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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

#ReflectiveTeacher Post 14

 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.


Classroom Digital Connections

Our daily lives are slowly being invaded by technology. Humans have always had experiences that we wanted to capture in images and through stories. In this digital age these stories can be told quickly and shared instantly in the forms of facebook and Instagram posts, text messages, and tweets. This digital crossing took center stage in my classroom, leading me to a split second decision to give in to the invasion, and consequently some deep reflection about the intersections between my classroom and my students digital ways of being. This series of posts will examine the intersections of daily classroom practices, technology, and it’s effects on my teaching.

Here’s the scene. Students gather at tables in groups of four. On a tray sits individual cups of various reactant material, beakers, syringes, stir sticks, magnifiers, goggles, and thermometers. Students carry with them science notebooks, labsheets, and pencil or pen. I go over the procedures, checking for understanding of the lab directions. Students prepare in small groups for their first set of reactions. “For safety, goggles on.” I walk around supervising reactions, asking probing questions, and checking notebooks. I stop to check in with Barry, he holds up his beaker, bubbling from his reaction combination, and says, “Ms. Simmons I really need to take a selfie.” In that instant I stopped to consider the idea. In a matter of seconds I reflected on moments when I feel the need to take selfies. I figured Barry saw himself as that classic image of scientist making bubbling concoctions in laboratories, and he wanted to capture this moment in his working cell phone memory. Something is happening here, I thought. “Go Ahead.” “For real” he says, “I can.” “Ok class”, I say, “I’m giving two minutes for anyone who wants to take a selfie.”

Much of what I do in my classroom centers around relationship building. From day one I ask students to work collaboratively. Often that collaboration is centered around constructing ideas together but can also be as simple as negotiating the sharing of material. From the first day of class I begin establishing safe and trusting relationships that push students past their perceived learning boundaries. Part of my attempt to build relationships with my students centers around incorporating student interests into the classroom and allowing them a voice in the way our learning takes shape. That means valuing the world in which my students reside. As much as I hate to admit it for sake of feeling old, that world is different from mine. It is different from the one in which I grew up. I teach in an era of social networking. Every student I had this year was fascinated by or had a personal relationship with social media. The scene described above is just one slice of the way technology is altering our classroom landscape. Reflecting on the decision to give students time in this lesson to take selfies led me to uncover something I believe is underlying the whole scene.

I felt that I should validate my student’s experience by valuing that he wanted to capture that moment in time. He would later tell me that he shared the image with his family. In the moment he knew he had the technology to preserve the moment, take it with him beyond the classroom, and share it at home with his family. These digital tools at the fingertips of students open up many lively possibilities for the extension of relationships and validation of my students new ways of being. I believe this brief moment sparked his desire to engage in storytelling. The modern way of sharing about experiences. Even though this kind of digital inter crossing opens up a lot scary risks that need to be very carefully managed, and I realize how much the boundaries need to be very clearly defined. I am completely open to the possibilities.


One way to surface teaching issues/problems is to begin by checking your assumptions. – Tomas Galguera Professor Mills College

The notion of checking assumptions is a really important one. Not the idea of check your assumptions at the door and get rid of them. But, examine them for accuracy. Examine the idea behind the assumption and why it is that I am assuming what I am. Under my assumptions may be the issue of inquiry, the issue of equity that I need to get at to move my teaching practice forward. I talk to students all the time and I assume I know what they mean when I am filling in missing words, nodding my head why they say something I dont quite understand but I assume I know what they are getting at. Then I say, “ok my students comprehend this subject matter or they understand this story.” Then I ask them to write about the story or write about what they learned. SHOCK and CONFUSION, not on the part on my students, but all over my face as I read the written accounts of my students learning. The thing that I just new they understood seems to be all muddled when they write. Either there is a serious disconnect between what my students can orally describe that they know and what they can write, or in my attempt at filling in the language gaps I am assuming comprehension that students dont really have. This year I want to look/listen/read closely so I can check that assumption. As tomas states assumptions play a great role in inquiry. Checking those assumptions are essential to equity.

A Question to Ponder

In my classroom I have small group work time four days a week. I spend 30 minutes with a small group during each of those sessions. For two days of the week I work with the same group. The other two days they work alone. We had been reading together a short Tall tale at their level. I must point out that it was at their fluency level. However the content and language of the text required some scaffolding. Particularly because this group of students are English learners. The story had hyperbole and simile, as well as a plot that began at the end and took you in a complete circle. With that said, we read the text together. We discussed what was happening at the end of each major section. we discussed the meanings of the figurative language and talked about the traits of the character. We worked with the story together for about 4 sessions. In the session where they were to work alone they had to answer some comprehension questions about the text in short sentences. One question asked them to respond to a question that could be answered by reading a sentence on the first page. One student in the group responded to the question by describing the scene in the picture on the first page. The picture had nothing to do with the actual text on the page. So during the share out of answers we discussed the discrepancy to the picture and the actual text. We also talked about how pictures enhance the text, but may not reflect the entire story. We also talked about how important it is to check the actual words. Even though by the end of the discussion the student understood why the answer was incorrect, I still wonder what this tells me about her reading ability. Especially since I know she could read the page and that we had already discussed it.

Teacher Inquiry Positively Affects Practice

“Good questions work on us, we don’t work on them. They are not a project to be completed but a doorway opening onto greater depth of understanding, actions that will take us into being more fully alive.” – Peter Block

So many nights, I come home from my classroom with one of those difficult questions at work on me. One of those questions of practice that makes you think and rethink lesson plans, table groups, schedules, and whatever other things may be blocking desired outcomes. Inquiry allows me to explore these deep questions and react to them with more than just my instinct. Having some sound methods of gathering data and analyzing it opens the door to understanding phenomena in much greater depth. Exploration that often leads to more questions. Exploration that brings more depth to my practice, making me more capable of creating change. Taking away from that vulnerable feeling that there is nothing I can do or that I have tried everything. Inquiry helps me maintain my agency and keeps me focused that all students can achieve at rigorous levels. This inquiring habit of mind is exactly what I am trying to instill in my students and it is exactly what keeps my practice vibrant and full of life.