Connecting Writers and Mini Lessons

I have never taught a group of students that didn’t love to tell stories. Tales of their birthdays, weekends, previous classrooms, and random adventures fill our classroom from the first day to the last. At the same time, many of these student story tellers are often reluctant writers. The first day of school, my fifth graders gather on the carpet for our first writer’s workshop and I ask, “How many of you are writers?” A small group of student hands go up. I tell students that I will offer them a space to nurture the writer within, to recognize choices they make as they construct a text, and to understand the power of re-vision. Ultimately though, my goal is to have many more of those little hands go up when I ask where the writers in this group are.

My pursuit of increased self-efficacy in my 5th graders begins with the mini lesson, specifically the connections portion.  In the opening weeks of school I share a lot of my own experiences, connect to my life as a writer, and share my thoughts as I revise a piece of writing. In this phase my main goal is to model how exciting and interesting it can be to craft a text.

In the 2nd phase, I want to show students that interesting and well developed writing can come from a 5th grader, not just an adult or a published writer.  I begin the lesson by sharing writing I have collected from students in prior years. These writers are often siblings, cousins, or friends of current students. It always amazes me how much more attention I get when I begin a lesson with something like, “Last year when we were writing narratives, my  student (whose name would be here) really chose good places to show not tell her emotions.”  Students eyes will brighten and the chimes of, “I remember her” or “That’s my cousin” begin the carpet buzz. I want them talk about the skills these young writer’s demonstrate and the deliberate choices they made. I want these models to entice more students to take the risk of trying something new in their writing.

After students have had enough opportunities to generate draft writing, I begin my search for models in the classroom. From this point on I am looking in the students writing for examples of skills we need to develop or recognize as part of a writer’s toolkit. In preparation for the lesson, I ask an unsuspecting writer if I can use their piece as the example in the day’s mini lesson.  From this point on, the connection portion of the mini lesson will highlight one or two students who have demonstrated a specific skill.

All it takes is one time to put a student on display and the other writers begin trying new skills by practicing in the form of their colleague or taking the risk of trying something new. They begin looking forward to hearing which friend they will be learning from that day. Students begin to recognize that they write great openings, develop great characters, and maybe even have a knack for making the reader laugh. We become a community of writers learning from one another.


Tribute to the Bay Area Writing Project

This post is in tribute to the Bay Area Writing Project for 40 years of Excellence

The Bay Area Writing Project has nursed my practice from its infancy to now. I have come to know the real strength of the Writing Project is in the huge reach both formal and informal of its network of teacher consultants and their shared beliefs about the teaching of writing.

I chose to get my credential from Mills College and my first student teaching placement was with BAWP consultant Mary Hurley. Although I don’t remember Mary and me having formal conversations about the writing project, I observed Mary using strategies like Show Not Tell during her writer’s workshop. More importantly though, Mary modeled what it meant to take an inquiry stance and to ask the difficult equity questions. My relationship with Mary was the beginning of BAWP’s influence on my teaching.

During my second year teaching my school contracted a professional development series with BAWP. After a few sessions on different ways to engage students in the writing process and ways to strengthen student’s use of language I requested a session on conferencing and revision. In a crazy twist of fate I ended up sick when the TC presented the session on conferencing.

That summer Mary was leading a week long institute on Elementary Writing in OUSD in partnership with the writing project. Of course, I signed up. I remember all the energy in the room as BAWP TC’s presented their practice. Opening up their classrooms practices for other teachers to take from, modify, reshape, and make their own. Not peddlers of perfect practices, but practitioners generously sharing ideas and inviting critical thinking. This summer session began a spark that my own invitational summer would forever ignite in me. These teachers were not saying here is the best and only way to do this, so do what I say. These teachers were saying here is what I do and this is what my students produced. They invited us to take what we thought we could use, to modify the strategies they presented in ways that would meet the needs of our unique learners. They modeled deep thinking and inquiry. Teachers teaching teachers. I remember thinking, this could be me. It was also at this institute that I met TC Stan Pesick, who I would spend 3 summers with thinking about the integration of social studies curriculum and writing. The work of these amazing BAWP TC’s just seemed to call out to me.

Fresh off my summer institute at BAWP I still had this lingering question about the best ways to engage students in peer conferencing. I’d participated in conferencing sessions with other teachers during OUSD’s mini institute, but when I asked my students to talk to one another about their writing overwhelmingly they would read, talk about something, and then say to one another well you really should add more details. More often than not that led to nothing. The writing would go unchanged. But I believed I could figure this out. For an entire school year I listened closely to students having conversations about their writing. I recorded conversations and made adjustments to my teaching to encourage the kind of writing discourse that would help students make revisions to their writing. I was sharing this work in my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry group with another BAWP TC Annie Henderson. As she listened to me talk about my work she offered to nominate me for the writing project. As if it was my fate to become a BAWP TC, Annie let me know that by the time she got to it Mary Hurley had already nominated me.

I went into my interview, charged by the work of all these amazing BAWP TC’s and a year’s worth of data from writing conferences I’d collected during my Mills Scholars inquiry. BAWP TC Adela Arriaga would coach me through taking a mountain of data and practice and honing it in to my first teaching demonstration. She helped me shaped the practices honed through data collection into a professional presentation. She coached me to make sure to leave time at the end to give my institute colleagues a chance to share how they may take and modify my presentation for their grade levels and subject matter. Wow what an awesome resource this would be for me. I look back and reread suggestions from these colleagues when I need new ways to connect students with the process of conferencing.
By the end of the summer of 2009, I had a year of data turned into teaching demo, and then I spent a year doing inquiry with TC Betina Hsieh who helped me turn a year of inquiry into a piece of professional writing.

The names mentioned in this tribute are few among many BAWP teacher consultants that have influenced my practice. Marty Williams who took me on my first writing retreat. Lanette Jimerson who led me through my first week long institute. Mary Lugton who co-planned, coached, and spent time with me reflective on the success of that institute.
Why name all these names. Because for me these teachers, these teacher consultants are the face of writing project. They are the embodiment of a set of beliefs that inspire the teacher in me. Generations of expertise saying to a new teacher you can do this. You canfigure this out and you can contribute to the greater body of teaching. Teachers teach teachers. Teachers of writing write. Student data must be at the heart of innovative teaching. Inquiry is essential to equity. When I say I am deeply grateful to BAWP for its contribution to my career as a teacher, what I am really saying is that I’m deeply grateful to every single TC who embodied the beliefs of the writing project and shared them with me.




Our Words can Help Shape our World

At the most fundamental level writing is a means to communicate ideas. After 6 years of teaching 5th grade, I am certain students benefit from seeing writing as more powerful than accolades or grades. Students need a relationship with writing that demonstrates the power it contains. One of the school wide goals at my site is that students leave our community ready to fully participate as citizens in this country. A fundamental part of citizenship is understanding the power of voice. In my classroom, I want students to experience the power their words have to effect change. This means students need opportunity to connect their writing to experiencing that kind of change.

Students encounter my power to shape their environment every time we enter the classroom together. It is really important to me that students also feel empowered to participate in the shaping of our learning environment as well. I want to give them regular opportunities to see how the power of their words can lead to change.

This year I implemented a letter writing system in our classroom. This involves student correspondence with me every week. I ask students to share what is going well, what they don’t like, and what they may want to change. Often in these letters students make me aware of their feelings, books they would like in our classroom library, goals they have for themselves, the fact they think social studies is sometimes boring. They discuss the seating arrangement, whether or not they can see the board, and how they feel if I asked them repeatedly to stop talking. Often the things they bring up require an immediate response on my part, sometimes I ask more questions and provide explanations, but most importantly their words help shape their world.

As I post this short blog, I visualize adding a poster to my room that says, “Our words help shape our world.” On the first day of school I asked my students which of them were writers. Not very many raised their hands. Even if they don’t grow up looking to a rite the next great American novel, they can all leave understanding that their words can help shape their world.

The Feedback Loop

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 What is feedback for learning and how well do you give it?

I dream of a classroom where each of my students can get constant, timely, personal feedback across the curriculum that moves their thinking forward. In my perfect dream classroom I would not only have the time to give engaging and critical feedback to every student, but I would be able to monitor student responses to that feedback and tailor instruction to meet the needs of all students well. Every year I incorporate procedures and try to generate structures that help me overcome obstacles and move me closer to this feedback dream. In my mind feedback for learning involves a particular feedback cycle listed below.

  1. A task connected to a learning goal
  2. Teacher analysis and individual feedback sharing strengths and next steps
  3. Students engage with feedback and move forward on next steps
  4. Student modifications to task
  5. Students internalized the learning goal associated with the feedback
  6. Opportunities to go deeper over time

Essential to this feedback loop is acknowledgement of what students are doing well. Often my students can’t identify the parts of a task they are successful at. I believe feedback that is going to push learning forward begins by naming for students their strengths. As a teacher it is important to think about how students can move from what is working well to what they need to do next. Feedback encourages students and makes seemingly daunting tasks feel doable in small steps.  Another component to this loop is how it incorporates students’ goals for their own learning. Student voice is essential to the feedback loop as well. Students need to be able to give feedback to a teacher. Sometimes figuring out what students need is as simple as asking them.

This school year I have several mechanisms for sustaining ongoing feedback for students. Individual conferencing during readers and writers workshop helps me give relevant and timely feedback to students. My notes during these quick conversations often translate into mini lessons during read alouds and writing demos. Technology like the Edmodo programs provides another space for quick individual feedback through the quizzing, polls, and lesson grades students and parents can access online.

My favorite form of feedback is old school letter writing. Student homework journals provide a place for me to write to each student a longer more personal letter every week sharing their strengths and writing very personalized next steps. This is my favorite place for feedback. These homework journals feel more like authentic coaching conversations guided by student work. Often students will engage with me in these journals. I love when students spontaneously leave little notes for me in the journals giving me more information about what is working and what is not. These journals also serve as a place to track over time the goals we set and the steps we have taken to meet these goals.

Finally, every week students write a letter to me. They are prompted to tell me something they enjoyed, something they may be struggling to understand, to ask me any kind of question regarding processes or content, and to give suggestions about things that they need. These letters inform my practice, and demonstrate to students my willingness to listen to them. After all a really power feedback loop should go both ways. Truthfully with all of this there is still critical feedback that may go unsaid.

5th Grade Heritage Project

Forward Thinking

…The Next Five Years

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I have never taught the same yearly plan twice. So much changes from one school year to the next, I have never been able to repeat a plan no matter how good I thought it was. With that said, I do have essentials of practice that I always go back to. The pedagogical practices that anchor my work give me a road map through all the changes and unforeseen circumstances. For ten years each year has been different. So as I think forward to the next five years, I am sure much change will have happened. But I am also certain that much will remain the same.

Five years from now my students will probably all have computers in their desks. I will probably be struggling to keep up with the technological advances of a 21st century classroom. I can see myself attempting to facilitate deep conversation, engage students in reflection, and encourage them to believe in the power of paper and pen in this fast paced, short sentenced, too much information at the tip of your fingertips world. There will be many lessons on cyber bullying and internet safety. Curriculum on what you can believe and not believe about what’s available on the internet.  I imagine students being at the forefront of their own learning. Differentiation for each student happens with the push of a button on a computer program. By necessity I will be listening to students, because they will probably know more about the technology than me. Right now this is the biggest change I can foresee.

In five years I am not sure what the stance will be on common core, or what assessments may look like, or what curriculum I will be teaching. I am not even certain what my grade level will be. But I am certain that my belief that all students can learn will be unchanged. I am certain that I will engage students in rich conversations that incorporate identity building. I am certain that I will be deeply engaged in some kind of teacher inquiry. I am certain that social justice will be at the center of my practice. I am certain that my students will be teaching me as much as I am teaching them.

My Favorite Part of the School Day


My Favorite Part of the School Day

This post is really easy for me to write. Finding my favorite part of the school day is really easy for me to do,  because it is by far my favorite part. After lunch recess my students come in grab a journal and meet me on the carpet in the back of our classroom for writer’s workshop. We always begin with a review of the previous lesson. Then I start with my storytelling example. Thinking about what I want students to be able to do I tell my stories. Students interrupt with the questions and connections my stories bring up for them. A spirit of storytelling falls magically all over the room. Students share their stories, heads nod in agreement and laughter sometimes erupts. Once the room is bubbling with interest, ideas, and challenges for making our writing better, I send students off to find a place in the room to write. With a countdown from 20 to 1 the room goes from bubbling and noisy to quiet. Students huddle over notebooks pouring their hearts out with pencil onto paper. I walk around checking in with students, reviewing writing goals, but most of all just listening to the stories they want to tell. Stories give me clues about who they are and what their families are like. Storytelling is such an integral part of the human experience.

As a teacher, I really enjoy spaces where I can set up rigorous goals for my students while building relationships with them. Writer’s workshop is a  space where genuine questions about students’ lives lead into meaningful learning goals for their writing. Students don’t feel like I am pushing them to next levels of learning, they are just brimming with desire to share their story.

It never fails. I will be ending a conference or starting one and a student will say, “Ms. Simmons will we get to share out today.” It is as soon as I hear this that I know little writers are emerging, feeling proud and ready to publish their stories, to make their voices heard. I teach so students can learn their voices matter. I teach so students can learn their stories are important. In my mind these little writers of today are the voices of tomorrow that will demand liberty and justice for all.

It May Go Unsaid

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 The Unspoken Accomplishments

What is it that a teacher really accomplishes? Is it accolades from administrators, district higher ups, certificates, awards, units, or new degrees? Is it when a parent says, “You know what Ms. Simmons you are the best teacher my child ever had.” Is it an accomplishment when the principal calls and asks you to move into a position of leadership? Is it when students get excited because they have learned something new?

The really interesting thing, I feel my greatest accomplishments are not my accomplishments at all. They are the accomplishments of my students and they are shared with me. I believe I had something to do with them, but I know they are not mine alone.

So here is one of my greatest accomplishments in teaching. This is the story of a student. A student who struggled with authority, was very confrontational, and quite used to being the center of attention in a negative way. Every day was a battle for him. He had many triggers and many different behaviors that accompanied those triggers. But, boy some days he could be a real angel. Those were the days I longed for and the days that gave me the audacity to hope that I could make a difference in his life.

He came to me in fourth grade. He worked hard. His mother and father worked hard. I worked hard. His team at my school worked hard to craft consistent expectations, rewards, incentives, and help to increase his self efficacy. His classmates worked hard. They were forgiving of certain behaviors. They learned to hold high expectations for themselves, so his behavior didn’t lead to whole class disruptions. We learned to work together for the good of the group. So much so that at the end of the year I wanted to loop with them to 5th grade. I didn’t want to lose the momentum of progress this group of students had gained. I wanted to see these students through. With my principal on board our work continued into the 5th grade. We worked hard and we had a great time. It wasn’t easy, but we got it done.

Recently this young man came to visit me. He said, “You know what Ms. Simmons I have matured. I have learned to control my anger and I am doing well.” Our conversation was short. But I was more than proud. Is this accomplishment mine? Probably not. It is his for sure. But these are the accomplishments I hold dear. More dear than any of the possibilities mentioned above. My greatest unspoken accomplishments are the days where patience, support, and high expectations give a child enough time and hope to mature into the kind of person they really want to be.

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5 4 3 2 1 Little Details About Me


5 Random facts about myself

  • I love the color orange
  • As a girl I wanted to be a lawyer
  • I love crossword puzzles
  • My dog means the world to me
  • Journaling helps me cope

4 things on my bucket list

  • Walk on a black sand beach
  • Skydive
  • Get a book published
  • Have a grown student come back and tell me what my classroom meant to them

3 things I’m hoping for this year

  • A better balance between home and work
  • A more digital learning environment
  • Fewer lockdowns than last year


2 things that have made me laugh or cry as an educator

  • When students express ideas of hopelessness for their own future I cry
  • Those moments when kids say the darndest things


1 thing I wish people knew about me

  • I am actually quite sensitive and things often hurt my feelings



Mentoring Relationships

My second year in the classroom, I was extremely lucky to get the opportunity to participate in a research project around mentoring teachers of color. This research project gave me several hours to spend with a mentor reflecting on my classroom practice and participating in a focus group to discuss issues facing teachers of color.  We also discussed the particulars of what is needed for the mentor-teacher relationship.

During these sessions my mentor always began by checking in with me about where I was in my work. She listened to what was on my mind, heard my goals,  and asked me genuine and interesting follow up questions. I want to share about one session that stands out to illustrate what I believe a good mentor does.

One day she came to my classroom for an observation. While she was observing our school went on lockdown. If I remember correctly the lockdown was long and intense. Students didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what was going on. In the tension of the moment I decided to have a community circle with my students to process what was happening. My mentor thought to turn on the recorder. I cant remember as I write this post exactly how I opened the conversation, but I do remember all the students sharing stories of their nights at home listening to gun shots both far and near, sharing about not being able to play outside late, stories of violence hit way too close to home. Listening to these students triggered a memory I had of gun shots in the neighborhood I lived in, the same neighborhood in which I currently teach. I shared with students my story of being laid down in a huddle in the back of the car with my sister. My mother comforted us from the front seat where she lay. An altercation had taken place at the restaurant where we were getting dinner and escalated all too quickly. I shared my feelings and fears, but then my hopes. I explained to students my hope for changing things. I spoke to them about possibility, about education being the door opener to change. Even though I share it now as if it was a lecture, it was very much a conversation filled with agreement and interjection.

Once the lockdown was lifted, and students escorted safely to their families, I met with my mentor for our session. She asked me several reflective questions about the decisions I’d made. I distinctly remember her genuine understand of the difficultly of the situated, however she named that she as a white woman with a certain kind of privilege hadn’t had the same kind of experience in the situation as me. She did not make it a pity party, she didn’t turn it into a conversation about her. She acknowledged her difference and opened up a space for me to process my thinking. She listened. I talked. In this conversation she helped me name my beliefs about teaching. During our conversation, I surfaced philosophies, my philosophies, and how they connected to my pedagogy. She helped me understand how often the decisions we make as teachers are in the moment, but they are grounded by what we believe. She helped me see the agency my students and I had in such a vulnerable situation.

To this day I call on her when I need someone to help me think through something. I talk. She listens. She nudges. I clarify. She suggests. I decide. She coaches from the passenger side. I drive.

Thank You Carrie!

Photo Aug 22, 4 08 50 PM

#ReflectiveTeacher The Room

In my mind the classroom itself is just as much a living part of the community as all the other members. I found myself today talking to students about systems within systems and how humans and the environment they inhabit interact.  I try to set up a classroom that will facilitate interaction. I want a space that is inviting, comfortable, and generative.

The tables in the room are arranged into 4 groups that seat 6 students for the ease of conversation and cooperation on group related tasks, partner discussions, and table conversations. I worked really hard this year to set up a large carpeted area in the back for ease of choosing reading books, laying in a comfortable place to read, having classroom conversations, or playing cooperative games during free choice time.

The one thing in there that I don’t see that I would like to is a sofa. I have always wanted a nice comfy place where students could take a time out, discuss stories, read together, or have conversations with me. I understand that my room is really set up to encourage a lot of talking and that doesn’t always work to my advantage. However, I know students have to feel comfortable talking to each other in regular conversation before they will open up in risky academic discussions

In the spirit of honesty I am always jealous of those teachers who manage to make their rooms look like the rain forest, a jungle, or outer space. Maybe one day I will be able to live out my dream of having students come to school and find one of these awesome designs.