Sunday, May 5, 2019

Teaching Kids with IEPs to Be Powerful, Joyful Writers

Last summer I attended The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project August Writing Institute and had the good fortune of participating in Jenn Kean-Thompson's section entitled, "Teaching Kids with IEPs to Be Powerful Joyful Writers".

I teach in an integrated co-teaching setting so I am always eager to learn more about creating a classroom where ALL students see themselves as members of our writing community.

This post will be part of a five part series, which will follow the steps in the writing process. Our first day was dedicated to immersion/rehearsal.

As I reflect on my notes, here are some of my big takeaways from Day 1, which was dedicated to immersion/rehearsal:

Questions to Consider
There are a few questions that are helpful to hold in our mind when we work with students with IEPs:

1. How are we providing access and JOY throughout the day?

2. Like teaching, it's a BALANCING act: When am I making the priority progress toward grade level standards? When am I making the priority progress toward IEP goals?

Getting to Know You

First and foremost, it is important to remember the important lesson we learn from "The King and I" and get to know the writers in our classroom. When we look at a student's IEP, it is one-dimensional. For example, did you know that 80% of people with disabilities experience anxieties? When we know this, it provides us with a new perspective, and allows us to see our students in a new light. We can plan with this new knowledge in mind. Conducting a writing survey, and making them time to really study student responses is a great way to gain deeper insight into the interests, talents, worries needs, and goals of the writers in our classroom.

Harness the Power of the Components of Balanced Literacy
Writing Workshop is one element of our balanced literacy day, but there are a lot of other opportunities across the day to provide access for our students. It helps to reflect on each component  of balanced literacy or the different structures of our writing workshop and ask:

When can I provide access to grade level curriculum? When can I provide access to personalized instruction (IEP goals)?

When kids feel like they have access, they are more joyful. When looking at the above components and structures, consider the implications for assessment, planning and instruction. As teachers we are all too aware that time is finite so it helps to think about where we are spending most of our time planning. For example, I am not going to spend the MOST amount of time planning for the mini-lesson if it is going to be difficult for a majority of my students to access the mini-lesson, which is tied to grade level expectations. Instead my time would be better spent planning for what I do during the independent work time, small group work and conferring, which are the places I can provide students with access to personalized instruction.

Shared Experience: The Power of Gradual Release and Shared Writing

Primary teachers know that co-authoring a text with a group of writers can be a powerful scaffold toward independent practice. In the upper grades, it is not unusual to begin units begin with some sort of shared experience or immersion lesson. In the TCRWP community, we sometimes refer to this work as "boot camp," which attempts to shore up foundational skills particular to a genre, provides a context for oral rehearsal, and gives students a sense of what it feels like to go through the whole process, but in one sitting.

While powerful for all students, shared experience/shared writing is particularly powerful for writers with IEPs. As Stephen Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it helps them to "begin with the end in mind". During the shared writing experience, it is important to set students up for success by providing them with charts to reference during the experience. Students will be able to draw on the language prompts in the chart to support structure and development across the unit.

Expectation + Celebration/Affirmation + Choice = Engagement
Finally, Jenn reminded us of the power of expectation/celebration/affirmation and choice. For example, in the MWTP (Mid Workshop Teaching Point) we might encourage students to reflect on the following question to discuss with their writing partner: What have you accomplished so far? To provide additional support, if needed, we might share some different options with students that provide a spectrum of accomplishment but are also are a "veiled" sort of reinforcement and instruction: "In my essay I stated my claim, I wrote my first support, and gave evidence, I introduced evidence using transition words"

In our teaching share, we might provide students with choices about what to celebrate. For example, in opinion/argument writing, students might celebrate volume, stated claims, clear reasons or evidence. We might posts a chart with if you are celebrating ___________________, then you might share or highlight . . .

One particular point Jenn made that resonated with me at the end of Day 1 is, "often kids are not independent because they don't understand WHY they would do it (engagement) or don't understand HOW (skill, strategy, behavior, habit) to replicate it." I try to keep this in the forefront of my mind in assessment, planning and instruction of not just students with IEPs, but with all students.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reflecting on the Principal Gala at the Botanical Gardens (2015)

It is important for leaders to retreat to the mountains. This event stands at a cross-section. We need it to determine the road ahead.

Leaders are the meaning-makers. The impact of leadership depends on the STORY that a community tells.

The story that you tell is what your people live. You will not stumble on your story, otherwise it is not your own.

It is up to you - principals, leaders - to author the story of your school. The storyline of great schools, begins with looking for a precious particle - a seed idea.

She spoke to the "rule of seven" which states that a prospect needs to “hear” the advertiser’s message at least 7 times before they’ll take action.

For more information on the rule of seven and how it can help us communicate our goals and vision, visit

As educators, we need to make peace with the fact that our story will always be about crazy things coming our way.

However, as we learn from our most beloved characters, it is not what we face, but how we choose to face it that defines us.

An organization can thrive despite chaos. We cannot tap to the tune of new demands. Instead we need to hold close to our heart the words of Jim Collins in his book Great By Choice:

Far more difficult than implementing change is figuring out what works, understanding why it works, grasping when to change, and knowing when not to.

We cannot opt out of the pressure that led to the CCSS. We need to see hope, promise and possibility as we move our schools forward with urgency. Seizing the moment takes great leadership. Most of all, we need to listen.

However, we can't lead alone. We need to "embrace" vulnerable and be willing to lead from that position.

We need to find people from within, who share our vision, and bring them out front and center.

Principals should be finding and tapping - - anointing (nominating; choosing) instructional leaders. Most of all, principals need to go public as learners. 

Come out, come out . . . wherever you are! We need to be the star-makers, and believe those we lead into who we know they can be

We need to find and bring into the light differences in what brilliant people think - we can't be afraid to invite questions, invite inquires. These spark exploration and engagement in search of answers. 

We need to listen, to model/showcase great learning, not just great work. We need to celebrate failed attempts for it is inside these attempts that we celebrate learning, which needs to be central to our mission.

Don't mask opportunities to see conflict, debate -- these places are where most inquiries begin. Don't mask hard conversations.

Think about times we felt vulnerable. It is often times when we tried something new, unpopular, were called on to give/receive feedback, or grant or ask for forgiveness. Being vulnerable sounds a lot like truth and courage. Truth and courage are what we want inside our communities of practice. 

Vulnerability is the cradle from all things that matter come - Brene Brown

Less than one-third (31.5%) of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014. See the following article:

People choose to be disengaged - often due to factors that we (leaders) control - (shame, isolation, loss, threat, blame).

David Rock reminds us that we are mammals - if we encounter threat or pain, it is in our nature to withdraw, to disengage.

We need to approach our mission whole-hearted. We need to be risk-takers. We need to ask those around us for suggestions and ideas.

It is important to hold in the forefront that we are the meaning-makers, that is the central message of one who leads a literate life. 

According to Andrew Solomon, it is how we respond to trouble is that matters most. We cannot take out or ignore the hard parts of teaching. We can take the hard parts and spin our trials into stories of triumph. We can take the hard parts and imagine new horizons and possibilities. 

We always have a choice. We need to link arms, hold tight to each other and cling to our best beliefs. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

You Need Grit (Teacher Grit) to Tap into the Power of Partner Reading

"Just the two of us, we can make it if we try, just the two of us, just the two of us, building castles in the sky, just the two of us, you and I . . . " From Just the Two of Us by Grover Washington Jr.
We all come to that place when we are first trying on workshop teaching when our reading partnerships get the best of us. We want to throw our hands up in the air in frustration, and exclaim, "Forget it! It's just not going to work with this group.  Take heart, we have all been there (and continue to struggle with getting the most out of this powerful reading tool). However, the best resource that we have for coping with the challenges of sustaining partnerships is each other.  What are some helpful tips that you would give to teachers who are falling into the partner pit of despair?


It has been helpful for me when I feel like throwing in the towel, and removing the following Jame's Britton quote from my bulletin board as it taunts me from across the classroom, "reading and writing float on a sea of talk" to remind yourself of why we NEED to have reading partnerships in the first place.  Please feel free to add to the list of reasons below:
  1. Partnerships lift the level of understanding. Isn't true that you understand what you have read better when you have the chance to talk it out with someone else?
  2. Talk provides teachers with multiple opportunities to assess comprehension. Who is it that said talk is a window into our understanding?  We can listen to partner conversations through the lens of reading skills.
  3. Talk builds a sense of community.  Think about the communities or groups that we are a part of. Most would agree that the communities that thrive are the groups where there is trust that it cultivated through relationships. How do we build relationships?  That's right, through conversation. Talk allows us to connect with others.
  4. Talk helps to support stamina. You might question this as when reading is interspersed with talk, don't we have less time to read. However, stamina is not just about time, in fact when we think of time, it might be that volume is a better word choice. Stamina means energy, staying power, grit, and resilience - it's that feeling that when the going gets tough; the tough get going. Talk breathes new life into our reading and gives us the energy to push through the tough parts and keep going. Talk helps us maintain our momentum.
  5. Talk supports oral language development. It provides students with multiple opportunities for repeated practice in comprehending (listening) and expressing their ideas (speaking) with deliberate scaffolds and support from proficient speakers.
  6. Talk promotes a thinking curriculum.  The notion of a thinking curriculum is summed up well by the following quote, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." In classrooms where there is a thinking curriculum in place we can observe the marriage of content and process in the classroom.  Communication is an essential skill and so we need to provide students with authentic opportunities to engage in conversation in order to support them in becoming effective communicators.   
The following two articles are great resources for extending the conversation with colleagues or making the argument for partner reading (in spite of challenges it poses in terms of management) Why Talk is Important In Classrooms and A Thinking Curriculum.

If we start partner reading in our Kindergarten classrooms with our five year olds (see the video below from Tracey Fritch)  


and continue partner reading through first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade and beyond Imagine the possibilities . . . 

What should teachers consider when creating partnerships? What do strong reading partnerships look and sound like? What are predictable problems that we will face when launching and sustaining partnership work in reading? We will consider these and other questions in future posts.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What Can We Do About The Kid Who________? Dramatic Ways to Help Every Student Shine, Feel Safe, and Desire to Write and Revise and Write Again!

From the archives: The following are notes from a speech that Katherine Bomer delivered at the July 2010 TCRWP Writing Institute.  

One of the things that I love to do for inspiration is to reread notebooks of speeches I've heard from people I admire.  This morning I stumbled on one such speech. I feel like it is something great to keep in our Writing Tool Kit when we confer with students or to reread at the start of workshop as kids are settling into their writing so as to remind us that potential and promise stand before us if we ignite the spark.

As teachers we ask, what about the kid who has nothing to write about or  . . . .?
·        ·      says “I’m done!”
·         just writes about _________________
·         struggles with mechanics and/or conventions of writing
·         doesn't elaborate
·         doesn't revise or edit

It’s important to remember that we can’t measure the hearts and minds of kids who are composing meaning on the page.

1. We need to keep close in mind the words of the late Don Murray, “You have to write badly in order to write well.”  Remember badly means exploratory, it means helping a fledgling writer find the word or line and spinning some the magic around it.  

Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith is a great exploration into writing with wild abandon, respecting the messiness on the page, and seeing where it takes you.  You can learn more about her work at

2. ‘Assume greatness’ If we approach a child thinking that they can’t, they won’t. We need to believe them into the writer they are.

3. Keep it real. We need to do the work of a writer if we want our students to do the same. We need to slow our own process as writers, we need to keep it real and show students that real writers struggle, and we are all real writers.  In the end, we need to help students find real authentic reasons to write, and send their words out into the world.  The beauty of the process approach is it helps kids see and find the significance in their lives.

4. Writers (and kids) need other people (feedback, support, camaraderie) as “the process of the becoming literate is inherently a social one.” Anne Hass Dyson.  You can learn more about her research and stance on the intersection between literacy and childhood here:

5. Find the brilliance and beauty in a student’s piece. We are led by error, if we don’t encourage risk taking, we are inviting voiceless/bored writing from our students. Remember error is the seed bed for the imagination.  Find places in student writing to name the brilliance that is there.

6. A final exhortation to was to love the kid who _______________.  As teachers and as teachers of writing, we need to love and accept kids who are different. It begins with respect. Hold onto an image of kids who can, will and do.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Revision Across the Writing Process

I have been thinking a lot about my one little word for 2014. I have resolved to go with revision. Revision is not just about writing, but about life. The same fear that gnaws at us at the very thought of revising the words on the page is the fear that can sometimes prevent us from making choices that take us on a new path, course or direction in life.

I had the privilege of learning about revision alongside Maggie Beattie Roberts and Audra Robb from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project during the Summer Writing Institutes 2011 and 2012. Over the next few posts, I am going to revisit the notes from these past summer institutes and explore not only how revision can lift the quality of our writing, but in so doing, I hope to also think about the power of revision to lift the quality of our life.

During over first day, Maggie helped us to think about the qualities of writing alongside the different stages of the writing process.

Writing Process
Qualities of Writing

How do we teach students to revise while collecting entries? After all, don't students need to have writing on the page to in order to revise it.  It made me think, though, how often do I encourage students to revisit previous entries in their Writer's Notebooks.  This is a habit I would like to encourage, and an option I would like students to entertain more without making it a mandate.  I need to think more about how to build it into their repertoire.  

One method for doing this might be building it into the link of the mini-lesson, and in the link remind students to: Remember that you can always go back into your notebook and revisit entries that you have written earlier to revise them.

Maggie directed us to this great article Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers (Sommers, N.) where student and experienced writers comment on their definition of revision, and what it means to them.  One thing that I would like to work on more with students is returning to an entry across several days to revise it for meaning, significance, and purpose.  Maggie outlined some of the following strategies, which I feel would make for a great "cheat sheet" while conferring into the collecting work students are doing. 

While I often do not spend a long time collecting in a UoS, I am toying with extending the collecting phase to allow more time for revision while collecting or keeping collecting short and embedding some of these strategies in teaching shares and mid-workshop teaching points. 

Below are strands of teaching points for revising while writing entries, revisiting entries written earlier, and strategies that help writers focus on meaning and significance inside of entries to lift the level of the writing.

Strategies to Collect Entries with Meaning in Mind 
  • Begin with place.  “It lives in the deepest part of ourself.” Fletcher
  • Our body is a map of our lives.  Scan it – write from a memory
  • Let smells or music (songs) bring you back to memories once lost

Strategies to Revise for Revisiting Entries
  • Remember audience. Think: Who is your reader? How might they affect your writing? How would you write differently if you were writing for (audience)?
  • Rewrite the beginning lines of your entry.
  • Start the entry in different places.
  • The bigger the issue/the smaller your write.  Pick the smallest (most manageable) part and start there. 
Strategies to Create Meaning, Significance, and Purpose Inside Entries
  • Writers use powerful images or objects (which stand for something bigger – symbol) and weaves them throughout the piece.  This image unifies the piece (beginning – middle –end).
  • Writers use a lot of colorful language to jazz up their writing. They choose words wisely and words that have power.  Writers choose words that are imbued with power and feeling (connotation) and that these are tied to significance, paint a vivid picture and see it in your mind.
  • Writers seek to connect with an audience through emotion and give a lot of emotions to help readers feel with them.  
  • Use flashback and flash forward. 
  • Think about powerful actions and begin with them.  Create a balanced structure to take your audience on a journey.
  • Weave in or repeat a powerful quote a quote that is connected to the meaning and intention of the piece.
  • Uses varied sentence structure (pace, cadence, tone.)
  • There is a balance of word choice and image. Use shocking comparisons to leave an impression on the reader.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to focus on revision inside of writing workshop, and will support students with building a revision mindset or stance when writing. Who is with me? I would love to post some examples of student writing when practicing this work to show revision in action.  Please let me know if you would like to study this together. 

Also, comment below on revision success stories (or attempts) in your classroom. What have you found effective when teaching students to embrace revision? I leave you with this quote from Truman Capote.

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What I Learned from Carl Anderson in 2010

Several years ago I had the chance to study with Carl Anderson for a week at a TCRWP Summer Institute on the topic: Enduring Goals that Last Across the Year: Link Units of Study into Learning Pathways to Support Revision, Independence and Vigor.  

After writing yesterday about the dangers of missing the writers in the writing curriculum, I revisited notes that I had written while listening to Carl. You know that something powerful is being said when it is timeless and true . . . even several years later.

He spoke to how we were in the best and worst of times in the teaching of writing. It is the best in that there is so much curriculum material out there, but it is also the worst because it is easy to forget that these materials were not written with OUR kids in mind.  This begs the question: How can we draw on the best of both worlds . . . How can we make use of the materials that we have at our fingertips, while at the same time, design units of study that will meet the needs of our students?

Through our work that week, Carl helped us to realize that our goal should be to teach students central ideas and understandings about writing not just about the genres we teach.

Carl spoke to the importance of goal setting with kids in our class.  He shared how important it is to have conversations with students about curriculum, and discuss with them how our writing units can support their goals.

His beautiful description of units as chapters in an ongoing narrative that helps students grow as writers across the year reminded us that we needed to look past a single conference, a single workshop and think about a student's learning pathway.

He spoke to how the key to curriculum design is to decide (based on assessment) what are the lines of growth for writers in your classroom, and then choose to work on just a couple of these goals inside of a unit.  As we think about each writer, it is important to work with them on a particular goal across several units to help them "develop" as writers.  The decision belongs to us - the teacher - What are the most important things to teach the writer(s) in front of me? Carl spoke about Tom Newkirk's work and how Tom shared that the two biggest problems writers struggle with (no matter what their age) are focus and elaboration.  

However, the idea that he kept coming back to, similar to the familiar mantra: teach the writer not the writing or we teach children not curriculum was that we teach writers not units.   What are some of the biggest issues that the writers in front of you are facing at the moment? How are your teaching plans responding to those needs?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Secret Lives of Boy Writers

I am afraid . . . Afraid that I am squashing the love of writing out of some of the third graders that walk through the doors of my classroom.  Common Core State Standards, Standardized Testing, Bottom Lines and other pressures are being exerted on me, and I don't know that I am handling it well.  When these kinds of pressures are exerted on me, I find that I endeavor to CONTROL the environment around me more, in the hope that if I can control the outcome more. So I am afraid of taking risks, afraid of deviating from the path (curriculum), and afraid to listen to students because I know that the students will see straight through me. They will see that I am absent from my teaching because I know some of what I am doing is not in my students best interests.

When did I realize that I had not recruited students to author a writing curriculum for our writer's workshop with me and left them out of the conversation . . . it was when I discovered the secret life of a boy writer, who I struggled to get to write in the classroom. I am new at a grade level this year, and when you are "new" to anything, there is a learning curve, and I feel like external forces are robbing me of this learning curve. Here are some pages that a writer in my classroom has been secretly writing outside of whole class units: 

How do you strike a balance between helping students to write well, and exposing them (and teaching them) to write in different forms and genres while at the same time honoring student choice (and not just choice about topic, but choice about projects)? I have been teaching inside of a writing workshop for the past 12 years, and I long for the days when teachers were able to author a curriculum WITH their students, and FOR their students.  

In Assessing Writers, Carl Anderson suggests that the following questions should guide our thinking and planning work for writing workshop: What are our students' needs? What are our students' interests? What have our students studied in previous grades? What units doe we know well enough to teach? What curriculum mandates are we required to meet? I feel like we often take into account that last question, and perhaps even the second question when authoring curriculum and looking at units of study in writing workshop.

In our drive to ensure consistent practices and scaffolded curriculum, have we left our students behind? In looking at our curriculum calendars, where do we see the interests of our students? Where do we see units we have authored based on student needs?  I feel that I am progressing in a lockstep fashion with colleagues on the grade level, and don't know if the writers in my classroom are with me. How many of them live secret writing lives outside of the writing workshop?  In these last two weeks before the December Break, I have decided to rebel a bit, while colleagues are working on holiday crafts and activities, I am going to attempt a miniature unit on independence before we start our next unit in January, entitled Changing the World: Writing Persuasive Speeches, Editorials and Petitions, which I am really excited about teaching next month.

In The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy Calkins asserts that "each of us needs to do the soul searching and the research necessary to define our role as advocates for our profession" (2001).  I feel like the powers that be are trying to rob us of this time to study, reflect, and be critical of the work that we are doing because we are being told to do it. What is the difference between consistency, and conformity? How can we make sure that we don't cross the line?

Teaching Kids with IEPs to Be Powerful, Joyful Writers

Last summer I attended The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project August Writing Institute and had the good fortune of participating i...