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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Reflections on the First D.E.I. Writing Conference

What an incredible two days I had hosting the First Annual D.E.I. Writing Conference this past weekend. After months of planning, emails, Facebook postings, presentation revisions, and phone conversations, the conference kicked off in Stony Brook, New York on Friday morning.

There were new teachers and veteran teachers.  Primary level teachers and upper grade elementary teachers.  Middle school teachers and reading specialists.  Administrators and college professors.  Each and every one ready to learn more, talk more, and share more about writing instruction and how to make it more effective and more efficient.

The days were filled with lively discussion, healthy debate, thoughtful questions, and shared laughter about what we, as educators, do in our classrooms each and every day.  Being surrounded by educators who were so dedicated and enthusiastic in making their writing instruction more relevant, authentic, and meaningful for their students made me remember why collegiality is such an important part of our any profession (or any profession for that matter).

A highlight of the conference for me was when I got to sit and listen to two of my colleagues, Tara Falasco and Kathleen Masone, as they spoke about "Test Writing as a Genre".  I sat in awe of their knowledge and passion for writing and learning, in general.  I asked questions, shared anecdotes, reflected on my own teaching practices, and connected with their words about embedding test writing into our every day experiences.

Picture books were a major focus of the day and teachers got to explore and investigate the many possibilities for teaching writing using some of our favorite texts in informational, narrative, and opinion writing.

Here are a few slides from three of the sessions that dealt with the power of mentor texts in Writing Workshop.

Opinion Mentor Texts

Informational Mentor Texts

Narrative Mentor Texts

For longer lists of mentor texts, full slideshows of all six sessions, photos, and other handouts shared at the conference visit this link at

We hope to see even more dedicated teachers at our summer 2014 conference!

D.E.I.'s First Annual Fall Writing Conference- Anchor Charts for Writing Workshop

Here are the photos from the PowerPoint shows that were too large to upload onto my website for all of you who attended as well as all of you who couldn't make it.  Stay tuned for my blog post on the WONDERFUL two day institute on Long Island.

Photos from Session #1: "Reworking the Writing Workshop: Taking What Works and Making it More Efficient, Effective and Exciting"

Photos from Session #2: "Raising the Quality of Narrative Writing in Your Classrooms: New Narrative Mentor Texts for Your Writing Workshop Classroom"

Photos from Session #6: "Using Interactive Read Alouds to Introduce Mentor Texts in Writing Workshop"

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Forgive me, Ralph

I had the opportunity to meet Ralph Fletcher back in April at the Massachusetts Reading Association conference, where he was speaking as the closing keynote speaker.  As a literacy "nerd" and a long-time fan of Ralph's work, a colleague of mine and I sat at the front table hoping to catch a closer glimpse at the writing master.  Wonderfully, I got the chance to strike up a conversation with him about the future of writing workshop and the Common Core State Standards before he began.  My colleague snapped a shot of us (the excitement in taking this photo was similar to what I imagine I would feel if given the chance to take a photo with any of the New Kids on the Block during the late 80s) and I listened to Ralph talk about "boy writers" for 60 minutes.  I soaked up each and every word and proceeded to buy his book of the same name; Boy Writers. 

I am a HUGE fan of Ralph Fletcher and agree with him and what he writes constantly.  I profess his wisdom to colleagues, students, and  parents constantly.   I have heard that Ralph believes that revision is the most important stage of the writing process. And as painful as it is, and as conflicted as I feel in doing this, I must disagree with Ralph (I can't believe I just wrote those words!).

I believe that selecting is the most important stage of the writing process.  Selection is where students choose an incredibly powerful and meaningful memory and create a thoughtful and honest memoir.  It's where students select the naked mole rat to develop a feature article that teaches readers all about this disgusting-looking yet fascinating, little rodent.  It's the time when students pick to argue the case for or against longer school days in a persuasive letter to the board of education.  Selection is where an idea is chosen carefully and thoughtfully that will take flight and evolve into something incredible or...where an idea is chosen quickly and frivolously causing angst for both student and teacher for weeks to come as they both struggle though the rest of the writing process.

Care, thought, and time should be taken when selecting an idea for a piece of writing.  I believe asking students  to think "small", at first, is the way to help them focus their idea and then grow it, as they move through drafting, revision, and editing.  

A fourth grade teacher from a school in which I consult invited me to demonstrate a drafting minilesson in her room a few weeks back.  To gain some insight, I asked her to send me a list of the students'' ideas.  This is the list she sent.

As I sent her an email discussing the importance of selection, I suggested we think smaller and that she ask some of the students (Kayla, Katherine, Rachel, Justin, Finola, Manny, and Tommy) to focus in on some of their larger topics.  I received her response in my inbox and was so pleasantly surprised to receive a new and revised list of the students' selected topics for their personal narrative after some conferring on her part.  They were smaller, more focused, more interesting (let's be honest...), and had a much better shot of being drafted, revised, and edited with less stress, better focus, and more excitement.  

Check them out side by side....

As Kayla, Katherine, Rachel, Justin, Finola, Manny, and Tommy took their larger topics, shrunk them down, and created smaller ones, without even realizing it, their writing experience became a deeper one.  

Selection, and selecting a smaller idea (regardless of the genre) is the key to making students feel successful right from the beginning of the writing process.  I hope Ralph Fetcher can forgive me.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My Daughter, the Writer

     I know I will sound like another mom bragging about their child and their academic accomplishments when I say this but my daughter is a real writer.  Please forgive my pride and amazement and allow me to tell you the experience I had watching my five-year-old daughter yesterday afternoon after she came home from school. 

     Anna started Kindergarten in September and truly loves every second of it.  As her mother, I have been trying to expose her to reading and writing since before she could talk  and she has been overwhelmingly receptive to my attempts.  She started asking about how to spell family names and write the letters of the alphabet while in the four year old class at her incredible nursery school.  She “read” books by flipping through the text, describing the pictures, and creating voices for the various characters she saw on the pages before her. 

     But yesterday afternoon something completely new and amazing happened. 

     Anna sat down at around 3:45 PM and asked my mother, who was watching my children at the time, for 27 pieces of white paper.  She then proceeded to copy the names of all of her classmates on separate pages, add pictures, and pile them up.  When she was done with this arduous task, she asked me for 27 envelopes into which she would put the newly decorated notes.  Two hours into this project (with no stoppage for snacks, television, Barbie doll breaks…), she proceeded to delve into the “art cart” and grab some stickers, which she would use to decorate the envelopes.  She again, wrote each of her friends’ names onto the outside of the envelope and signed the back with a “love Anna” so the recipients knew who had created this mystery gift.  She pulled off the paper that hid the adhesive (demanding that I not throw them out because she was going to use them as “sentence strips”), sealed them up and placed each one into a Target plastic bag.  When I thought she was done (two and a half hours later), she asked me to sit with her on the couch and allow her to read the front and back of each envelope showing me both what she had accomplished and her reading prowess.  She recognized that some didn’t have her signature “love Anna” on them and that she had spelled Brady’s name without the “d”.  So back to the kitchen table she went to revise and edit her work.

     As I watched Anna throughout this process I kept asking myself how she was able to sustain her interest and focus.  She was so intent and intense during this project.  As I reflected later that evening, I realized that Anna was doing what students in workshop classrooms do each day.  She was “given” things that teachers around the country give to their students in workshop classrooms each day.    Anna had the following:

  •      Choice to write about what interested her and about which she cared
  •      A real audience to whom she was writing
  •      A true purpose for writing- I can’t wait to hear all about how she delivered them and her friends’ reactions when she gets home today!
  •      Materials that suited her task- as much as I was not crazy about handing over 27 envelopes to her (especially the self-stick ones!!), I knew they were integral to this project
  •      An understanding that writing takes time and is a process but the payoff is tremendous!
  •      Writing aids to help her feel confident and comfortable as she wrote (she used a calendar sent home to parents for the “Adventures of Baby Bear” which included ALL of her friends’ names spelled for her).  Anchor charts and writing resources are pivotal if we want our students to become more confident and independent.
     As I tucked Anna in last night I explained to her that she should feel so proud of herself for all that she'd done this afternoon. I told her that she was a “real writer”.  And as she rolled over with her puppy doll, her face lit up with a smile that let me know she knew I was telling her the truth. 

 Anna hard at work!

Anna checking off the names of the friends' to whom she has already written notes

 The "Writing Resource" that allowed Anna to write each friends' name without any help from me.  She marked off when she finished their note with a pink dot.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

Admitting My Dirty Little Secret

     Each and every day I tell the students I work with (as well as my own children) to keep up with their reading, build reading  stamina, make time to read, and have conversations with pieces of interesting text.  And yet, I am sad to admit that I have not been practicing what I preach.   I am constantly distracted; by my work, my family, my health (having two hip replacements in less than 3 years is always a good way to get distracted by life…), the Internet (I do love me some Daily Show clips!), and other things that take me away from real, meaningful reading on a daily basis. 

     I remember when I was in my own 4th grade classroom, I read constantly.  In collegial circles, with my colleagues after school, for my principal when she’d drop a great article into my mailbox…I was really reading a lot.  I am ashamed to admit that I do not read as much as I should but that all changed when I picked up Notebook Know-How:Strategies for a Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner two weeks ago.  At first I requested it at my local library but after one chapter knew I needed my own copy to mark up and keep as a reference on my shelf. 

     This book has reinvigorated my love of reading professional literature and made me remember why it’s SO important for teachers to keep reading!  I took away so many tips from Aimee’s ideas (see my highlighted pages below) and have begun sharing them with teachers across the country in a quest to make the Writer’s Notebook more resourceful, manageable, and exciting.  Aimee pushed me to think about the notebook in ways I never imagined…after 13 years of using one!  I was able to fly through the book (my sessions of P.T. definitely helped me focus) and get excited all over again about the tools we use in our classrooms. 

     Keeping up with professional literature allows us to not only learn new things but also reexamine how we can think about old things.  It’s such a wonderful way to keep us sharp, engaged, and reflective as educators. 

     I am looking forward to choosing my next book (I am contemplating Aimee’s new book on Nonfiction notebooks…) and acquiting new ideas, which I can share with all of the teachers with whom I call colleagues.

Make sure you read each tip carefully.  These are just a sampling.  Buy the me it will wow you!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fighting Our #1 Enemy...TIME: Saving Time in Writing (and Reading) Workshop

This week I will try and post a number of tips for saving time in our workshop in an attempt to get back some time,  give our students more time to write (and read), and us more time to confer and grow our writers. 

Saving Time Tip #1

I never had scripts or published units of study when I taught in my own classroom.  I had to move through my minilessons quickly and consistently all on my own.  

As a new teacher to the workshop model, I was nervous that I would not have the will power to ask students to hold their questions, comments, and connections as I went through my 15 minilesson  teaching point each morning and afternoon (we had the luxury of an hour for Reading Workshop in the morning and an hour of Writing workshop at the end of our day...).   I would watch the clock, ask certain students to give me a silent signal when I reached the ten minute mark, or just cross my fingers that I would be able to get through the four parts of each day's minilessons under that 15 minute mark. It was tough and I needed more than the ticking of the clock to move me along and help me out.  

Enter my "Minilesson Cheat Sheet".  I decided that in order to transition quickly and consistently and help my students learn the routine of the workshop, I would need some help.  On an index card I scribbled down the phrases that I used every day for each part of the minilesson.  I laminated it, left it on top of my overhead projector (now I am dating myself...), and referred to it each and every day until I had those phrases memorized and they rolled off my tongue.  Not only did I feel more confident having my Workshop Cliff's Notes by my side, my lessons became more efficient and my students could anticipate what part of the minilesson I was up to (and when they had to be a part of it) based on the phrases I was using.  

This past week, in an intermediate school I was working in, we talked about "the enemy" and how our minilessons must be quick and consistent for our students to get to work.  After creating a fiction unit of study for Reading Workshop with an amazing group of teachers on Long Island (along with three scripts for teachers to reference), I created the cheat sheet below for those teachers to come back to time and time again.  I hope that you can use it as a way to keep your minilessons shorter and your reading/writing and assessment time longer.  

Let me know what you use to keep those minilessons under 15 minutes!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Your Classroom Door as a First Impression

Every semester I tell my undergraduate students in the Literacy Department at Dowling College that when they are writing their resumes and cover letters for their first teaching job they need to craft those resumes and cover letters in a very thoughtful, careful, and creative way.  The Assistant Superintendent for Personnel to whom that resume and cover letter are being sent does not know who they are, what they know, or what they believe.  Those two pieces of paper are their first (and usually only) shot at impressing a person who truly needs to be impressed if they have a chance of getting chosen out of the hundreds of applicants lining up for the one or two slots available for the fall.  I try to impart that what they put down on those pages is a first impression.  And first impressions are important. 

Your classroom door, like those carefully crafted resumes and cover letters, is also a first impression.   Even if your door is open for most of the school day (as mine was when I was teaching) your classroom door is typically the first thing that students, parents, colleagues, and administrators see when they enter your home away from home. For me, literacy is always the driving force for all learning that takes place in a classroom.  So why not have your classroom door, your first impression, reflect how important reading and writing are to you from day one? 

Here are a few ideas for creating a door that really gives everyone who passes through it, an idea of your literacy hopes, dreams, and goals for the upcoming year.  What will your door look like?

For older students who can't pry themselves away from their phones, check out this way to mesh texting and books.  Have students use "text speak" to write short summaries about their latest reads.  

 This door has students write book critiques and color code them for "must reads", "maybe reads", and "skips".  

 This door shows what the teacher has been reading to show that he/she lives a literate life, both in and outside of the classroom.

 Students post the book covers of their favorite reads for the school community to see.

 All kids know what Redbox is.  Why not create a door with "Readbox" with all of your students' reads from the summer.  Then change them from month to month.  This teacher even has QR codes for more information about the books!

Looking for ways to increase your students'' vocabulary in Writing Workshop?  Use your classroom door to build up words and ideas for them to use in their writing.  Doubles as a word wall too!

Want to link social media and learning?  Have students tweet (in 140 characters or less, of course...) their ideas about their books, writing pieces, or any other learning taking place inside your room.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Looking for New Mentor Texts? Look up!

I am at my public library a lot.  I mean a lot.

I have two kids (Sam is almost 8 and Anna is almost 5) who treat the library like their own private bookstore.  We are there a few times a week choosing new books to read, taking out DVDs, signing up for programs (my son just participated in the "Read to a Guide Dog" was incredible!!!), and/or using their computers and iPads that are bookmarked with the most incredible websites and apps for kids.

I am also an educator.  Going to my public library a few times a week gives me a chance to "do work" without really feeling like I am doing work.  I am constantly on the lookout for new and exciting mentor texts but don't necessarily have the time (remember I have two kids...) to search through the thousands of picture books (not to mention chapter books) that my library has to offer.  So how do I effectively and efficiently flip through all of the texts there at my fingertips and choose the right ones?

I look up.  The talented, knowledgeable, and patient librarians have done this work for me!  Librarians take time each day to hand pick the newest, most beloved, ALA recommended picture books out there for children.  They select books in various genres, thinking about children of all ages, and prop them up above the book shelves for me to see!  I have found many of my beloved mentor texts by simply grabbing some of the librarian-selected books at the library.  I'll grab a few each time I visit, bring them home, digest the possibilities, and THEN purchase them for use in the many classrooms I visit each year.

The next time you are looking to boost your classroom library for mentor texts, check out your public library and look up.  You may discover some new texts that will help your young writers to do things they never dreamed possible.

Here are some of my recent favorite librarian-selected picks:

Anna's flip flops laying on my desk next to The Loud Book, To Be Like the Sun, Chloe Instead, and Pug and Other Animal Poems.

 Doing some nonfiction work and flipping through Same, Same but Different, What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You?, and Castles, Caves and Honeycombs along with Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey

 Wrapping end of the year teacher gifts and testing out some mentor texts...The Librarian of Basra, My First Day, and Who Says Women Can't be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell.

Take a trip to your public library and let me know what you found?