Category Archives: Writing

Leave With A Suggestion

My growth as a reader and as a reading teacher continue to evolve. Readers of this blog might remember the first time I opened my eyes to YA literature and drastically changed my reading habits to better serve the needs of the kids in my classroom. Then a few months later, I expanded my thinking and reflected on what our Independent Reading program was looking like at the end of the year– last year! Here we are in February and I feel an update is necessary.

A few quick things: We have, since the beginning of the year, established classroom libraries, adopted the TCRWP units of study and have hired a literacy coach, Ann-Marie Chow (a superstar) to help us learn how to teach our best in “the workshop” model. Kids are reading and writing at their best and I feel more comfortable with this approach with every passing week.

So like any proper edu-literacy-book-nerd, I was a bit star-struck to meet Penny Kittle this past Saturday for a great workshop at our school.  As if meeting her and attending her session wasn’t enough, I was able, with my colleagues, to watch her teach a class, confer with kids and debrief her work for well over an hour afterwards. Needless to say, it was time well spent. If we think about teaching as a craft, and I do, then there is no better way to improve your craft than to watch a master crafts(wo)man do her thing. I took several pages of notes from her Saturday workshop as well as from her teaching today, and this post is a synthesis and reflection on what she said and did. I am not sure I will say anything that you will not find on her website or in her book, but I know my friend Ari will be curious for my notes, and who knows, you may be too.

Before I begin, however, let me say how refreshing it was to work with such a humble, passionate and sincere teacher. So many times when teachers achieve notoriety or success, they don their consultancy hat and forget that real teaching happens in real classrooms with real kids. Sure it is nice to have empirical data with which to draw upon, but I will take an in-the-classroom-teacher who refers to her kids and her own work, over a consultant years removed from a classroom any day. Penny was calm, understanding and real. And it was her gentle and supportive persona, which she displayed both with teachers and students that impressed me most. Okay, hopefully that is enough to get her blushing. Let’s get to the notes!

In order to get these notes published and shared with some level of immediacy, I will not wrap them in too much prose. I apologize for the bulletted format of ideas and the litany of grammatical gaffs and typos which I am certain litter this post. I will try and add some insight and annotations as I work through my notes and ideas, but I cannot make any promises at this time.


  1. Some Essentials:
    1. Be positive
    2. Build classroom Libraries
    3. Read everyday! Everyone- teachers and kids
    4. Confer with kids as often as possible
    5. Give choice. Choice. Choice.
      1. Don’t hand! Let them grab. Offer them three possibilities and let them choose books.
    6. Set goals.
  2. Build a school culture of reading
  3. Reading is the foundation for any writing program.
  4. Increasing stamina builds engagement (kids inhaling books), building complexity builds confidence= Independence.
  5. We Think in Narratives
  6. Persistence + Self-control + Curiosity+ Conscientiousness + Grit= Self-Confidence
  7. Try 6 word book summaries or Twitter reviews to get to the heart of thinking.

For me there wasn’t much new to what she shared, but it was reaffirming. Her workshop made me feel confident that the work we have been doing as a group and the enthusiasm I have developed personally are exactly the direction we should be heading. The time and money we have spent, along with the systems we have built to support our classroom libraries are worthwhile.

As a department we spoke a little about what is next in terms of building a school-wide culture. What would a humanities class library look like? Where are our books about science and math? What work are those teachers doing towards literacy in their fields?


Read. Write. Revise. Everyday.

That means everyone! My biggest take away from her writing session was that there needs to be room in a writing workshop for free, fun, undirected writing. Kids notebooks should look like Bubble Catchers not just skills based writing workbooks. There is room for practicing the skills explicitly taught through mini-lessons, but there should also be room for exploring ideas that may never be shared or published.

Penny shared several prompts and talked about the power of a short mentor text annotation and mimicking. She used this example by Devon Gundry from Rainn Wilson’s Soulpancake.

Depending on when you met me, I might have been: a checkers champion, the kid who squirted Super Glue in his eye, a competitive Ping-Pong player, Tweedle Dum, a high school valedictorian, a fake blond, 1⁄12 of an all-male a capella group, a graduate of the Vanderbilt School of Engineering, a nomad, a street musician, or a pigeon assassin.

The idea was to use the structure of the list to explore some thinking that might later to lead to more expansive writing. I loved how she allowed us time to think and write during this time of the workshop. At first I found the structure limiting, but the more I tried to stick to its confines, I realized how it pushed my thinking and made me write in ways I probably would not have if given the freedom to write in whatever way I wanted.

Depending on when you met me I might have been a blue-ribbon-winning horse show participant, the kid who repeatedly lit himself on fire using Aquanet hairspray, C-3PO, or the underachiever on report card day, the blue-haired guy with too many piercings, an open-mic performer, or Columbia grad student, a Peace Corps volunteer, a wanna-be writer, or a leave-the-cockroaches-alone activist.

The more we write ourselves, the more we know where kids might stumble, and so we know how to anticipate their needs.

She also mentioned how important it is to write in front of kids and make your thinking public. Show them how you start with scattered ideas and how your thoughts and writing evolve. Revise you work in front of them too, so they see the process not the final work.


Penny Kittle’s workshop was a great use of time and I found it inspirational, but to watch her confer with actual students was something else all together. As a teacher new to workshop, I feel my conferences are awkward, rushed, uncomfortable administrative sessions, only done to see where kids are in their work. A notebook check-up. But watching Penny, I knew that with some time and practice, I too could hopefully use this precious time to actual teach kids while I sit with them for five minute sessions. Watching Penny Kittle confer with kids was truly a work of art. There was so many subtle devices she used, but here are some of the basics I was able to retain.

Smile. Be kind. Give compliments. Make eye contact. Relax. Breathe. Speak with a loving voice. Listen. Listen. Listen. Start where the writer is not where you want him to be. Talk about books, writing, ideas not skills, tasks, or work. Allow kids time to arrive at an idea. If they need to summaries the plot for two-minutes, let them. Do not rush their thinking. Listen. Say thank you. Don’t think about the next kid. Be present. Don’t fill the silences. Thinking takes time. Let them stew in the silence. Make eye-contact. Smile. Listen.

Ask, “How can I help you? What are you discovering? What is it you just did?” Teach a point and ask for examples. Name what kids are already doing and compliment them on being smart. Say, “I noticed that you……tell me about that.” Ask them, “If you did know the answer what would it be?” Encourage guessing. Risk taking. Revision.

Constantly remind students that you too use the strategies you are teaching when you read and write and think. Don’t ask about theme, but ask, “Why do you think this book was written?” Say to them, “I love this strategy. I use it when I read too.” Compare their shortcomings and failures to your own shortcomings and failures. Ask them to show you were they have revised their writing in their notebooks. Don’t have an agenda when you sit down. Tell them, “I want you to figure out what you need, so you don’t need me.” Ask them, “Read me something you love or something you want me to help you with.” Smile. Say thank you. Compliment.

Listen. Teach. Don’t administrate.

And always leave with a suggestion!

I hope this post was useful for you. I know it is not the same reading this on a blog or seeing these ideas on her website. Meeting people in person and seeing them in action is where so much of our learning happens. We all know these things. Right? But like Zen, it is a practice. We have to apply these skills over time to improve. I for one feel energized and inspired to get into my room tomorrow and try out a few of these things.

No agenda. Smile. Eye contact. Listen. Teach.

I’m on it.


Beyond Blogging? Student Choice

If I were to write this post how I feel it needs to be written– long, comprehensive, timely and engaging, then it would never be written. So instead I am going to try a quicker, choppier, more get it down approach. Going to try some Guerrilla Blogging . (I might have just made that term up, because when I looked it up there were little to no references.) But what’s up with this lengthy, rambling, irrelevant intro. This is not Guerrilla Blogging! Get to it.

What You Need To Know:

I haven’t blogged professionally since September when I Backed Away From The Edge, and consequently upset a few people in the process. But I am back now. I am revamped, energized and seeing things with a fresh outlook.

I’ve just returned from Japan, where I facilitated a two day EARCOS workshop with Rebekah Madrid called Beyond Blogging.  We were primarily looking at why shared online school spaces like class blogs and portfolios seem to fall flat. We decided that we knew, or at least thought we knew, what these spaces could do or have done for adult learners, but we were flummoxed, like many of you, as to why  K-12 spaces looked more like glorified teacher created worksheets, than dynamic authentic student created spaces designed for identity exploration, content creation and community building.

Big questions I know.

Everyone I spoke to before I left said, “Looking forward to seeing what you find!” And upon my return? “So what did you find out?

Here goes:

I started by talking with some students who I knew were active online. Two successful Youtubers from our school. I chatted with them for two forty-five minute sessions and this is what they said.

I was struck particularly by the key words which I highlighted in the video.

These words seem pretty straightforward. I think most teachers would like to think that they attempt to incorporate at least a few of these ideas into their daily teaching. But listening to the girls, it is pretty clear that they do not see the work they are doing in school at all similar to the work they do on their own.

This discrepancy, to me, seemed like the crux of our issue. The dichotomy between school generated curriculum and what kids w0uld choose to do if given a chance appears to be wider than many of us think.

You can take a look at the agenda from the workshop and explore some of the work the participants did here, but I wanted to take some time in this post to try and consolidate some of my own thinking. I thought about the Do’s and Don’ts we generated, and wondered what next. Here are some raw thoughts fresh from the weekend:

1. Choice matters– No one likes to be told what to do, and we like it less when we are told when or how to do it. Kids are no different. True, we are all working with a written curriculum which needs to be taught– a set of skills, concepts and understandings that we have pre-determined are vital for learning, but kids will always see this as “work.” It will be rare to find kids enthusiastically reflecting or sharing this type of teacher assigned work. When kids create or share online on their own accord, they seem to share ideas, skills and understandings which they choose an care about. No amount of forced reflection will make the work we assign authentic. Blogs will not magically make students care about what you want them to care about.

2. An Audience Matters–  Kids are not worried about being exposed to the world, but they are aware of who might be watching, and they want feedback from this audience. Perhaps, the idea that every kids has the same method of sharing (a blog or portfolio) with one massive audience (The world their school or class) is false. It is important that students create their own spaces and connect to smaller interactive audiences that give them feedback, instead of sharing everything with everyone and never connecting in a meaningful way with anyone. The tools learners use to create these spaces and communities must be chosen by the user.

3. Diversity of Tools- Kids need to create their own unique audiences and choose the methods and tools with which they connect to this community. Perhaps the readers in your class connect to other readers using Goodreads, but the actors choose Youtube as a place to connect with other actors, and the writers use a blog designed for Harry Potter fans. We cannot expect every member of our school community to use one platform to share their learning.

4. Being Open Requires Trust– Students have to know that their teachers are not looking for reasons to doubt or question student choices. They have to feel free to be themselves even if their identities do not always illustrate the perfect student. Life online requires risk taking, exploration, and the awareness that sometimes we all make mistakes. If we want students to be authentic we must allow them the time and space to find out for themselves what that means–without our own systemic institutional expectations.

5. Time– True student interests often exists beyond the curriculum. Kids need time to explore questions and solve problems of their own choosing. We need to make time for students to think, play and learn beyond our curricula. Things like the MYP Personal Project or Google 20% time could be key areas to allow for real blogging and online sharing. Allow students the time to learn, create and share the things that are important to them. Beyond assessment, school and work might be where students can share their learning. Take a look at this great pitch by Madeline Cox:

The problem, as I see it, with student blogging is not technological but curricular and institutional. We are expecting students to be excited about content they never chose to be excited about, and then we are disappointed when they are not super keen to write about it or share it with people who are not really their friends and who also lack interest in said content.

Share everything with everyone will never work. The better model is share what you love with those who care and can help you.

What does this type of sharing and learning look like in our schools? Most teachers do not work in student-centered, problem-based, inquiry model, project based institutions. No matter what we tell ourselves most of us are responsible to a curriculum and all the restriction it includes: explicit instruction, assessment, and reporting.

I think we need to think about what the learning looks like beyond our curriculum, so that it makes room for looser, freer, student choice. I have been hard on curricula in this post. I do not mean to say that students do not need the skills, concepts and understanding we teach them, but perhaps they do not see the value in sharing their school work in the place that we tell them to.

In a perfect world, we would see evidence of the curriculum in these more independent projects, and like Sidney said, the teacher can build the learning around what has already been done by the student. I am not sure what this model looks like in different schools or different subjects, so I can only share  examples of what we are doing in our MS English department at UWCSEA East.

We are using the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop. Coupled with our benchmarks, we have a pretty solid set of skills we are responsible to teach. I think these skills are important and I think teaching them explicitly is valuable. I also feel that assessing these skills, offering feedback and reporting on student progress is crucial for their growth as readers and writers. But I do not expect them to share their reflections of their learning on a blog. Who would want to read that?

I do see the value, however, of offering them choice in content. The beauty of the workshop model is that it offers absolute choice of what they write about and what they read. The units do focus on certain text types and this can prove problematic for everything I have mentioned in this post, so what we have done is intersperse independent writing units in between the more prescribed units of study.

For our last unit, students were given the choice to write about any topic or issue in any style or text type they found relevant. They wrote a range of pieces from cookbooks, to Rubic’s Cube tutorials, poems, songs and short stories. The next step is to coach these kids how to create communities around the content they create. Instead of publishing their assigned article on a blog, they need to learn how they might create a space to share their independent work, in hopes of finding other chefs or musicians.

As adults, we build communities around the content we create to express our passions and foster our learning. Why then do we not allow students the time and space to do the same? It’s not that blogging is dead or that we need to find out what lays beyond.  Schools as we know them are dying and we need to look beyond them.

This what I am thinking so far. What do you think? Share some thoughts and let’s see if we can’t figure this out together.


These Days

I’ve been meaning to write. It has been a while. I know. Did you miss me? I missed you. Missed you terribly. Missed the idea of you sitting there nodding or shaking your head, connected to my thoughts. Each one spilling from my fingers onto your screen into your psyche and daily thoughts. Or maybe, you just skim the words on a phone on a train in the night, soon forgotten. Who am I to know where you and I will meet? What will stick and what will float away. All I can do is write. I’ve been meaning to. It has been a while. I know. I missed you.

The problem is and always has been for most writers, I suppose, that I couldn’t make the time to get it right. A batch of half baked ideas taking up space does not always invite publication or sharing. So we swim with our premature ideas, hoping they will keep us a float long enough to make it a shore of completion.

The problem is that if there are enough of these incomplete thoughts, we may feel we can float forever and never need to actually give our ideas shape or voice or form.  I see clearly now, that enough is enough–  it is nearly October and I have yet to write the year’s first blog post. Here are my random thoughts looking for form:

I am cynical and distrustful of technology these days. It all feels trite and superfluous and outdated and stale. I tried to look for what I still value, really value in the Ed-Tech mold and there is not much. I do howver keep coming back to these ideas from Connected Learning.

Connected Learning
Connected Learning


I guess my goal this year is to define the aspects of this graphic that matter to me and really look at where and when technology is helping me accomplish these things in my classroom. I am planning a two-day workshop on the topic, so I best have my thoughts really clear.

But even in my personal life, the technology and even my network feels stale. Perhaps it is because I haven’t blogged in a while and have lost touch with the core of my audience. Perhaps I am in the midst of a necessary reflective period. Maybe I just need a break, or a detox. Not sure, but all I know is that I am not seeing technology like I have in the past. I am hyper-critical, aware and observant about the role of tech in my life.

So what is working? My classroom for sure! I am loving the lessons I learned from #TCRWP. I have fully embraced the workshop model. Complete with writer’s notebooks and mini-lessons. There really needs to be a post about this transition soon, but this post is not it. Let me just say that I love the idea of writers teaching writers how to write, instead of teachers teaching students how to write. I am very enthusiastic and I hope inspirational to the young writers in my room. I have removed the publication (blog) aspect from our writing work up to this point, and I couldn’t be happier. I am approaching blogging, writing and publication with a different outlook.

I have always advocated the openest form of online sharing and writing, but I am reconsidering my philosophy this year, and focusing on helping kids understand the stages of writing: Collecting, Drafting, Revising, Editing and Publishing. We are as a class discussing what it means to move through this process. Discussing along the way what it means to be a writer and the role of audience. It has been nice to write in private notebooks and work on skills and confidence before we share. We are getting ready to introduce blogs soon, but I am working on a new approach and will share our parent letter and explanation as soon as we go public.

What else is there to say? It has been a great opening to the year. We have been working on a new formative assessment procedure and a new reading program. All in all it has been a year of change and growth, but also one of nailing things down and building upwards. I just needed this post to get the wheels greased again.

So please do not forget about me here in your corner of the Internet. I am here and muttering and scribbling and changing and growing. Who know some of these half baked ideas might just be useful to you. Let me know if they are, because who are we kidding, I still need to know you need and want me.


Formula for Engagement

I am sitting on the floor next to a grade eight student discussing the elasticity between fiction and truth. She wants to know how far she can test “the facts” while writing a feature article about child-soldiers in The Sudan. She is thirteen years old, looking at me in the eye asking if she will lose creditability if she fictionalizes too much of her story. We discuss the gray area between fiction and non-fiction, the possibility of understanding truth, and how text is meant to entertain and inform. The worlds we create as writers, in a sense are all fictional, but our ability to trace our “truths” back to credible corroborated sources is a way to maintain our integrity. Does that make sense I say, doubtfully. “Yes,”  She nods her head. “Yes,” she says and with a furrowed brow returns to the sofa and begins to type frantically.

Like a dutiful bee, I move to the next student, this one in a bean bag and we discuss how to maintain an ongoing, moving, linear back story to anchor the raw data and information he wants to convey to his reader. He decides he will begin his article at the beginning of a cattle raid. After his lead, he will share the information he found after weeks of research on the value of cattle for Dinka culture. He tells me that he will return to the cattle raid now in progress- back to more information about the economy of cattle, and end with the aftermath of the raid. This is one of my learning support students who struggles to remain engaged. That sounds great, I say and leave him to wrestle with the words. The room is silent as the entire class stares at their laptops, fingers gingerly dancing on the keys.

You can either think of yourself as thirteen year olds writing for a teacher in English class, or you can think of yourselves as writers who demand to tell a story. There is a difference.

A few of them look up and smile awkwardly to acknowledge what I have just said, but most continue to write. I am not worried about distractions or Skype or Facebook or kids gaming. These guys are busy and engaged. They have assumed the identity of citizen journalists.

Being labeled a tech savvy teacher I sometimes feel pressure to always use technology. I don’t even know what that means any more. I sometimes feel guilty when I notice how “traditional” our curriculum has become. On days like today, however, none of it matters. Technology shouldn’t be a gimmicky lure we use to “engage” kids.  We use it when we can, when we must, when it makes sense. Otherwise we talk about writing. We write. We explore. Engagement is about passion and love for what we do. It is about getting on the floor and talking to kids about their ideas and giving them immediate feedback. 1-1 means that we try to spend time with each student discussing their work, not speaking at a class about what they all should be doing. No amount of technology will motivate kids, if the pedagogy and the content and the teachers love for the material is not there.

Our activity this week has little to do with technology. Sure we are using Google Docs to draft our work, giving me access to their on-going work, and yes we used Diigo to annotate and tag all our research, and yes we hope to publish these articles on a blog called Stories from The  Sudan and maybe even publish a selected few in an iBook of the same name, but really we have been focused on text and conversations about text and fiction and truth and justice and genocide and stories and voice and empathy and understanding.

I have been incredibly proud of our students. For the last several weeks they have read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a dense 500+page novel about the Sudanese Lost Boys. They have researched a variety of topics for their feature articles. Ranging from The Sudanese diaspora, to gender equality, to child-soldiers, to slavery, to cattle culture, to the socio-political causes of the regional conflict. As their summative assessment  they are writing a 1500 word feature article which attempts to entertain and inform, assessed by a rubric they wrote as a class.

Sometimes I cannot believe they are only thirteen years old. So often we underestimate what student are capable of, or worse we set the bar too high, but do not invest enough of our own passion to carry them through. The formula for engagement is simple- Students need high expectations and challenges, but they also need every ounce of energy we have to maintain enthusiasm and love for what we teach. We need to prove to them that we value what we ask them to do. We need to give them enough choice and autonomy to take ownership of what they do, then we need to support their choices with fluid and constant feedback.

How do you maintain engagement? What are your tips or formulas?


If We Don’t Who Will

Some days you walk out of your classroom feeling that nothing spectacular happened that day. Nothing was learned and even less taught. A lingering cold, wrapped in exhaustion, wrapped in lethargy, wrapped in an overwhelming sense of banging your head against so many walls that you’re not sure where you are or how you got in. Forget about any notion of getting out.

The room is dark and empty, but still heavy and slipping away from you. The classes came and went, their opaque faces drab and reflecting your frustration. You ever try to teach a group of thirteen year old boys the power of metaphor?  The subtle beauty of poetry, the understanding that beneath their carefully constructed shell of angst and machismo, there may just be a tinny furry animal waiting to sing. Might be whimpering now, beneath the dirge of braggadocio and false self-esteem, but if you can convince them, they may perhaps hear  a more authentic Yawp, but on days like these there are few rooftops, and what little plateaus may glimmer in the fog are tame and totally translatable into words like defeat and failure.

They didn’t learn today. Words were exchanged, ideas shuffled, you sang tired song and danced a sad dance, but they saw right through you. They saw  through the mask and realized that the clown was only human and the lessons he was selling were false and trite and unnecessary. You could see the words dribble from your lips, as your convoluted ideas grew higher and higher drowning you both in wasted effort. Thesis statements, understandings, abstractions, imagery, truth. What do you know of such things to have the gall to teach? Each child struggling with his or her own inability to comprehend or grow or learn. Your teaching rather than act as a life preserver, awkwardly transforms into anvils of confusion, which you carefully tie around each ankle and watch them sink.

Sure there was the literal kid, confessing his in ability to see what could be. Trapped in a world of what is. His young brain, trained by rulers and numbers packed so snuggling into his perfect little box. His eyes looking into yours, cold, “I don’t know why the world is beautiful.” Even after the claim of the worlds beauty was one of his professed truths. “Let’s make a list of things you find beautiful,”  you reassure him. “Mountains okay! That is good. What do mountains tend to represent?” Blank stare. Quiet. “If mountains were people, how would they act, how would they look?”  Whispering. Unsure. “Yes good– strong, wise, old! What else is beautiful?” We are getting somewhere. This is scaffolding. This is teaching. “Rivers. Yes! Sure they are fast and flow and change. What do they do to mountains? Shape them! Perfect.” High fives. “Have you ever been to a mountain? Swam in a river? No? Oh….” The high is low. Poetry without experience is nothing more than empty words.  You both stare at dead letters blinking on the page. You google a few images of mountains and rivers and ask him to write a poem about a little boy who sees the beauty in the world, but has never felt it. You hope for the best. How do you teach what could be, when we live in a world of what is?

People criticize teachers, bloggers, writers who only promote and share their success stories. Claiming that by sharing what works we set the bar too high. Perhaps they are right. Maybe we do need more posts sharing the days where it just didn’t feel right. We tell our students that they cannot hope to achieve at the highest level all the time, but we hold ourselves at this high standard. We are so afraid to admit that some days we just don’t have it.  It feels good to admit that. Because after all, we have been doing this long enough to know that these days come and go. We know we will head back into the classroom, we will look back into those eyes, we will sing the song, we will dance the dance and we will teach kids poetry god damn it, because if we don’t who will?