Writing Workshop – 30 years and counting!

5281-22-23I began supporting teachers with developing their writing workshops in the 80’s.  Don Graves had written his famous book, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Lucy Calkins, Shelley Harwayne, Joanne Hindley and Nancie Atwell visited our county or state conferences and talked about their early work. Before long, their books were on my shelves too. I read it all, soaking it all in, sharing with the teachers at my school, modeling lessons for them, and so on.  As the years went by, I added new writing gurus, like Ralph Fletcher, Carl Anderson, Georgia Heard, and eventually Katie Wood Ray (really enjoyed In Pictures and in Words this summer.) As a Reading Teacher and Coach for elementary school teachers for most of my career, I never tired of reading about writing workshop and how to support students in becoming lifelong writers.  I bet many of you could say that you, too, learned so much from all the names I just mentioned.

Now there are a few new names on the writing front.  And I still find the topic exciting although I’m near the point of fully retiring (which I keep saying will happen “next school year” but my husband doesn’t believe me.) I continue to learn with Rose Cappelli and Lynn Dorfman with all their mentor texts books. Jeff Anderson and Aimee Buckner are also two of my new favorites.  I just finished Aimee’s recent publication called Nonfiction Notebooks (this is her third book on how she uses notebooks.)

41hANbCtgnL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Buckner’s latest book includes her work with upper elementary students as they learn to use their writers’ notebooks to flush out ideas for informational writing topics, narrow their topic to find an angle or focus, try out different leads, experiment with organizational ideas, expand and dig deeper, make decisions about what’s important, and so forth.  She tells you right up front that this book will not include revising and editing of final drafts. It’s Buckner’s belief that the students’ first drafts will be a much better quality if they use some of these prewriting strategies in their notebooks first.  But she cautions us against these scenarios:

  1. The student who begins a first draft way too soon and then there is too much revision work to be done. This can frustrate a student.
  2. The teacher who uses far too many prewriting ideas so that by the time the students begin their drafts, they are tired of their topic.

Some ideas I gathered from Buckner’s new book:

  • On pages 72 and 82 when she is doing a shared demonstration with the kids, she has them glue the excerpt into their notebooks.  So simple, yet why didn’t I think of that?  I usually have the excerpt large enough for all to see and then we might create an anchor chart from the lesson.  When I want to refer back, I’d tell the kids, “Remember when we noticed what so and so did with her description in her NF piece…” It makes more sense to let the kids have the actual excerpt to refer to (with their jottings, things they noticed, and ideas around it.)
  • Using boxes and bullets for organizing ideas (p. 42).  This is something I heard about many years ago, and yet had totally forgotten about.  That’s why we need to keep reading articles, books, and blogs on teaching writing. There’s just too much information out there and sometimes we need reminders.
  • Since the teachers at my school use Readers’ Statements to open their mini-lessons, I appreciated the fact that Aimee began her lessons in a similar way.  Examples of a few: “Writers read informational texts and notice what the authors do”; “Writers write all they know about a topic and then they look for what they don’t know”; “Writers use specific nouns and active verbs to keep their informational writing interesting.”
  • P. 80 – chart of possible leads and the nonfiction books where she found them.
  • Although I don’t have to do report cards, Buckner has included a final chapter on assessment for those teachers who want answers to evaluation questions.

sad-children04Buckner’s book will mostly be helpful to teachers who already have a strong writing workshop in place.  What saddens me most is that even though my county in Virginia (which has 145+ elementary schools) began introducing writing workshop to our teachers in the 80’s, there are still schools where it is just not happening. And that’s a very sad thing for students of all grades.

Preschool, kinder, and letters and sounds: How much and when?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve had several questions asked of me lately from preschool parents and teachers.  They all want to know what they should be doing when their children are 3, 4, and 5 so that the kids will eventually have a successful “learning to read” experience.  For the parents, I want them to know 3 important things.

1.  Reading aloud to your children is the single most important thing you can do with your children.  Finding fun books both in fiction and non-fiction is the best way to turn your kids on to reading. Use your libraries. Buy books as part of birthday and holiday presents.  By reading to them with expression you send messages to your kids.  The little ones will be thinking, “WOW, I want to be able to do that some day!”

2. Forcing children to learn their letters and sounds at age 3 and 4 will not necessarily guarantee that the children will maintain a two-year advantage on other students who only learn their letters and sounds in kindergarten.  Many children can catch up to these early readers. By the end of first grade many late starters catch up and level off with the early starters. However, if children do show an interest in letters and sounds at age 3 and 4, then certainly play with the letters and have fun.  Sing the ABC song in the car, do puzzles, play with the sponge letters in the tub, make the magnetic letters accessible on the refrigerator, and throw out some “hooks” for the letters during your play. For example, “D, that’s Daddy’s letter and Dawson’s letter!”  “N is for Nana and O is Owen’s special letter.” “R is for Robot. Let’s pretend we are robots.”

3.  Talk to your children.  Have conversations.  Pay attention to their interests. Expand on what they are saying.  Language development and vocabulary building can be done in the context of real conversations. I am always saddened when I see a parent pick up his/her child at preschool with a phone attached to the ear or texting someone as they gather the child’s coat and drawings.  Listen to your children.  Retell favorite stories together. Make up and act out stories together.

To the preschool teachers of 4-5 year olds or kindergarten teachers of children who are struggling with learning letters/sounds, I’d recommend these readings:

  1. In Catching Readers Before They Fall, we talk about kindergarteners that are struggling with learning to identify their letters. Read page 115-121 to see how we help kids learn about the “features of print.” Some kids need to learn to notice the shapes of the letters BEFORE you ever start giving each letter a name.
  2. Remember that learning left-to-right orientation and voice-print matching is just as important an early skill as learning letters and sounds. Hopefully preschool and kinder teachers are doing lots of Shared Reading with Big Books and Poems on charts.  Also in One Child at a Time on pages 107-114, you can read about making little books with the kids. Appendix B in One Child and Appendix 9 in Catching Readers give some samples.  This is definitely one way to make the learning fun.
  3. Making a personal ABC book for the child who is having trouble learning his letters is crucial.  Only put in the letters that the child knows with a picture of his “hook” for that letter (the picture can be a sticker or a simple drawing).  His personal “hook” may be different from the ABC chart you use in your classroom.  That’s OK.  If the child is wild about robots and dinosaurs, then those are better hooks for him than a “ring” or a “door”.  If he knows his brother’s name is Josh then that can be his hook for J.  Leave spaces for the letters he doesn’t have a hook for or can’t ID that letter. When you read his personal ABC book with him, you will just say those letters on those pages (even though there is nothing there), and he will point and read the ones he knows. You only add the letter and the hook as he learns it.  In Catching Readers, Chapter 11, we answer a question for parents about “what if my child has trouble learning his letters?”  Look for that on pages 202-204.
  4. Use SMALL GROUPS for those 3-5 kids who aren’t strong in letter ID and sounds.  Do small group Shared Reading and small group Interactive Writing.  These are the kids who will normally NOT be fully attending when you are doing Interactive Writing/Shared Reading with the whole group.  You need ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT from them — and the only way to be sure you are getting that is if they are right there with you; maybe even 2-3 at a time.
  5. Games sometimes help.  I used to make “hopping boards” on poster boards.  I would just draw a hopping board and put stickers on it.  One with all dinosaur stickers would be called the Dino Game.  Then I’d make another one with “Hello Kitty” or some other popular cartoon character on it.  The kids would think they were different games, and yet I used them for letter practice (or sight word practice with older kids.)  I was always amazed that kids would choose these homemade board games over packaged games. Anything to take away the idea of skill-and-drill and to make it fun. But remember, games cannot replace the time for real reading or writing. These would be things they would chose in their free play time.

“Games in general have little value, but designed specifically for a particular child and used for a brief period of time they may help to increase the items that a child remembers.”  Literacy Lessons 2, Clay, p. 176

6.   Give kids time to write every day.  These may only be drawings or scribbles, but that’s OK.  Read one of the books by Matt Glover or Katie Wood Ray on writing with preschoolers (see pictures below) or discover the wonderful work that Giacobbe and Horn have done in kinder classrooms.

7.   Reread favorite stories and act them out.  Provide props or stick puppets to retell stories.

Hope some of these ideas help.  Any comments or other thoughts are welcome.


August 10 for 10 Picture Book Event!

We are excited to be participating in the 10 for 10 Picture Books project again! This is the fourth year that Cathy Mere and Mandy Robek have hosted this compilation of blog and Twitter posts (#PB10for10) about the 10 picture books you just can’t live without.

The first five are Katie’s picks and the second five are Pat’s. Enjoy!


Good News Bad News, by Jeff Mack is a simple text that uses only 4 words to tell the story of two friends who have very different ways of looking at the world. Kids love reading the pictures and beg for this to be read again and again.





It’s a Tiger, by David LaRochelle and Jeremy Tankard.  This book was voted as the #1 Favorite by my class this year. They absolutely loved it!  A rollicking adventure with a tiger makes this an instant favorite read aloud.





Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzberg.  This is a wonderful book to show kids how mistakes can be something beautiful. With fun cut-outs, pop-ups and interactive pages, this book engages children and encourages them to create and not be scared of making mistakes.





Press Here, by Herve Tullet. I absolutely love this fun book. The text instructs the reader to push dots, shake the book and then through your imagination the book magically comes alive. This is a must-have for your classroom library regardless of the age of your students.





Ol’ Mama Squirrel, by David Ezra Stein. Mama Squirrel will do whatever it takes to protect her babies. Kids enjoy this funny story of brave Mama Squirrel. This book also has nice text features to use as a writing mentor text.




6140VbmaPML._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson. I would not be surprised to see this book on everyone’s list of 10 for 10.  It’s a big hit with everyone I share it with, adults and children alike.  A little girl learns a lesson about kindness after being mean to one of her new classmates. This book leaves children with a desire to treat everyone with a little kindness lest you regret your missed opportunities.




51E7nP9Xi-L._SX300_The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, is a book filled with subtle humor.  Each crayon writes a letter to their owner telling him about why they are feeling rejected, overused, stubby, or naked. Yellow and orange fight over what color the sun really is.  I had to laugh out loud at Purple’s letter because one of my grandchildren just LOVES purple and uses up all our purple markers and crayons. This book would be fun for K-2 to hear, but also useful in upper grades for an example of point of view writing.



31y-kfs3+XL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_I am definitely on an “Amy Krouse Rosentahl” kick these days.  I just love her humor.   In Exclamation Point we get a quirky lesson in punctuation.  My favorite page is when the question mark shows up and asks no less than 20 questions in a row.  When reading it aloud, read these fast.  It cracks the kids up.



51TAO9fNSrL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_This one has been around since 2006, but I just discovered it.  Another A. K. Rosenthal book, One of Those Days, would pair nicely with Viorst’s classic book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. All kids will relate to “Feeling Left Out Day” and “Can’t Find Stuff Day” and “Nobody’s Listening To You Day.”  The pictures tell it all. This one is an easy mentor text for getting writing ideas too.




31OLeLfeF2L._SX300_Kathryn Otoshi does it again with Zero as she did with OneAnother great book with a serious message.

Do Pirates and Teachers Go Together?

51c7vKRzfFL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Just finished reading Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess and am feeling energized and inspired! He sets out to get his readers to become more “passionate, creative, and fulfilled in your role as a teacher” and he accomplishes that tenfold. Though he teaches High School History classes there are many aspects of his message that will connect with elementary teachers as well. Some of my reflections or quotes from Burgess are listed below:

1.) Burgess writes with many analogies, metaphors, and personal stories that make this an easy read.  I love when he compares teaching to his favorite Christmas carol, The Little Drummer Boy.  The little boy had no material gift to offer, so he used his talent to play his drum as best he could. Throughout his book Burgess encourages (and gives you ways) to be the best teacher you can be.  He writes , “Forget about all the things you can’t control and play your drum to the best of your abilities.” (p. 152)

100logo12.) The author shares his failures as well as his successes in the classroom.  Not all lessons will go according to what you had hoped, but that’s no reason to quit or become negative.  “If you believe everything you do has to work one hundred percent of the time, you are less likely to take risks and step out of your comfort zone.” (p. 157.)

41DoLGFMcWL._SL500_AA300_3.) I love the point Burgess makes about ‘effort’ in his chapter entitled “Ask and Analyze.” Much of what he said reminded me of Peter Johnston’s book Opening Minds. He fills that chapter with quotes from people (Michelangelo and Maya Angelou) who say their greatness came from lots of hard work! Great teachers aren’t just born that way.  They work at it –continually learning by reading or going to conferences, using trial and error to perfect their lessons, learning from colleagues, and so on. One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “Education can be used to uplift and inspire or it can be used as a hammer to bludgeon and beat down.  We must collectively agree educating the next generation is worth the time and effort and that our students deserve to be uplifted and inspired” (p. 41.)

pirate_hook4.) In the second half of the book the author shares his many “hooks” that motivate and engage students.  My favorites were the ‘real world hook,’  ‘life-changing hook,’ ‘hobby hook,’ ‘prop hook,’ and ‘board message hook.’ I probably wouldn’t use his ‘contest hook’ since I’m not keen on competition in elementary grades.  Where there are winners there are also too many losers.  Burgess also shares many examples of using art, music, drama/reenactments, storytelling, and cooking in classroom lessons.  I know many primary teachers (myself included) who already value these ideas and use them daily in their classrooms, so those readers will feel validated and encouraged.

5.) I had to chuckle when he talked about technology and how it can have its place in the classroom, but he doesn’t hail it as the ‘be all and end all.’ “Using it (technology) in new and creative ways is a natural, positive progression that should be encouraged.  But I fear many have become almost cult-like in their allegiance to it” (p. 132.)  I know a few of those folks (HA HA to some of my Twitter friends!)

I have many more notes and underlinings in my book, but I thought I’d mention a few to see if others want to delve in and read this book this summer.  Let me know what you think.

Final Thoughts on Who Owns the Learning

Today concludes our blog discussion of the book Who Owns the Learning? Feel free to go to Laura Komos’s blog to find all the links to others who are blogging today.

“To manage complex projects, we need people who can understand other points of view,” a CEO of a large bank told the author of this text. The point of teaching “global empathy” was consistent throughout Chapter 5, i. e., teaching kids to see that every issue can be seen from various perspectives. November mentioned that Europeans and several other countries were raising children with more of this understanding than our U. S. students. However, November was able to provide us with many examples from classrooms where students were interviewing children from other countries, or experts on a particular topic, through Skype video conferencing.  I know of several examples myself where skyping is being done and can only hope that it will catch on more. If you don’t already Skype, November gives explicit instructions on how to do it.

With the last chapter, I felt like I got a good glimpse into the future of education.  What’s going on in the classrooms of the two teachers he described is most likely NOT happening in many other places.  But it’s certainly a start to hear about these teachers who are incorporating all the parts of the Digital Learning Farm into their on-going projects.

Last night I reflected on the experience of reading this book with a group of other professionals through blogging and commenting.  I believe it has many positive aspects: 1) by using our online sources, we were able to “chat” with teachers from all over, and 2) our blogs are now posted for others to see all over the world.  BUT I really miss the face-to-face interaction.  We all wrote reflections (or did these fabulous digital responses! Duh, not me:) and then commented after reading each other’s ideas. I contrasted this experience to last summer when I invited 11 literacy friends to read What Readers Really Do (a fabulous book, by the way)Though only 7 could make the discussion day at my house, we had a wonderful conversation.  We bounced off each other’s comments, built a conversation about what this book meant for us in our classrooms, got immediate feedback/response to our ideas, thumbed through the book and referenced various pages, read favorite quotes aloud to each other, and so on. I might be old fashioned, but I still like that kind of book discussion!

Looking back over my notes and underlinings, I noticed two things I thought I would get from this book.  The first was “Imagine a school where every learner is valued for making a contribution to benefit the whole class” p. 6. I definitely think that Alan November provided us with multiple examples of this statement.

My second big underlining that I was hoping to find in this book, but didn’t, comes from this paragraph:

“Society gains a new generation of lifelong learners with a strong work ethic, a critical understanding of how to use technology to solve problems, and a well-developed sense of global empathy that enables them to communicate and collaborate with people from any geographic area or culture in the accomplishment of tasks and goals” p. 7

I felt the “solving problems/accomplishing a task” was missing. I guess I was hoping to find an example of a class who did something like…. I don’t know…. maybe a group of middle or high school students who found a way to get fresh water to a village in Africa that had none.  I guess that was too much to expect.  OR maybe that will be in his next book!  All in all, a great read…. and an inspiring discussion with others.

Continuing the conversation about Who Owns the Learning?

51h8ptz5ZBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Thanks to Cathy Mere, Jill Fisch and Laura Komos for hosting this discussion. After being slightly negative about certain aspects of the book last week in my post, I spent a good amount of time reading the blogs of others.  WOW, I learned a lot and Lesa’s response to the book knocked me over.  It was very helpful to have Cathy Mere take the time to list many examples of primary grades using technology.  Even if you are not interested in the discussion of this book, but just happen to be reading my blog today, I suggest you take a look at some of these examples.  Cathy makes it easy to just click on the examples.  (In my defense about my negativity, I can’t help but worry about the gap that will be created between those students who have every tool at their disposal along with parent help and those who don’t.  We must pay attention to that…. But I promise not to mention it again.)

This week’s reading assignment was chapters 3 and 4 in which Alan November describes the roles of scribe and researcher.  Many of his examples were from upper elementary to high school — classes where students are already fairly proficient writers.  Because I work with many primary classrooms, I had to think of the term “scribe” with a wider lens.  Primary students can present their learned information in various ways.  For example, if they were studying life cycles, I could envision one group taking the pictures of a pumpkin’s life cycle and telling about the stages, while another group does something similar with the caterpillar/butterfly or tadpole/frog life cycle. November describes the scribe as a note-taker, but we have to remember that sometimes K-1 students take notes or show what they know in drawings, diagrams, photos, or voice-overs. The scribe can be the child or group of children who are summarizing the learning for others to read or view in various formats.

November’s point is well taken that students need to have a real audience in order to see purpose in their work.  By going public with their blogs or other digital creations, they receive feedback from the global community.  He contrasts this with work that used to be done in classrooms for an audience of ONE, the teacher, and then the work is basically trashed after the grade is given. This idea of a real audience reminded me of when we first began writing workshops in classrooms.  We wanted students to share their work; we taught them how to give positive feedback and helpful suggestions when children shared their drafts; we expected that the final pieces of writing they chose to share would be conventionally correct so that others could read them and this fact inspired students to do their best work; and so on.  Technology allows students to share their thinking, their newly learned information, their digital creations, or their writing with a much broader audience than just the other students in the classroom.

In chapter 4 November brought up so many good points about teaching students how to use technology to do research.  Even if there is only one computer in the room, a student can be assigned to be the researcher of the day and find out answers when questions arise.  I see many primary teachers who begin curriculum studies in science with “wonder charts,” i.e., what the students are wondering about and would like to find out about this topic. The idea of a student researcher fits well with these charts, although in K-2, the researching part may be done with teacher support or as a shared project.

When November suggested that teachers help kids become “savvier information analysts” by teaching them how to vet sources for reliability, I began to wonder how many teachers actually know how to do this. Before reading this chapter, I didn’t know how to interpret an address of a website, use an advanced search, or other ways of evaluating authors’ reliability and content validity.  It’s all a bit overwhelming to me.

Putting My Two Cents In

51h8ptz5ZBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_I’ve joined a group of bloggers to discuss the book “Who Owns the Learning?” this summer. I have to admit that I joined without reading the subtitle and therefore thought the book was about literacy and how students can make choices in reading and writing.  But the subtitle is “Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age” — so it is yet another techy book (not my usual cup of tea.)  However, having read the introduction and the first two chapters, I’m hooked.

The author, Alan November, encourages “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in all learning (words he gets from Daniel Pink’s work.)  I couldn’t agree more. We can motivate kids to learn much better if we allow them to make choices and help them see a purpose for their learning. November’s emphasis on building community beyond the classroom to foster “global empathy” reminds me of the book For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action by Randy and Katherine Bomer (which, if you’ve never read, I highly recommend.) Both books give many middle school and high school examples, yet I still find enough to relate to elementary schools.51uQd+GXsFL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

November redefines the learner as a “contributor to the learning community.”  He gives examples of students teaching other students through their digitally created tutorials.  I can see how these tutorials connect easily with math and perhaps many high school level courses, but I caution teachers against the way they would connect with literacy teaching.  I’m afraid that the tutorials would become too “item oriented,” i.e., tutorials on compounds, contractions, phonics rules, spelling rules, and so on (The example on page 29 was with a grammar rule.)  That’s not to say that you couldn’t find ways to talk about books, stories, poems, and articles using technology (Oh yeah… that’s what we are doing here…)

I can see kids using VoiceThread as Katie Keier does in her kindergarten class to share ideas of what they liked about a particular picture book.  I definitely agree with Jill Fisch who said in her blog that she would love to see more examples from primary grades.  In fact, I would love to know how Mary Cowhey (author of Black Ants and Buddhists) would incorporate the ideas from this book into her classroom.  She already has such a great handle on teaching empathy, celebrating diversity, developing community, solving problems collaboratively, and so on, to her first graders.black-ants-and-buddhists

Although Alan November is aware of the gap that exists because of poverty issues and the problems that would develop because of lack of access to technology, I’m not sure his suggestions would be enough (he discusses this on pages 22 and 34-5). I fear the gap getting bigger and bigger with his Digital Learning Farm concepts.  It’s not just a matter of giving poor families access to a computer and the internet (he suggest having flexible librarian times and keeping libraries and computer rooms open to communities).  We would need much more to bridge the gap as there are many illiterate parents, many parents who speak another language, many parents who are uncomfortable coming into schools, and so on.

Despite the drawbacks, I am still intrigued by the many examples of teachers allowing students to create some of the curriculum, achieve mastery of various topics in order to teach others, and find purpose in their education.  I will read on to learn more about how students take on the roles of scribe, researcher, and global communicator and collaborator.