February 19

What makes a good writer?

When I was in the classroom, I often was asked, “How do you get your student writers to be so good at writing?”  Trust me, they were not good writers by accident!  They were good writers because we wrote – A LOT!  In my class, students wrote every single day.  It was a requirement.  They knew it from day one.

At first, they grumbled a lot and some were quite resistant.  After a week or two, it became something that they knew could not be avoided and they accepted it.  After a month or so, they looked forward to writing time.  How did we get to that point?  By writing – A LOT!

You see, as the eighth grade English/Language Arts/Reading teacher, I was charged with getting those students ready to write on-demand for the state assessment.  The state writing assessment carried a lot of weight.  It counted as 25% of the middle school state report card’s accountability score.  Then, their state standardized ELA/Reading score counted 25% of the remaining 75% with math, science, and social studies scores rounding out the remainder of that 75%.  Therefore, performance in my class was important for the entire school – for sixth and seventh grades as well as the eighth grade.  So, in my class, students wrote – A LOT!

Times have changed when it comes to accountability scoring but the emphasis on being a good writer is still important for all grade levels and accountability reporting.  For that reason, students still need to write – A LOT!

To this day, I always look for writing inspiration that I can share with teachers to help develop their student writers.  Oh, there is more to developing writers than just challenging them to put words on a page, for certain.  Students need a mini-lesson on a regular basis to help guide them in knowing the conventions of the language – grammar, spelling, mechanics, etc.  They also need to read continually and especially to read and discuss good writing.  After all, without a model, learning is just trial and error and schools today do not have time to allow for a lot of trial and error – some, yes, but not a lot.  Guiding and developing student writers is an on-going task for any teacher in any content area.  However, the most important ingredient to the recipe for developing good student writers is to have expectations for writing – A LOT.

Today, I revisited a site that I have enjoyed periodically as inspirational – something that inspires me to be more appreciative of my blessings and encourages me to strive toward being a better person.  As I read a couple of stories today, my thought was, “Wow!  Wouldn’t this be a great model for student writers?  Some student writers could use this as a model and run with it.  They could become noticers and voices to tell bits of another’s story.”  Sometimes what a person needs to rejuvenate his/her writing life is a bit of inspiration.  So, my suggestion for today is, share Humans of New York with your students and maybe one or two might be inspired to develop his or her own Humans of… series, sharing an interesting bit of someone else’s story.

Write on!

And, write – A LOT!

May 6

Mentor Texts as Writing Inspiration

Many years ago I facilitated my first workshop at the National Council for Teachers of English conference.  Three other teachers and I worked through a practical, interactive workshop with a focus on writing in a reading classroom.  We shared ideas and suggestions for interactive spelling lists, trying multiple types of writing genres and prompts, and reading like a writer/using mentor texts.

During my segment of the workshop, I got the opportunity to share a read-aloud using one of my favorite mentor texts, Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher.  I chose to read the chapter entitled “War” and then challenged participants to use it as a mentor text for their next ten minutes of writing.  During the sharing time there were some phenomenal pieces read – well, after all it was a conference for English teachers!  Then, I outlined ways to use this in the classroom.

We looked at the neighborhood map at the beginning of the book.  I shared how I modeled drawing a map of my own neighborhood for my students and asked them to create their own map.  Then, I modeled how I selected 3-5 spots and starred them on the map and gave a 1-3 synopsis of a story relating to that map (most of them involved childhood games and playing like Fletcher’s).  Then, I asked the group to select one of the stars to be my first written piece and explained how asking students to do the same with a partner provided an immediate audience for their first written piece.  Plus, the exercise also began building a close classroom community of writers by letting students get to know more about their partner/neighbor.

That book became a mentor text for us for the first portion of our school year as I used it to model several different writing strategies.  It also became a favorite of my students because when they saw me with that book in my hands, they knew they were going to get the opportunity to enjoy an entertaining read-aloud in class.  No matter what age, it seems students revel in a read-aloud.

There are so many great children and young adult books – and some adult reads that make wonderful mentor texts when teaching folks to read like a writer.  Plus, sharing little snippets of a mentor text encourages reading by advertising a good read.

Read like a writer – then, write!

April 11

Doodling Sparks Learning

Did you notice the Google Doodle yesterday?  I thought it looked so springy and fresh and I noticed the sitar because my granddaughter, Lillie, created a musical instrument for her science class this week.

Lillie instrument

Here is a grainy cell phone photo of Lillie with her guitar.

Lillie was quite pleased and took it to school to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star for her classmates.  Most of the time when the Google Doodle pops up, I feel like I’m just too busy to see what is going on with it and I just enter my search info and move on.  I decided that I should check out the Google Doodle with the sitar this week, though.  Did you see it?

Sitar Google Doodlevia

The read was quite interesting.  I learned all about Pandit Ravi Shankar who introduced the Beatles to the sitar.  At the bottom of the article is a cool infographic which gives a brief outline of the history of Google Doodles.  The top of it looks like the image below but I encourage you to scroll to the bottom of the afore-linked article and read the whole thing.

doodle timeline

Being the nerd that I am, I wasn’t satisfied with that.  I also dug in a bit and went to the Google Doodles webpage.  There were many that I had never paid one bit of attention to and didn’t even recall.  Those things are really cool, though!

You also might want to go to The History of Doodles where you can learn where the idea for Doodles came from and who designs the Doodles and how many doodles have been created.  You can also go to the Doodle 4 Google link and see the 2015 contest winners.

What else held my fascination for all this doodling?  Well, I have seen my friend Andi do some beginning sketchnoting but that is another story for another day.

andi's sketchnotes

The topic became one of extreme fascination and I felt much like a foxhound sniffing around for a pesky fox after a bit.  Isn’t that really the way learning should be, though?  Shouldn’t we have something that sparks our interest and then something else that urges us onward?  Reading all this information certainly inspired me to dig deeper and learn more – even on a topic that isn’t earth shattering.  Why don’t we allow students to find inspiration such as that which will spark their learning?  I’d be willing to bet that if I were a music teacher, for example, or a civics teacher, I could have posted something similar to the Google Doodle which would relate to my lesson and off my students would scamper sniffing and learning.  In fact, I know for certain it does.

One of my lessons when I was in the classroom and introducing a unit of study focused on the Holocaust went something like this:

  1. I selected a strip of paper out of a stack about a person whose name could be found in a stack of USHMM Identification Cards that I had printed out for students.
  2. I found that person’s card and drew a rough outline of a butterfly on the white board.  Then, on one wing of the butterfly I began sketching different things which would be a symbol for that person – interests, family members, occupation, etc. – all sketches – no words.
  3. On the other wing of the butterfly I sketched symbols which represented me and things of importance in my life – my children, my hobbies, etc.
  4. Next, students selected a strip of paper and got the ID Card of their chosen name.  Using construction paper, markers, foam pieces, stickers, etc., students created their own butterflies.  We strung thes from the ceiling and left them hanging for nine weeks.
  5. At the end of the nine week study, students learned the fate of the person listed on their ID Card.  If the person survived, the the butterfly was left hanging.  If the person did not survive, the yarn holding the butterfly was snipped and a pile of butterflies was made on a table at the front of the classroom.

There was so much learning with this simple project!

  1. Students made a connection to these people living in a difficult time without so many luxuries as we enjoy.
  2. The reality of a life being cut short because of a horrific situation was symbolized with the construction paper butterfly and certainly made students pause and think.
  3. The students learned that folks living during that era led lives very much like our own.
  4. Students were distracted by the swaying butterflies in our classroom at first.  As the days went by, we began to ignore them – just like the Concentration Camp folks and bodies were treated during the Holocaust.

I know that there were many more lessons learned by a simple set of doodles made on construction paper but the idea is that here were big ole’ eighth grade boys who were creating something with construction paper, pipe cleaners, glue, markers, etc.  and were enjoying the learning at the same time.

Later, when students were asked to select a topic of interest for a long-term research project and formal essay report, most of them had ready topics and were very curious and interested to know more about it.  They dug in and learned and I often had to remind them to stop searching for more information and get going with the compilation of their paper!

Sometimes a simple doodle is all it takes to get students thinking and learning!

March 4

It’s All In The Details…

Do you want your students to take notice of the details?

Do you want them to pay closer attention?

Do you want them to perform close reading on high stakes tests?

One way to encourage this is to use a strategy promoted by The New York Times on The Learning Network Teaching and Learning with The New York Times.  The site itself offers a plethora of resources for classroom use.  There is a Word of the Day post, a Weekly News Quiz, 6 Q’s About the News, and loads more!

One of my favorites is What’s Going On In This Picture?  There are many ways to use this feature but I think one of the most effective for classroom use is to utilize it just as the NYT suggests.  Show the photograph and ask three simple questions as outlined in the article 10 Intriguing Photographs to Teach Close Reading and Visual Thinking Skills.

When I was a classroom teacher, I used similar opportunities to encourage students to notice details.  I might post an image that was a close-up or only a portion of the main focus.

IMG_1186 Questions I might ask would be:

  1. What do you notice about this image?
  2. Of what do you think this is a part?
  3. Why do you believe it is a part of that?
  4. Explain the use of this.

Then, I would show the full picture:


I might add some questions after showing this image:

  1. What would have made your previous assertion more accurate?
  2. What is the importance of this image to today’s expectation?
  3. What makes you say that?
  4. What more can you find that is pertinent in this photo?

I snapped the photos used in this post but you don’t have to have the expert photographic talents that I do!  You might use images from The New York Times’ Lens Blog or Boston Globe’s Big Picture or some other photographic blog.

Why couldn’t you do the same thing with a brief excerpt – just a word or a phrase or a sentence from a print text?

Why couldn’t you do the same thing with a video clip?

Why couldn’t you do the same thing with a political cartoon?

In my opinion, the key is to ask open-ended questions and provoke thought.  Then, be sure to have students take a moment to reflect – thinking about their learning and their noticing.

It really is all in the details!


February 12

We’re Back!

After a month of not having connectivity to this blog, we are back on track.


According to WIRED, “globally, we compose 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media, the equivalent of 36 million books, not 52 trillion words and 520 million books.”

This tells me that folks have a LOT to say.

I cannot tell you how many times I would read something or stumble across some resource and the first thought that came to mind was…I need to write about that, to share it, to tell others about it.  So, I’ve missed posting to this blog and will try to do a bit of catching up during the next few days.

P.S. You might want to read the article linked above.  I know, I know.  It is L-O-N-G.  There is a lot of good information in it for educators (and for students)…and for anybody who would like to make a change in the world.

P.S. I really like how the author crafted the article linked above.  Full-circle writing.  Very effective.

January 13

Upcoming Holiday

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is on the horizon and I’m sure some folks are planning lessons to coincide with and commemorate the holiday.  So, I thought I would share some resources and ideas…

Why not have students analyze the persuasive concepts used in King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail or I Have a Dream speech?

Students could also read the text of those documents and use it as a mentor text.  Students could brainstorm to come up with topics they feel passionate about persuading someone to agree with their perspective on or allow them permission to do.  Then, write their own letter or speech.

Students could access The King Center website and read the draft of King’s I Have a Dream speech and compare important changes that Dr. King chose to alter or omit completely.

Students could consider the focus of King’s I Have a Dream speech and write a speech focusing on their own dream for national or community change.

Students could compare the script of King’s speech to the video of the speech and analyze the similarities and differences.

Excellent resources for supporting student studies focused on this topic:

The King Center

Discovery Education

Teaching Tolerance

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

Corporation for National and Community Service

Education World

NEA Classroom Resources


November 21

Translating News

In today’s public classroom we are always looking for ways to differentiate and meet the needs of our students.  One way to do that is by using a variety of reading materials.  I just discovered the resource News In Levels.  This site offers world news stories that are written on three different levels.  There are also accompanying videos which have narrators reading the text of the article.  Wouldn’t this serve as a wonderful resource for English Language Learners?

UPDATE!  Since this site now offers a chat option, teachers in our district would probably not want to link directly to the site if you are wanting students to read and listen to the audio provided.  It would be better to create a copy of the text for the different levels to prevent exposing them to the chat feature.

I think this concept also provides us with a valuable strategy as a teaching tool.  Students could be assigned to write about local news events and create a video which accompanies the text.  The video could then be used to teach ELL students who are learning English.  Video creators might be required to use certain vocabulary or to incorporate different conventions of the English language to reinforce grammar and mechanics lessons.

This also would be a great way for world language learners to practice conversational use of the language they are learning.  Students again could produce a news report about a local event, attraction, or point of interest.  Then, as they read the script, the video would incorporate images which relate to the topic.  Other students in the class could be assigned to read their peers’ text, watch the videos, and post comments which practice the language they are learning.  Audio comments could also be created using a simple tool such as Vocaroo which would allow students another means of practicing conversational use of the language they are learning.

I love it when something can serve more than one purpose and I think News In Levels does just that by serving as a resource as well as a mentor piece!

November 13

New Terminology

I, for one, am thrilled that our language is an evolving entity which grows and changes with the times!  I know that may seem odd for a dyed-in-the-wool English geek to admit, but it is true.  Think about it, we could still be speaking Olde English and everything would sound like Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales or even something far more modern like a Shakespearean drama.  Can you imagine this southern drawl uttering, “In me thou see’st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west…”  Really?

The English nerd in me does learning and using new words, though.  The newest word I’ve learned this week is: annotexting.  According to Mike Fisher and Jeanne Tribuzzi of Curriculum 21, annotexting is “a process that involves the collection of thoughts, observations and reactions to reading that show evidence of critical thought. These annotations, rather than being on paper, can be collected with different web tools so that students can collaborate, both locally and globally, around the conclusions that they will ultimately draw from their reading.”

Since annotations make thinking visible, annotexting takes that process a step further.  It allows for interaction and collaboration between a group of people and a text.  One tool which works wonderfully for such an exercise is Diigo.  To see the article which introduced me to this new term as well as my highlights and annotations using Diigo, simply create an account and go to the article entitled Annotexting.  Be sure to check out the annotated text example provided and the example discussion rubric within the article!

I see this as an exceptional tool for students to share ideas and thoughts with one another as well as their teacher.  Using such a tool makes text become a living, breathing, document because students are contributing to it and keeping it a draft of a greater body of thinking, writing, and reading.

Students and teachers could also use the features in Google Apps for Education by uploading or copy/paste a text into a document, sharing it, and using the highlight and comment tools.  Another layer could be overlain by using the Google Add-on Kaizena which offers a voice recording option.

November 11

Content is First/Pretty is Second

http://pic-collage.com/I frequently have teachers ask me for suggestions of different ways students can create digital posters integrating mobile devices into their classroom activities.  One of my favorite suggestions is to encourage the use of an app called Pic Collage.  There is a version for Android as well as iOS systems.

There are multiple ways I envision using this app in the classroom to benefit learning.  Here are just a few…

  1. Build a classroom community of learners.  Student writers and collaborators need to feel comfortable with one another.  A simple way to promote becoming a community and open the lines of communication between learners is to get to know one another better.  Use Pic Collage to create a digital introduction.  Students can create an All-About-Me Pic Collage or could interview and learn about one another before creating an introduction of a peer.  Students could post the introduction to a class Wiki or Google Site as part of a class assignment.  The assignment could be graded by scoring the selection of images to depict different facets of an individual; correct usage of the conventions of our language including grammar and mechanics of writing; inclusion of specific facts and information; a reflective writing relating to the highlighted individual being introduced or the learning process of creating the Pic Collage.
  2. Create a book report.  Readers could share information about a book they are reading or have just finished reading.  They could highlight specific characters, the events which take place in a book, the author of the book, a comparison of a book and the movie based upon the book, etc.  Students could integrate a writing element by linking a written report or reflection or recommendation of the book.
  3. Use it as a pre-writing tool.  Richard Byrne suggests that it is helpful for students when creating a descriptive writing assignment.  “Students who struggle to get started on a descriptive writing assignment could benefit from first creating a photo collage about the event or concept that they need to write about. In thinking about the images that they select, they’re also thinking about what they will say about each image.”
  4. Even a struggling writer could use it as a blog post.  The student could create a Pic Collage about an event or a typical day to chronicle an experience for something such as a blog post, a field trip summary, a science experiment lab report, field notes from a discovery lesson, etc.  Fewer words/text are required when a photograph is included which makes the assignment more approachable for a struggling writer.  Then, it is also simpler for that struggling writer to simply write a more in-depth post about the Pic Collage explaining and justifying their reasoning for selecting different photos or describing what the photos are showing.
  5. Research and report background information relating to a topic or event.  When students are planning to read a classic text such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Scarlet Letter, Canterbury Tales, etc., they can research to learn a bit more about the times when the classic work was written.  Students today have no concept of some historic ideas and the way our society and culture has changed.  Researching to learn about bygone eras helps students to understand and relate to the literature.  It also helps them to develop a concept of how events and people have made an impact on the way our world is today.  Students can find images, document the source, write brief explanations or captions describing what is depicted.  Then, they could be expected to justify why they selected each photo and the importance it holds in telling the story of the past.
  6. Showcase individual artwork or personal creations.  Artists could make photos of their drawings, paintings, sculptures and combine them to make an artist’s portfolio to show during parent/teacher conferences, prior to a sporting event, in the lunchroom to share with peers, etc.  Having a photo or digital representation protects delicate hand-made works of art or large pieces such as a piece of furniture from a cabinet-making class.  Yet, other students, parents, members of the community need to see what students are producing.  This can be a way of helping to prepare that future custom-furniture-maker to showcase and advertise his/her wares, for example.  Waiting in line at the concession stand between acts of a play or quarters of a ball game is a perfect time for spectators to see a video scrolling which shares different student creations.
  7. Create a scrapbook page or mini yearbook page.  Students in a fashion design class could create a portfolio of their designs or show the progression from folds of cloth to completed garment or decor.  Students in an architecture class could show the progression from blueprint to scale model to completed construction.  This could be a way for students to describe the steps of a project or a community service experience and document their efforts.  A Pic Collage could also explain the characteristics of a fictitious creature’s habitat and characteristics proving that the student understands the characteristics of specific scientific classifications and qualities.

There are all sorts of ways to assess student products.  A sampling of rubrics can be found HERE.  All that is required to have a high quality assignment is to stress to students via the rubric that content is first and most important and pretty is second but still a valuable portion.

October 29

The Week In Pictures

Sometimes when we are teaching students about something historical the lesson can be dry, teacher-loaded, and uninteresting for students.  Why not let students do the discovery of some of the historical information or background knowledge relating to a piece of classic literature?  One way to do that might be to ask students to be creative.

Recently, a teacher I work with was looking for an innovative way for students to share that they understood what the world was like during the time period in which the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was set.  I think my best suggestion to her was to have students create their own news post.  Yet, I didn’t really suggest it to be a newspaper or online news magazine.  My suggestion was for students to create a mock-up of something we like to see presented by such sources.

Why not have students create their own This Week in Pictures relating to the historical period?  A good example is BBC News Your Week in Pictures.  Folks send in photos all week which are representative of news stories around the globe.  Then, the BBC News team select photos to post and include a little blurb explaining the significance of the photograph.

ABC News also offers a This Week in Pictures post.  The photographs represent the headlines of stories covered by the news team for the week.  They may show political events, natural phenomena, disasters, and celebrations.

Perhaps the most well-known of this type post is The Boston Globe’s The Big Picture.  For each day of the week there is a collection of photos with a central theme.  Each photograph also has a brief caption explaining the importance and relevance of the picture.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way for students to demonstrate that they really grasp the background and know what shows the signs of the times?  Wouldn’t this be an interesting assignment for students to create as a way to show what things were really like in the past?  The photos would reflect technological development, fashion, transportation, culture, society and so much more.  Then, the captions or explanations would document the students’ reasoning and justification supporting their choice of using that particular picture.

What photos might you use to fit The Week in Pictures for To Kill a Mockingbird or any other classic piece of literature for that matter?  Then, if the teacher asked you to take another step and create a second comparative set of photos for The Week in Pictures to show how times have changed since that historical period and how the first set of photos made an impact on the world to make the second set of photos be relevant…

What photos would you use to represent your past week in pictures?  What images from the past would you use to document the past that impacted the way our world is today?