier has been teaching and learning with children, as a classroom teacher and literacy specialist, in grades K-8, for twenty-six years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher in an urban, Title I school. She is the co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall with Pat Johnson, from Stenhouse Publishers. Katie is an adjunct faculty member for American University, a national presenter and conducts staff development workshops and interactive webinars. She is currently in training for Reading Recovery for classroom teachers. You can follow her @bluskyz on Instagram and Twitter, and her kindergarten class @KinderUnicorns

From Collections to Comparisons

By Lori Conrad, CCIRA Featured Speaker

Kids are born collectors. From rocks to Legos, stuffed animals to toy trucks, for just about any child, creating collections is as natural as walking, talking, maybe even breathing!

So when it comes to the school work of comparing texts, comparing themes, distinguishing point of view, and all the other myriad of ways standards label setting two or more ‘things’ side-by-side to examine what they have in common and what makes them distinct, why not begin with what kids do best?  Why not start with their collections?

Curating Collections

My daughter, who just graduated from college a few weeks ago, is a champion collection curator. It started with Beanie Babies, which led to Polly Pockets.  Then came her gaggle of soccer socks, followed by her stack of basketball shorts. Today, as I look into her over-filled bedroom, her newest collections include a cluster of beautifully potted succulents and a multitude of vintage t-shirts that would make any clothes maven green with envy.  And for each iteration of her collecting history, Emelia could explain in great detail the differences, similarities, unique attributes and specific functions of each piece.  Emelia is like every other kid when it comes to the collections that inspire her passion and ownership.  She’s convincing in her descriptions, precise in her language choices, and can support any claim she chooses to make about the effectiveness, beauty, or importance of any individual piece.

When I think about supporting readers as they work to compare and contrast various texts or literary elements, beginning with their capacity and interest in collecting seems altogether logical!

Bringing Collections into Our Classrooms

Instead of handing our readers two texts that we’ve selected, say a nonfiction piece about the life cycle of bees and Douglas Florian’s poem “Bee-Coming” (in his collection unBEElievables), how about inviting each student to share his or her favorite collection?  Imagine the conversations that might ensue:

“This truck is my favorite! It is faster than all the rest. I’ve timed all of them on a track I built in my bedroom.  It beat all the rest by 2 or 3 seconds each time.”

“I love this rock most of all.  It’s a piece of obsidian.  My uncle brought it back from a trip he took last year.  It’s harder than this piece of sandstone because it was made deep underground.  It’s related to lava.”

“This is my collection of Pokémon cards.  My dad has one, too.  We sit at the table and trade.  He thinks Pikachu is the best because it’s one of the first characters ever invented. I like Absol because it’s sort of like a unicorn.”

And with these conversations as rehearsal, the writing students might then produce about their collections stands on something authentic, something tangible, and something they know inside and out.  It has voice and details.  It celebrates the ways comparing and contrasting works in the world beyond school.

From Vintage T’s to Texts

For me, making the leap from t-shirt collections to text collections demands two things:  a willingness to try the work myself and a big idea or two to frame an in-depth study.  Doing the same work is the easy part.  I love curating collections of cousin texts.  The bookshelves in my house are organized in a variety of ways. Some shelves are sorted by genre (I’m a sucker for Southern dysfunctional family sagas).  Other shelves hold only a specific beloved author (I think Anna Quindlen has her own shelf), and another shelve is filled with books about cooking food, eating food, and building a life around food. Some shelves are even sorted by dust jacket color.

Composing the big ideas kids will remember ten years from now can sometimes feel more daunting. For this study, I’d want kids to hold on to the ideas that:

  • Readers see both the things that link texts together AND the things that distinguish texts from each other.
  • Sometimes readers find themselves in the pieces they read, while at other times they see the world through the eyes of others.
  • Readers are curious people. Among many other things, they are curious about the decisions writers make and how those decisions reveal what’s in the writer’s mind (craft moves, content knowledge, life experience) and heart (passions, emotional connections, causes).
  • Writers often choose to share a particular perspective about a topic. They create titles and select images that reveal clues about their stance/perspective. Readers can infer these perspectives and biases from these clues.
  • Writers also choose to structure ideas in ways that best convey the important things they aim to teach readers. They might use multiple structures within the same text to do this work.  With the aid of these structures, readers can determine what’s most essential in the piece.

With big ideas like these to frame our conversations, kids can begin to curate their own book stacks. Picking texts from classroom libraries and home collections, they can begin to see all the ways informational texts, stories, and poems might sit side-by-side with other pieces.

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Courtesy of Kimberly Farmer via Unsplash

Layers of Sorting – More than ‘They’re both about bees.’

As kids continue to stretch their thinking and their writing about their book stacks beyond the obvious “they’re all about bees”, it’s important to explore all the ways a collection of texts might be compared.  In my favorite monthly magazine, Real Simple, the editors have a recurring feature they call “Road Test.” This month’s is all about sunscreen. In this one-pager, the editors gather together a collection of some sort, from pasta sauce to oatmeal cups, and then name at least a half dozen ways the collection might be compared.  So for this month’s sunscreen, the comparisons include best touch-up, best spray, best lip treatment and best sensitive face.  The editors include very specific evidence to back up their claims of being best.

When exploring possible ways to sort texts, we might ask readers to consider big layers like author, topic, purpose, or genre.  For example, if we gathered a text set written by Jacqueline Woodson, kids might look for specific ways she lets readers know what’s in her heart and in her mind. When she includes sentences like “There will be times when no one understands the way words curl from your mouth, the beautiful language of the country you left behind.” (from The Day You Begin) and “I watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples and the chance of a kindness with Maya becoming more and more forever gone.” (from Each Kindness), it’s pretty clear what’s in her heart about how to treat others.

If we gathered a nonfiction collection, say about sharks, readers might discover similarities and differences about specific content, but they might also notice:

  • the ways titles express author bias – Nicola Davies finds sharks surprising (Surprising Sharks) while Joanna Boutilier finds them misunderstood (Pigs Aren’t Dirty and Bears Aren’t Slow: And Other Truths About Misunderstood Animals)
  • the ways illustrations set readers up to feel a certain way – the front cover of Neighborhood Sharks (by Katherine Roy) is positively frightening but the almost smiling shark on the cover of Please be Nice to Sharks (by Matt Weiss) makes it seem like sharks could be our friends
  • the ways structure helps establish a cause and effect relationship between sharks and humans – Lily Williams makes it pretty clear in If Sharks Disappeared that our fortunes are tied to each other
  • and the ways structure might also help readers see a shark’s competing sides (Lovely Beasts: The Surprising Truth by Kate Gardner and Heidi Smith).

We could also look at texts that seem to share an important message.  When a colleague read Red by Michael Hall, Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant to his kindergartners, they wrote and wrote and wrote about how writers help readers be true to themselves.

When we decide that comparing texts is more than an activity and more than practicing for a standardized test, learners get to see that the thing they do oh so very well matches up to something others (school boards, newspapers, policy makers) value.  Their capacity to curate collections is an asset they can proudly bring into their classrooms!

Lori L. Conrad has over 34 years of experience as a teacher, literacy consultant and classroom coach.  She’s worked alongside some pretty amazing children and wonderfully thoughtful colleagues throughout Colorado and the United States.  She’s published numerous articles about reading and writing, and is the co-author of Put Thinking to the Test (published by Stenhouse).  She’s a proud mom of two grown children and an even prouder wife. Lori can be reached via email

Planning for Language Development

By Beth Skelton, 2019 CCIRA Featured Speaker

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Photo credit: Lorenzo Moreno, Englewood Public Schools

Much of my work with teachers this past school year has focused on lesson planning for language development. Although most members of CCIRA are certainly literacyfocused, they may not always be language focused. Adding a focus on the language students will need to comprehend and respond to text and content can support all learners and is essential for language learners.

The SIOP model, the WIDA framework, Kate Kinsellaand others have long advocated for adding language objectives to lessons. During the past school year, I have drawn on their work and collaborated with many educators to create and refine a series of questions and prompts designed to help teachers plan for language development in an individual lesson. The first three questions are generally part of every lesson planning format and the last four questions add a focus on language development.

Questions and Prompts for Planning for Language Development

  1. What should students know and be able to do by the end of the unit? What is the end of unit assessment?
  1. What should students know and be able to do by the end of the next lesson?
  2. Write a prompt for an oral discussion or a written response about the lesson.
  3. Write out a model response to the prompt.
  4. List the key content and general academic vocabulary students should ideally use in their response to the end of lesson prompt. How will you teach each of those words during the lesson? (include details on the strategies you will use such as gestures, visuals, realia, questions, etc.)
  5. Whatgrammatical or linguistic structuresin the model response might be challenging? (clauses, verb tenses, word order, etc.) What organizational features in the response might be challenging? (comparison, description, explanation) How will you teach these structures?
  6. What supports will you offer language learners as they respond to the prompt?  (labeled graphic organizer, labeled pictures, sentence frames, discussion starters, native language support, oral language practice before writing, etc.)

Backwards Design: The Unit Assessment and Content Objectives

Most districts already require teachers to plan units starting with the final assessment in mind. Once teachers review their final assessment (performance, project, paper, etc.), they are ready to plan for one upcoming lesson within that unit. The second question focuses on what students should know or be able to do by the end of one lesson. Teachers should be able to explain how those specific daily objectives help students to achieve the content objectives for the entire unit.

Planning for Language Development: The Prompt

The third question begins to add a focus on the language students will need to express their learning at the end of one lesson. Teachers should think about one ‘turn and talk’ question or an exit ticket prompt they might ask students to discuss or write about near the end of the lesson. Since teachers generally gather some kind of formative assessment on student learning each day, this prompt is often part of their plans already. This question or prompt should directly link to the daily content objective. Some of the elementary teachers I worked with recently wrote the following prompts for their end of lesson exit ticket about a narrative and informative text.

  • Describe the main character in the story and what he dreams of using details from the text.
  • What’s the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?

These examples require students to synthesize their learning from the lesson using extended discourse of more than one sentence. Notice how these prompts require students to use language for a specific function such as describe or contrast.In order to express their content knowledge in response to these prompts, students will need to use functional vocabulary, sentence structures, and discourse markers.

Planning for Language Development:  The Response

Although most general educators are usually able to quickly write a prompt that would require an extended oral or written response, many do not actually write out what they expect as an answer before asking the question. When two or more teachers from the same team come to a planning session together, I ask them to individually write their model response before sharing out with the entire team. This response should reflect what a top student at that grade level should sound like when using appropriate academic language in their response. When teachers read these model responses, they quickly discover the vocabulary, complex linguistic structures, and discourse markers that are embedded in their responses.

I began writing my own responses to prompts about 10 years ago when I was teaching at an international school in Germany. I wrote almost every paper or short answer response with my students and shared my papers with them as well. This process gave me insight into the complexity of the language and often led me to refine my prompts or teach short language-focused lessons to support the language in their written work.

Analyze the Language in the Response

Once teachers have written a model response, they can analyze the language in the response to determine which academic vocabulary words they should directly teach, which sentence structures they may have to intentionally model, and which discourse markers or structures they should explicitly teach.

For example, the fourth-grade teachers wrote a model response to the prompt Describe the main character in the story and what he dreams of using details from the text. Both of them used a noun clause in the first sentence of their response: Leroy is a__________, who dreams of __________.  When I pointed this out, they quickly realized they should provide a mini lesson on how to use the word who to start a clause. They decided to provide a sentence frame for beginning level language learners to support their use of this complex sentence structure. Teaching students how to embed a noun clause will not only increase the complexity of their writing, but also help them understand more complex texts when they are reading.

These teachers also discovered that some of the words they used in their model response to describe the main character were not actually written in the text. Although the text provided plenty of details that illustrated the spontaneousnature of the main character, this word nor its synonyms actually came up in the text. Teachers realized they needed teach words that were not necessarily inthe text, but important for talking aboutthe text.

When third grade teachers analyzed their response to the prompt “What is the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?”, they knew that students would have to use the key terms renewable and non-renewable, and they planned to teach these words with examples, visuals, and experiences. In addition, they noticed their responses clearly contrasted the resources using the discourse markers however and whereas to signal differences.The team decided to explicitly teach students how to contrast ideas by adding these terms to their graphic organizer and modeling ways to organize the response.

Planning for Supports and Scaffolds

After analyzing the language in their model responses, teachers will have a list of words and linguistic structures they will need to teach in the lesson in addition to their content. Then they can decide on strategies, scaffolds, and supports to teach this academic language. Many choose to add sentence frames, create visual word walls, or add discourse markers to graphic organizers. After just one experience asking these questions in lesson planning, one third grade teacher with no other background in language acquisition exclaimed, “It’s easy to add a focus on language to our lesson plans! We already have the prompt, so we just have to figure out what we want as a response. This helps us frame our teaching and the students’ thinking.” I hope you find these questions just as powerful for adding a focus on language development to your lessons.

Beth Skelton is an international consultant providing professional learning focused on creating equitable education for all students. She is especially passionate about making academic content accessible to English Language Learners. She can be reached through her website: , on Twitter @easkelton , and on Facebook: Beth Skelton Consulting