Merging Our Reading and Writing Instruction

As I have mentioned before, we, in my district, have the incredible privilege of working with Ellin Keene. She has been a literacy consultant for our district for almost the entire time that I have been working there. She has pushed our thinking in incredible ways and I am pretty sure that I have learned more from her about teaching than from any other single person. She has helped me to become a more student-centered, responsive, thoughtful, reflective teacher and every time I speak with her, I end up a better teacher than I was before the conversation.

This summer she has been talking to our district about changing our reading and writing workshops into being more of a literacy studio.  The literacy studio is something that Ellin discusses in her book To Understand.  While we are still in the process of learning exactly what this switch would entail, one of the biggest changes that Ellin talks about is a need to merge together our reading and writing instruction. She speaks about the time we are wasting and the damage we are doing by separating and compartmentalizing our reading and writing instruction as we have done for so long in our schools.

I am really struck by this idea.

I find real power in the idea that by fusing our reading and writing instruction, our children will stop seeing these two things as separate acts. Instead, they will be able to use what they learn as readers, in order to help them as writers.  And they will use what they learn as writers, in order to help them as readers. Plus, I think about the time we would save on our teacher-driven instruction and how much more time we would have for student-driven work time.

I don’t really know how this will happen in my own classroom. I don’t quite know how we will merge our instruction while still having to worry about the somewhat separate reading and writing curricula that we currently have. I don’t know how to do this kind of work while still honoring both reading and writing equally.

But I do know that I am excited to give it a try. I am excited to learn. I am excited to be more creative with the structures that I use in my classroom in order to create an environment where students see reading and writing as tools that can be used together in order to do important work in making this world a better place.

For me, the place that I want to start with this concept happens to fall at the very start of the school year.  In writing,  we begin with memoir and personal narrative. I have already written about how I want to use this writing unit to focus on the power of telling our own stories.

In reading last year, I began the year by taking the idea of making connections to our reading and pushing it further to look at how books can be both mirrors and windows for students. They can see themselves reflected in the books they read and they can also look into the lives of people who are vastly different than they are in order to gain understanding and develop empathy.  I wrote about that work here and here.

These units feel like the perfect place to start merging my instruction. While we are talking about writing our own stories, it makes so much sense to tie that into how we read the stories of others. While we are reading stories in order to learn how to see ourselves and see others, we can also use those stories as mentor texts for writing our own stories. While we look at how authors teach us about their lives through stories, we can talk about how we can use our stories to teach others about what our own lives are like. While we talk about how reading other people’s stories can challenge what we think we know about what life is like for other people, we can also talk about how when we write our own stories we can challenge what other people think our own lives are like.

There are so many possibilities. So many ways that we can connect these units. So many ways that we can merge our instruction so that our students see that the power of story is in both the READING and WRITING of stories.

I don’t know exactly how this is all going to look yet, but I know that there is something really powerful here. I am eager to get into the classroom, to get right next to my kids and figure it out together.


Beyond the What and How of Reading Comprehension Strategies

Since I started teaching, my reading instruction has centered around the teaching of reading comprehension strategies in a reading workshop structure.  I have been lucky enough to teach in two school districts who have been committed to teaching kids how to be better readers and not just teaching kids to read the books we pick for them to read.

When I began teaching fifth grade, I thought I did a pretty good job of teaching my students about what good readers did.  I knew the research. I knew that it was clear that good readers were able to make connections, predict, infer, visualize, question, determine importance and synthesize. And over the years I gathered, what I thought to be, some pretty inventive ways of teaching kids about WHAT these strategies were.  I did the lesson where we looked at items that were found in a person’s bag and made inferences about that person based on what we saw. We looked at compelling images and asked thick and think questions. We read poems and then drew the images that came to our minds.

At some point in my teaching career, I realized that I had to do more than just teach my students WHAT the reading strategies were. I had to also teach my students how exactly to use these strategies as they read. So I did more work to make my own thinking visible and to break down these complex strategies so that my students could actually see HOW to use them. In this way, I thought that my students would be more likely to use these strategies as they read independently.

And it worked. My students would do what I asked them to do. If we were working on making inferences and I asked them to look in their own books for places where they could infer, then they would do it. They would come back at the end of our reading workshop ready and eager to share their inferences with me.  If we were working on questioning and I asked them to find places where they could ask thick questions in their own text, then they would do it. Again, they would be happy to share with me and with the class how they had done exactly what I asked them to do.

Except something was missing.

In the past few years I realized that while my students were giving me what I asked for, while they were complying, they weren’t actually using these strategies in any meaningful way. The primary purpose of their use of these reading strategies was to complete an assignment. I knew I wanted more than that.

So I started to think about what was missing. Why wasn’t I seeing what I wanted to be seeing? Why weren’t my students using these reading strategies to actually dig deeper into their texts and why weren’t they using them in a way that went beyond the texts they were reading? Obviously I hadn’t taught them something.

And that’s when I realized. I never really stopped to teach my students the purpose of all of these comprehension strategies. I taught them to ask good questions, but we never really talked much about WHY they should ask questions as they read. I taught them to make all sorts of different types of inferences, but we didn’t spend much time talking about what there was to gain by making inferences as you read.  There was a lot of talk about the WHAT and the HOW of reading comprehension strategies in my classroom, but not nearly as much time was spent talking about the WHY of reading comprehension strategies.

So this past school year, I made a commitment to think, for myself, about the purpose for using each of the reading strategies in my own life. I had to start there. I had to understand why I was using these reading strategies before I helped my students to understand why they should use them. And as I did the work in my own reading life I started to see the reading strategies in a really new way.  Suddenly it was about more than skills that I had to teach my students. Instead it was starting to turn into a responsibility that I had to show my students how they could use these reading strategies in order to allow reading to transform their lives and their understanding of the world.

Once I did the work of thinking about these strategies for myself, then I was ready to bring that new understanding to my students. And all of a sudden the reading strategy instruction in my classroom took on a new life. A life of meaning and of purpose. And because I thought about how I used these strategies in my own life outside of the classroom, my instruction became more authentic and therefore more useful to my students. It was no longer just about completing an assignment, now it was about reading to make our own lives better and to make our understanding of the world better.

With each reading strategy that we focused on, I tried to show my students not just what the strategy was or how to use the strategy, I also tried to explicitly teach WHY we would use these strategies in the world. Here are some of the ways we looked at the strategies in the past school year:

CONNECTING: When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can feel less alone in the world. We make connections to our characters and to the real life people that we read about SO THAT we can feel a sense of community and know that we are not the only ones feeling what we feel or experiencing what we are experiencing.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can better understand the lives of people whose lives are vastly different than our own, but with whom we still share commonalities.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can build empathy for people who are different than us and treat people that we meet with more compassion and understanding.

VISUALIZING: When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand what life is like for our characters or for the people whose lives we are reading about. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can build empathy for others and better understand what drives them to make the choices that they make. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can experience, with all of our senses, the difficulties, struggles, joys and experiences of people whose lives are different than our own. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand the things that we have little experience with ourselves.

QUESTIONING: When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can check for inaccuracies and bias. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can think about whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not being heard. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we know what else we need to know in order to really understand what our text is saying. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can read critically and think about more than just what is written on the page. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can begin to think about perspectives other than own and wonder about how others view the same text we have read.

INFERRING: When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the social commentary that an author is trying to make and decide whether we agree or disagree with it.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand what an author or a text is trying to teach us. When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand how a character’s or real life person’s life and background impact the way he or she is acting or feeling or the choices he or she is making.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the intended and unintended messages that are being sent to us through a text and then fight back against those messages with which we do not agree.

SYNTHESIZING: When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can put together multiple perspectives on a single event in order to more fully understand the complexities of that event.  When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we do not rely on one single story to help us understand an entire group of people or country or time in history. When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can correct our own misconceptions as we gather more information.

This is just a short list of some of the real world purposes that we looked at this past year for using some of the reading comprehension strategies that we focus on in fifth grade. What was important to me is that I helped my students to see that these reading comprehension strategies were about more than just better understanding the text they were reading. These strategies were really about better understanding the world we live in.  That had not been coming through in my previous years of teaching.

My work with this has only just started and I am eager to continue working on finding real meaning and purpose for each of the reading comprehension strategies so that my students will start to see them as more than something that their teacher is forcing them to do.  I would love to hear any ideas on how YOU have helped your students to see the purpose of these strategies in your own classrooms.

The Power of Telling Your Own Story

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” These words are spoken by the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her extremely powerful and popular TED talk titled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” 

I have watched this TED talk multiple times. The first time I watched it, I was simply in awe of the revelations that it led me to and the thinking that it caused me to do about my own perceptions of the world and why they existed in the way that they did. The next few times that I watched it, I was struck by its implications for the work that my students and I did with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and the need for diverse characters and books in general. But the most recent time that I watched it, I was taken by the way this brilliant writer viewed stories and how she viewed writing as a powerful act. It made me think about the power of our own stories. The power of writing our own stories. How empowering writing can be.

And that made me think, “How come my students don’t see writing their own stories that way?” How come my students see the writing of their own stories as little more than a school assignment? How come my students don’t see writing their own stories as a brave and bold act? How come my students don’t see their own stories as powerful?

And then I realized. It is because I have never taught them to view stories in that way. I have not taught them the power of a story. I have not shared with them that writing their stories can be powerful. You see, I get so caught up in teaching my students how to be good writers, that sometimes I forget to take the time to help them to see why we are writing in the first place.

Yes, when I teach persuasive writing or how to write op-eds, I explicitly teach my students how writing can be an act of defiance. How writing can give you a voice to make positive social change. How writing can draw people’s attention to what is wrong in the world and provide ideas on how to change it.

But I have never taught them that stories have that same kind of power. I have never showed them how people’s stories have helped change my own thinking about the world and have moved me to want to make changes. I have never shared with them the stories that I have heard and read that have made me want to do better and be better. I have never modeled for them how I have been able to tell my own story in order to help people better understand me and people who are like me.  I have never shared with them the power of telling your own story.

So I need to change that.

And this year, I plan on doing that through our first writing unit on memoirs.  By the time my students reach me in fifth grade, they have written dozens of small moment stories. And so, when I introduce our first writing unit on personal narratives and memoirs, my students automatically assume that they will be writing another small moment story. That is when our work as fifth grade teachers begin. We show them that this year, they are going to use all that they have learned while writing small moment stories and now they are going to write about the big moments in their lives. The moments that have taught them something or helped them to realize something or showed them something important about the world. We show them that a memoir includes not only the telling of the story, but then the author’s reflection on why that story mattered in his or her own life.

But this year, I want to change that just a little bit.  This year, I want to help my students to see that a story can do more than just share what the author learned or realized. A story, more importantly, has the power to teach others something important. A story, told well, has the power to teach readers about the lives of other people that are vastly different than their own. A story, told well, has the power to connect readers to a shared experience and make people feel less alone in the world. A story, told well, has the power to build empathy and understanding and thereby make others want to do better and be better. This is the power of telling your own story.

In order to start building this understanding with my students, I want to share with them the stories that I have read and listened to this summer that have helped me to better understand the complex issues of race that are so important to be understood. I want to share the stories of Clint Smith and Mellody Hobson and even of kids who are nearly the same age as my students and I want to talk with my students about what these stories help us to understand and why it is important that these brave individuals are sharing their stories.

And if I am brave enough (which I am not yet sure that I will be) I will show my students how this blog has given me a space to share my own stories with others. I will show how others have been able to learn about what it is like to be an LGBT teacher. I will show how sharing my story of coming out has allowed me to connect with other LGBT educators. I will show how sharing my story of what it is like to be gay has allowed others to think differently about privilege. It is hard for me to admit that my stories have power, but I know that if I am going to ask my students to believe this, then I must begin to believe it myself.

And then we will have the hard task in front of us of finding stories from our own lives that have the power to teach others something or to help others feel less alone. And I know this will be hard. The truth is that my students have only been alive for ten short years. Many of my students have had lives that are pretty easy. Many of my students don’t know what it is really like to struggle. But I don’t think that is the point. The point is that we all have something to teach other people and we all have stories in our lives that reflect those lessons. Our job, as writers, will be to find those stories and then work to share them with others in effective ways.  I will ask them to think about the following questions: What do I know that other people might not know? What have I realized about this world that might be able to help others? What do I want people to know about what it is like to be me? What have I gone through that I wish other people understood? What stories from my life can show those things to my readers?

I have no idea how all of this work will really unfold because I know that my students are going to have a lot to teach me. I know that I will have to model for them the way that stories can teach and inspire and connect. I know that I will have to model for them how I can find stories in my own life that can teach and inspire and connect others. I know that I will have to provide many opportunities for students to talk to each other about the stories from their own lives. I know many students will struggle and will instantly go to the, “But I don’t have any stories that are important in my own life.” And that struggle is kind of exciting to me. Because then this work becomes about way more than writing. Then this work becomes the work of helping students see that their lives are all important. That they all have stories to tell. That they all have the ability to teach and inspire and connect others through their writing. Then this work becomes about empowering our students and helping them to see how important their voices are to this world. Then this work becomes about helping each and every single child believe that his or her life and his or her stories have value and worth and the power to affect others.

And then, maybe, my students just might begin to see the power of telling their own stories.

The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 3)

One last post on how I have used mentor texts in my persuasive study in writing workshop this year.

In this post and this post I wrote about how I was able to use mentor texts to guide my students through a study of persuasive writing.  And somewhere along our journey, I realized that I had missed an incredible opportunity.  I had never asked the students to find their OWN writing mentors.  I realized that, for me, it is more important that my students learn to recognize the brilliance in the writing that surrounds them and then find a way to apply those writing strategies to their own writing than it is for them to learn the specific writing strategies that I find for them.  I want them to be lifelong learners and writers (we all say that is what we want) but I wasn’t teaching them strategies to learn how to become better writers even when an adult isn’t around guiding that learning.

So I decided I needed to transfer some of the power back over to my students.

And it was simple really. I prepared file folders with five different pieces of persuasive writing for each student.  These five pieces of persuasive writing were potential mentor texts for my students to discover.  While I LOVE the idea of releasing students into the world to find their OWN mentor texts that I have not selected for them, I didn’t think we were quite there yet and I know that persuasive writing mentor texts that are accesible for kids can be tricky to locate. So we started with some guided choice.  I gave them the five different pieces of persuasive writing and told them that they were going to have some time to find ONE piece of writing that spoke to them in some way.

Here are the pieces of writing that I included in each student’s folder:

1) An op-ed on making school start times later for middle and high school students

2) An op-ed on having healthy school lunch options

3) A speech given by a second grade student to her school board speaking up against too much testing

4) A letter written by a 14 year old girl to the LEGO company speaking up against a pink line of LEGOS for girls

5) A humorous and sarcastic op-ed about a ridiculous sounding, more convenient way to make a PB&J sandwich 

The first thing that I did is to give the kids time to just read the articles.  I offered to read the articles out loud to those who wanted to hear them read, knowing that some of the articles were too difficult for some of my readers. Some kids took me up on the offer, other kids chose quiet spots around the room to settle in and just read. There was a lovely feel in the classroom as the kids set out to read through the lens of writing craft.  Before sending them off, I told them that when I am trying to find mentor texts, I have to listen for parts of a piece of writing that make me feel something, that move me. I told them that today, they were going to try to listen to the parts of a text that moved them as readers and as writers. I wanted them to listen for ways of writing that made them think, “Hey! I could try that.”

After giving the kids time to read, we came back together and I told the kids that they were going to be in charge today of finding the strategies that authors used to support their claims and to make their writing more convincing.

I then had the kids form groups and I asked them each to choose a piece of writing to look at more closely.  I had them create the same chart in their writers’ notebooks that we had been using to look at the strategies that I had found in mentor texts in the previous weeks. They made the, now familiar, three column chart that included: text title, strategy the author used to support his/her claim, and example from the text where the author used this strategy. I told the kids that they would begin by rereading the article one more time, looking for the specific places where they saw the author using a strategy that we had not yet discovered in order to make his/her writing more persausive. I explained that they should then find a way to describe that strategy so that other writers could use it no matter what they were writing about. Finally, I wanted them to find the specific words that the author used that showed him/her using this strategy.  They were to record all of this on their charts in their notebooks.

And then I sent the kids off to work.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to go because the kids had never done this kind of work before. It is always a little scary releasing more power to the kids because you are never sure of what is going to happen.  But what I have learned is that the worst that can happen is that the kids don’t really know what they are supposed to do and then we would simply pull back together, do more modeling and try again. Most often, no one ends up crying, no one ends up hurt and we all learn a good lesson in the end.

But today. Today it was magical. The kids got it. They knew what they were looking for and they discovered incredible writing strategies.  They saw authors using humor and sarcasm, sharing memories, recognizing and refuting the other side of an argument, using one small object to stand for a larger problem, listing experts to build authority and credibility, and many other strategies that I would have never thought of.

That was where our work ended on day one. But I was so excited by what I had seen, that I knew we could go further. So the next day, we came back together and I asked my students if they would be interested in teaching the rest of the class about the new writing strategies that they discovered. In full disclosure, some students were NOT interested at all.  I want to be honest. While I was incredibly excited by the kids’ work, some of the kids themselves still didn’t see that these were REAL writing strategies. And that’s a battle that I still need to fight. After years of being convinced that teachers are the only ones who know how to teach writers new strategies, some students STILL don’t believe that they would be able to find the kinds of writing strategies that other kids might be able to use in their own writing. And I decided that this was not a fight I was going to win on this particular day. I knew that by watching other students take control and teach the class about what they discvoered, these still reluctant students would eventually come around. So the kids who were not interested, went off to work on their own writing.

But those who DID want to share what they had discovered (which was all but TWO of my students) went off to create charts that they could present to the class that would explain one of the writing strategies that they discovered. And over the next few days, it was my students who taught our mini-lessons. My students shared the pieces of writing that spoke to them, they shared the writing strategies that they discovered and some of them even went so far as to share how they planned to use these same strategies in their own pieces of persausive writing.

It was an incredible thing to watch.  The kids were such good teachers. They had so much to share with each other. There was so much learning going on. And the best part of the whole thing is that I was another learner in the room. I listened as my students shared with me writing strategies that I had never thought of before.

It was just one more reminder that amazing things can happen when we let go of the control and give our students a chance to lead. Asking my students to find their own mentor texts and teach each other from those texts is something that I want to continue to explore. If anyone has done work with this and is willing to share your knowledge with me, I would love to hear what you have tried and how it’s worked.  I have used mentor texts for several years now but have never really thought about giving the power of mentor texts over to my students. But now that I have seen what can come from that transfer of power, I can’t wait to try it again!

The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about how I began this year’s persuasive writing unit by using mentor texts to get kids to think about WHY people in this world write persausive pieces of writing.  Once we had finished doing this work, the students began to choose a purpose for their own writing.  Once they knew what they wanted to convince someone to do or believe, then they thought about who their target audience would be, and finally, they thought about the type of writing that could best reach that target audience.  So while some students decided to write e-mails, others decided to write blog posts, others decided to write letters to mail, and others decided to write op-ed articles or letters to the editor to submit to local or national newspapers.

Because we were all writing different types of writing, in slightly different genres, I knew that my mini-lessons had to be more than just, “How to write a persuasive letter” or “How to write an op-ed.” So, instead, a large chunk of my mini-lessons focused on, “How do author’s support their claims?” Instead of looking at a genre specific study, we spent most of our time studying the many specific strategies that authors used in order to support the claims they were making.  Each time we read a new mentor text, we looked at one specific way that an author was able to back-up the points that he or she was making. After looking at how our authors did this, I was then able to model how I might use the same strategy in my own piece of persuasive writing (I happen to be working on crafting an email to our superintendent asking for 1:1 computing). And then, finally, I asked the kids to look at the plans that THEY had made so far and see if there was anywhere they might be able to try this new strategy out.

The plans that the kids worked on before writing were webs that they created in their writer’s notebooks. I have mostly given up on using graphic organizer templates since I find that they often stifle my students’ writing instead of enhancing it.  When I hand out ONE graphic organizer to every child, it seems to send the message that all of their writing should look the same and follow the same structure.  This just doesn’t seem to work for us. When we look at our mentor texts, we analyze their structure and we always notice that writers write in many different ways and use many different structures.  So instead of handing out a pre-made graphic organizer, I help my students to create their own graphic organizers that fit their needs and their writing topics.

Along the way, we talked a lot about how I would NEVER expect a writer (including any of my students) to use every single strategy that we uncover in one piece of writing.  Instead, they have the task at looking at their topics, thinking about their audiences and then looking for the strategies of support that would best work for them.  This is what would stop a writer who was writing about gun violence from using a strategy like humor or sarcasm. The strategy MUST match the topic.  So when I ask my students to look at their writing plans and think about if they could use a strategy or not, I really do mean that.  I do not want them using a strategy because they feel that they have to.  My expectation is that each writer is able to use a variety of strategies to support their claims based on which strategies work best for them.  This provides each writer in my room with a lot of freedom and independence. Each time I point out a new strategy in a mentor text, this becomes another tool in my students’ writing toolboxes.  They are in charge of selecting the right tool for the job each time they write.

As we analyzed a variety of mentor texts, the students had already begun work on planning and drafting their first pieces of persuasive writing. This meant that we were learning new strategies as the kids were already writing.  I used to wait until I had taught ALL of the strategies I wanted them to know before I allowed the kids to start writing their drafts. What this led to was a whole lot of time without the kids actually writing.  This year, I really shifted my thinking on this and realized that I needed to let the kids start writing and then trust that they would add in the use of the new strategies as we learned them.  And if a child finished his first piece of persuasive writing and didn’t use any of our new strategies to support his claims, then I had to trust that he would use the new strategies on his second piece of persuasive writing. And it was my job to help make sure that he would do that through conferences and small group work.  Putting this trust in my students has given them more time to write and has given more meaning to our mini-lessons since they are learning new things AS they are needing to use them.

Each time we read a new mentor text, we added it to our anchor chart along with the strategy that we saw the writer using to support his/her claim and evidence from the text that shows the writer using that specific strategy.  Here are the finished charts:

Chart 1Chart 2

These charts then hang on our writing board so that they become visual reminders of all the ways that the kids can support the claims they are making as they are writing.

So here are the mentor texts that I have used this year and the strategies that I focused on with each text.  Some of the texts are pretty old, but they are also too good to give up!

There is Only One Way to Stop a Bully — I used this op-ed to show how writers use examples to show how bad a problem is and also to show how much better the situation can become. We came back to this article when we were talkin about how writers use statistics to support their claims.

Save Our Streams (This comes from a Time For Kids writing kit and I don’t have a link for it) — I used this letter to the editor to show how writers use details to paint a vivid picture in the mind of the reader to show how bad a problem is and then to show how much better it could be.

Fifth Graders Defend Their South Shore Neighborhood — I used this op-ed to show how writers use specific examples to support the statements they are making.

Technology: How much is too much? — I used this op-ed to show how writers use their own personal life examples to support the claims they are making.

Too Much Homework, Too Little Play — I used this op-ed to show how writers use “if/then” statements in which they claim that IF you do what I want you to do, THEN these positive outcomes will occur or IF we continue to do things this way, THEN these negative outcomes will occur.  I also come back and use this op-ed to show how writers use quotes to support their claims.

The Value of Teachers — This is a pretty tough article to understand, but I use pieces of it with my students to show how writers use statistics to support what they are saying.

Using these mentor texts allows me to show my students specific strategies that they can use in order to make their writing better and in order to better support their claims.  In the past, I used to just tell my students that they had to back-up their claims, but I didn’t always give them specific ways to do that. I used to tell them that they needed more support or better support, but I didn’t always give them specific ways to do that. Now, they have a variety of ways that they can make their writing better and their arguments stronger.  And the best part is, all of these strategies then become a part of our revision checklist.  As I have explained before, I use checklists in order to support my students in the revision phase of the writing process.  Here is what our current revision checklist looks like for this unit.  When students are finished drafting, they are expected to complete TWO items from this revision checklist in order to make their writing better. I have also become more flexible with when my students use this checklist. In trying to honor each individual writer’s writing process, I now understand that many writers revise AS they write and so I no longer require that my students use their revision checklists only AFTER they are done drafting. They are now able to use them along their writing process to help those who like to revise as they go and not wait until the end.

After spending so much time with our mentor texts, my students truly start to internalize the process of finding strategies that authors use and then using those strategies in their own writing. And because they start to understand this process so well, they are then ready to find their own mentor texts and discover their own strategies to teach to the class.  But that process will have to wait for another blog post because this one has gone on long enough and I am certain no one wants to read any more right now!

The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 1)

There is no one single thing that has enhanced my writing workshop as much as using mentor texts.  Mentor texts have allowed me to show my students that the writing that we are doing in class, matches the writing that is done in the world outside of our classroom.  Mentor texts have allowed me to show students the many different ways that writers craft their texts.  Mentor texts have allowed me to fight the message that many of my students have received by fifth grade that writing should all look one way, use one structure, and use one set of rules.  And mentor texts have also allowed me to expose my students to specific strategies that they can use in their own writing in order to better affect their readers.

Essentially, mentor texts helped me to finally figure out how to teach kids to be better writers instead of just asking kids to write more.

But not until this year, have I realized that there are even more uses for mentor texts.  This year I have learned that I can use mentor texts to help show students the many purposes for writing. I also learned that I can use mentor texts to help empower students to seek out their own writing mentors in the world around them.

We are in the middle of a study on persuasive writing.  In the past, I have always asked students to write personal persuasive letters first (asking for something for their own benefit) and then to write op-ed articles (asking for something for the benefit of the world around them). This year, I took a different approach.  This year I began our study by bringing in a wide variety of persuasive writing from the world around me.  I brought in flyers that were distributed by Ferguson protesters to explain what it was they were asking for and why. I brought in a letter written by a young girl to Dick’s Sporting Goods asking them to put more women and girls in their catalogues. I brought in a letter written by a 3rd grader to President Obama asking for him to make stricter laws on guns.  I brought in an op-ed written by 6th graders that was published in a local paper asking for the school to increase the time of their lunch period. I brought in another op-ed written by 5th graders who live on the south side of Chicago writing to show people that they are more than just the violence that is often reported on the news.  I even brought in a letter written to Google by a child in crayon asking them to give her dad a day off.

I had the kids break into groups in order to investigate each of these texts.  I asked the kids to think about why each writer, or group of writers, wrote each piece they were looking at. I asked the kids to think about what target audience the writer was trying to reach, what the writer was hoping to accomplish with each piece and how the writer was reaching their audience. They wrote up their responses on a Google Slides presentation.

Before even looking at the CRAFT of these pieces of writing, I wanted the kids to just sit with the idea of the PURPOSE of each of these pieces of writing.  I wanted them to take time to think about the world outside of school and all the reasons there are to write a piece of persuasive writing even if no one tells them to do so.  I wanted them to see what motivates people to write outside of school. I wanted them to see that people are able to have their voices heard through the use of writing. Only then, did we start to think about our own topics for writing.

When students began to think about the writing that they wanted to do, I asked them to think about their target audience, what they wanted to convince their target audience of AND what is the best way to reach their target audience. This eliminated everyone feeling like they had to write a persuasive letter or everyone feeling like they had to write a blog post or everyone feeling like they had to write an op-ed article.  However, I was only able to ask them to think about this question because they had already seen examples of different types of writing that are found in the world.  They already had seen examples of how different types of writing will work best to reach different kinds of audience.  So if a child wanted to convince his mom to get him a new dog, it made more sense for him to choose to write a letter. But, if a child wanted to convince our country that we need to plant more trees, then it made more sense for her to choose to write a blog post or an op-ed article. Now, the type of writing was selected to match the purpose of the writing and not just because it was the type of writing that they were told to do.

What I noticed was that the topic choices seemed more genuine than they have been in the past. There was more urgency to write and there was more passion behind what they had selected to write about. Bringing in examples of so many different types of persuasive writing found in the world seemed to open up a world of possibilities for my students.

After topics were selected, then I needed to bring in even more pieces of persuasive writing to use as mentor texts to help my students to see HOW to write in a way that will allow their voices to be listened to and really heard.  As students moved through the writing process at their own pace, I wanted to help them to build a toolbox full of specific strategies that they could use to support the claims they were making, based on the specific strategies that we saw other writers using in their persuasive writing.  I will share that work in another blog post!

Getting Out of the Way and Letting the Kids Lead the Learning (Action Research Part 3)

This is the third post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here

After a few weeks of working one-on-one with students, modeling the kind of thinking that I was expecting in their reading journals in whole class lessons and small group lessons, each of my students was working on specific reading focuses in their reading journals.  Each student was paying attention to something and collecting his/her observations in a way that worked for that particular student.  And I was so proud.  And then I realized that we had a really, really long way still to go.

While I was happy with the work that my students were doing, I realized that they were still pretty much completely dependent on me to help them find a reading focus.  They were not yet noticing their own observations and they were not able to craft these observations into something that they wanted to know, something that they wanted to pay attention to, something that they needed to discover.  Instead, they patiently waited for me to come and meet with them to figure out what they should be paying attention to and how they might pay attention to it.  While I was thrilled that this work was taking place, I was unsure of how I would ever break their dependency on me.

Enter my students.

One day, one of my students asked if he could share the work he was doing in his journal with the rest of the class because he was really proud of it.  This year, I began the year with a goal of talking less and allowing my students to talk more. I wanted them to create ideas that worked for them. I wanted them to take ownership over their own learning.  And one way that I had started to try to do that was to really listen to my students’ ideas. Not just listen, nod and then forget about the idea. But, listen, agree and ask them, “What do you need from me in order to do that?” I quickly found that as I put their ideas into action, they trusted that I wanted to hear their ideas and they kept coming up with more and more of them to share with me. It was a wonderful cycle.

So when my student asked me if he could share his reading work with the class, I said, “Of course!” And what began that day was perhaps the most powerful piece of my action research project so far. Because that was the day that I finally got out of the way and allowed my students to teach each other.  And that was the day that the “share” part of our reading workshop finally became valuable and meaningful and purposeful for all of my students.

What I saw that day was that a “share” session could be more than just one student talking about his work in order to make that student feel good about the work he had done. What I saw that day was that the last few minutes of our reading workshop could be the most important because they could allow my students to learn from and be inspired by each other.  I wasn’t the only one who could help show them how to notice their own thinking and use it to come up with particular reading focus and a way to keep track of the observations that came from that focus.  They could share their work with each other and learn from each other.

But they had to really learn how to learn from each other.

One of the first things that I did in order to revamp our reading share, was that I asked my students why they thought teachers had students share their work. The answers were, again, so honest and so eye-opening.  One student said that he believed teachers had kids share their work because then people got to talk about what they were proud of.  One student said that she thought it was because it motivated kids to do good work so that the teacher would choose them to share with the class.  One lovely, and oh-so-honest, child told me that she believed that teachers let kids share because it took up time at the end of the class. I love hearing the reasons why kids think we do what we do. And who knows, maybe for some teachers, this last student is right!

What I noticed right away is that not one child said anything about having kids share so that other kids could learn from the brilliance of the work being talked about. Not one child seemed to realize that they were supposed to listen in order to learn from each other. And who could blame them? I, certainly, have never bothered to explain to my students the purposes for sharing our work. Yes, I told them they should listen to each other. Yes, I told them to be respectful when other students were talking. But, I never even thought to tell them that they should listen to each other in order to be inspired by each other and to gain new ideas for their own work.

And so, we started to have these conversations. I started to share with them ways that I heard ideas kids shared and thought about how other kids could use those ideas. I started to share with them that when I heard a good idea, I often asked questions to help me better understand how I might be able to use this idea too. I started to share with them that when I heard an idea that I liked, I often made sure to tell the person with the idea a specific thing that I thought would work for me. And as I started to share these things with the kids, I noticed that they were beginning to do them as well.

And every single time that I noticed a child was listening in a way that allowed her to learn from someone else’s ideas, I complimented them and pointed it out to the class. When a student shared how he might use someone’s idea in his own work, I made sure the class knew what a huge deal that was. When a student said that what she saw one child doing in one book could be something that she could do in her book, I made sure to acknowledge just how smart that student was being. And the kids began to notice and our sharing time began to change. It had more meaning and it had more purpose and it was actually helping the kids to begin to break their dependency on me.

As our reading share began to evolve, I noticed that kids were stating how they planned to use each other’s ideas in their own work. I noticed that the feedback that they gave each other became more specific. And, most importantly, I began to see the students trying out the ideas of other students in their own reading journals. I had proof that they were learning from each other. I had proof that I was officially not the only teacher in the room any longer.

I also noticed another exciting change in the way we shared our reading. In the past, my reading share quickly morphed into kids providing five to ten minute summaries of the books they were reading. Other kids would ask questions about the plots and maybe, just maybe, the child sharing would talk about a prediction they had.  However, now, our sharing time has finally become more about the thinking that the kids are doing as they read than about the books themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having kids talk about the books they are reading with each other. It’s just that I think there are more effective ways to do that. We share the books we are reading through a Google Doc and Google Form that one of my students created for the class. We share the books we are reading through the QR codes we create that are linked to 30-second audio recordings of book commericals that the kids have made. We share the books we are reading through the informal conversations and book talks that the kids are constantly having. We share the books we are reading through the blog posts that we write about our books. There are many opportunities for the kids to talk about and learn about the plots of the books that we are reading.

And now there is also a time where we get to learn about the thinking that we are doing as we read. This reading share has become such a purposeful and meaningful time of our reading workshop. Where it used to be the first thing that I cut out when we didn’t have enough time, now it is something that the kids really demand because they are eager to share AND they are eager to learn from each other.  Now it has meaning. Now it has purpose. Now my students have a chance to learn more from each other than they do from me on any given day. And we still have a long way to go in order to break their dependency on me, but changing our reading share was a huge step in the right direction. Getting out of the way and letting the kids lead the learning, has been one of the most powerful changes I have made this year.

What is a Memoir and Why do Authors Write Them? Looking at Genre While Not Forgetting Purpose

After spending several weeks working on writing stories from our lives to give as gifts to people that are important to us, it was time to shift gears slightly and start to talk about memoir.  As I moved into a more genre focused unit of writing, I didn’t want to lose the work that we had already done in thinking more deeply about a purpose for writing over a genre.  I know that my district requires us to teach students how to write memoirs. I love writing memoirs. But I wanted to make sure that I was able to hold on to the thoughts we had started to develop about why authors write.  So I decided that we might look at memoir more through the lens of purpose than through the lens of the genre.

What I needed to ask the kids to think about then, was why authors wrote memoirs.  If we could understand the author’s purpose in writing a memoir, then we would be able to see how memoirs could serve a function in our own lives as well. Again, this seems like a really simple shift in thinking and yet I have not ever made it until this year.  So often, we focus on just the characteristics of a genre in writing.  We determine what characteristics exist in a memoir and then we ask the kids to write their own.  Again, we often forget purpose.  If I could help my students to see WHY authors write memoirs, then I think our task of writing memoirs would feel more authentic.

I figured that the best way to begin thinking about memoirs would be to start reading memoirs. So I launched our unit of discovery about memoirs by sharing with the students two pieces of my own writing.  The first piece was a personal narrative. The second piece told the same story as the first, however it was told as a memoir. I described a moment from my life and then I shared how the moment changed me and what I learned from that moment. I asked the students to do two things.  First I asked them to begin listing what they thought a memoir way.  Then, I asked the students to list why an author might choose to write a memoir. I gave them a chance to work in pairs, threes and small groups to build their lists and then we added their ideas to a class chart.

Over the next few days we looked at three other memoirs.  We read “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros and we read two stories from the incredible book of short stories, Guys Write for Guys Read.  After each story, I gave the students a chance to work with others to revise the lists that they wrote on the first day of our work.  As they revised their own lists, we revised our class lists as well. We tracked the changes in our thinking and understanding by using a different color marker each day that we revised our class list.

What was amazing to me was that at no point did I stop and tell the kids what the characteristics of a memoir were. And at no point did I stop and tell the kids why an author might choose to write a memoir. The kids were able to discover all of that on their own AND they were able to discover more than I ever could have possibly taught them.  By giving kids a chance to discover information, they instantly gained more ownership of that information and they were able to hold on to that information over time.

By the end of this week the students fully understood that a memoir is a story that is written about a moment in a person’s life.  The story includes not just what happened, but the writer’s reflections on the moment as well.  The writer is able to share with the reader what he or she learned or realized in the moment being described or how this moment changed the writer in some way.

And my students also understood WHY an author would write a memoir. After reading several mentor texts, my students were able to reach the conclusion that authors write memoirs so that they can use their own life experiences to teach their readers an important lesson that they have learned. They want to use what they have been through to help others. They hope that by sharing the ways moments have changed them or by sharing the lessons they have learned through these moments, they might be able to help people in similar situations.  As my students began to understand this new purpose for writing, their excitement for trying out the genre for themselves began to grow.

While we were working on these mini-lessons throughout the past weeks, the students were continuing to work on the stories that they had been writing for the people in their lives.  As their understanding of the genre of memoir began to deepen, I saw students begin to shift their own writing to reflect what we were learning about memoirs.  I never told the kids that they had to start trying to write memoirs, but many of them made this decision on their own.  This hasn’t happened in past years. I think that by allowing the students to reach their own understandings of the genre of memoir and by giving them a chance to reflect on the PURPOSE of writing memoirs, their motivation has grown and they are eager to dive into this new genre.

Yes. This work took longer than if I had just told my students what a memoir was and why we write them, but I just don’t think it would have been as powerful. The students would not feel as if they owned this new knowledge and they would still believe that they were dependent on me to give them the information that I know they are capable of gathering on their own. While I constantly feel short on time and while I constantly feel pressure to move more quickly, I know that my students deserve the time that it takes for them to take more ownership of their learning.  And seeing the understandings that they are able to reach and seeing how deep those understandings are, proves that resisting the pressure to move along too quickly is one of the best things that I can do for my students.

What We Sometimes Forget to Teach About Reading

As I recently explained, my students and I have begun to talk about how we can use books as windows into the lives of other people.  The discussions we have been having have been absolutely enlightening for my students as well as for me.  Today, a discussion that I just did not expect began to unfold in front of me. It made me stop and think about the things that we sometimes forget to teach kids about reading. Well, to be fair, the things that I know I have forgotten to teach kids about reading.  Probably, others have been doing this for years!

One of my students, who is incredibly insightful and wise, suddenly looked at me with confusion and question in her eyes. We had been right in the middle of this incredible discussion about how the book One Green Apple not only helped us to better understand the lives of people who are new to our country, but it also helped us to better understand those people who go out of their way to make others feel comfortable and how very brave those people are and how much of our respect they deserve. It was a beautiful discussion, so I was surprised to see a look a confusion spread across this student’s face.

I asked her what she was thinking about and she responded with the following: “Well, I get what you are trying to get us to think about, but I don’t understand how these things are helping us to better understand what is going on in this book.”

Yeah. It took me by surprise. Honestly, I had to stop and really think for a moment before responding. There were a million things going through my head.

First of all, I realized that I had messed up.  No big surprise. My students show me this very fact multiple times a day.  I had missed something really huge and this lovely child was reminding me of that. I had forgotten to explain that while, yes, I believe that by looking at our texts as windows we will read with more care and attention and that will help us to better understand what we are reading, my ultimate goal was much larger than that. And I had forgotten to explain that to the very people who it mattered the most to.  My ultimate goal was to not make my students better readers, but better human beings. I knew that, but I had forgotten to tell that to my students.

The other thing that I began to think about (all while the 18 sweet faces of my students sat there staring up at me, waiting for me to respond to what was just said) was that I think we got this whole reading thing a little bit wrong.  We spend SO much time teaching our students how to be better readers. We teach our students to use their life experiences to better understand books. We teach our students to question to better understand the motivations and emotions of the characters in their texts. We teach our students to infer the author’s message and meaning to help them better understand their texts. And we teach them to determine the most important ideas in a text in order to be able to synthesize information and better understand what they read. These things are incredibly important, BUT they are not everything. We teach them to better understand their texts, BUT we often forget to teach them what they might be able to do with those better and deeper understandings. I realized that what this child was telling me was that she was desperately looking for a way to use what we were talking about to better understand the book that we had just read because that is what she is used to doing. That is what she is used to being asked to do. That is what she thought reading was all about.

These children believe that learning to read means that they are learning to better understand their texts. And that is ALL they think that reading is about. Because, often, that is all we teach them. That is all we ask of them.  We don’t often give them authentic reasons for reading other than to enjoy a book or to learn content that we want them to learn. So it was a real struggle for them to switch their thinking so that they were now being asked to use what they understood about their text in order to better understand people who live in our world.  They were now being asked to use what they understood about their text in order to build empathy for others. They were now being asked to use reading to become better people. And that was new to them and I didn’t give them the support they needed in understanding that.

So, as I often do, I apologized. I told them that I really missed something big. And then I shared with them all the things that I had just thought about and thanked them for helping me to realize these new things.  And, because they are so wonderful, they quickly adjusted to this new information and our conversation became even more meaningful after that. I could see the lightbulbs going off. These kids. They teach me all the time and they amaze me every day.

And as I move forward, continuously reflecting on what I am asking of my students and what I am teaching to my students, I have these new realizations to work with. I realize that I must do a better job in helping my students to see all of the things that they can do in this world because of the deep understandings they gain from their texts.  I realize that I owe it to my students to show them all of the authentic purposes that there are for reading. I realize that my students deserve to know all of the ways that reading can make them better, more understanding, more informed, more responsible human beings. I realize that if I don’t show my students what they can do when they deeply comprehend a text, then I am not giving them any real reason to work hard to gain the deep understanding that I so often demand from them. And that is just not fair.

Revision Checklists

In a previous post, I talked about helping my students to become more independent writers by providing them with revision checklists to use to revise their writing. I talked about how I think that we, as teachers, are often quick to tell our students to go back and make their writing better, but we sometimes forget to give them specific strategies to help them to do this.  I have found that every mini-lesson that I teach to my students that teaches them a new strategy to use to improve their writing, is a way that they can go back and revise their writing. The problem is that when it comes time for revision, our students often forget all of the tools and strategies that they have at their disposal. So I began using revision checklists as a way to help students remember all the ways that we have learned to make our writing better.

For each unit of study that we do, our revision checklists change. And our checklists grow throughout the unit. At first, there are only two or three items on the checklist, because I do not add an item to our checklist until we have spent several lessons learning a new strategy or technique.  I introduce the new strategy, we often look at how our mentor authors have used the strategy, I model using the strategy in my own writing, there is guided practice using the strategy and then the students try the strategy in their notebooks independently. Only then do I add the strategy to our revision checklist. So the checklists start out small and grow as our knowledge grows.

The students have a lot of freedom over when they use the checklist. For most students, they like to use the checklist at the end of their writing process, after they have finished writing what they have to say.  However, there are students who prefer to revise as they go and that is just fine with me.  The only thing that I ask is that they give their writing a chance to be re-seen by their own eyes at some point during their writing process.  This means that I expect each child to reread and revise at some point throughout their writing process, but do not limit the students in when this needs to happen.

The number of revision checklist items that each child uses is also up to the individual child. By the time our checklists are fully grown, I recommend that each child uses at least three strategies on a piece of writing, but this is just a suggestion and I trust the children to use the number of strategies that is right for them. Often, as I confer with students, I ask them to show me where and how they have revised a piece of writing. If I notice that they are not using the strategies we have learned to make their writing better, then that becomes the focus of our conference and we find ways together to use the revision checklists more effectively.

The revision checklists have helped me to help my students to become more independent writers. It certainly does NOT mean that my students all jump up and down at the thought of revision. Nor does it mean that all of my students complete pieces of writing that are flawless. Nor does it even mean that none of my children write in ways that continue to baffle me and make me wonder if I am teaching anyone anything. But it does mean that the students know ways that they can make their writing better. It does mean that they know that revision is more than just changing lowercase letters to uppercase letters.  And it does mean that they know that they can revise their writing even if I am not sitting right there with them telling them what they should do. And for me, that means a lot.

After my last post, a few people had asked to see the revision checklists that I have used. I am happy to share them and will include links to the GoogleDocs that contain last year’s revision checklists on them. However, I am not sure how helpful they will be to people since many of our strategies have strange names that might not make sense to anyone other than me and my students. The checklists I use change every year depending on the mini-lessons that I teach which depend on the needs of the students sitting in front me. However, I do think that sometimes it is just helpful to see what other teachers are using. So I am happy to share. But please feel free to ask any questions about the many things that you will see on there that probably don’t make any sense!

Here is the revision checklist that I used last year for our memoir study. 

Here is the revision checklist that I used last year for our persuasive letter writing study. 

Here is the revision checklist that I used last year for our informational picture book study. 

I hope these checklists are just a little bit helpful for anyone looking for ways to help their students to revise!