Skip to content

Teacher to Teacher: Writers’ Decisions By Janice Ewing

            As teachers, when we encourage our students to use the writing process, we are often referring to the acts of brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. The more teachers engage in writing of their own, the clearer it becomes that these components, while helpful to identify, are not necessarily sequential; they will interact differently for different writers and/or with different pieces of writing. For example, if you’re a writer who tends to make changes as you compose, you would not want a critique partner to remind you that we’re not “in revision” yet. Similarly, you would not appreciate a partner looking over your shoulder to point out needed edits while your ideas are flowing. I think it’s helpful to ask ourselves if we’re doing this with our students, either directly or by suggestion.

            I also think that there is a broader frame of reference that it’s helpful for us to reflect upon — the importance of the myriad decisions a writer makes in crafting their work. For students, the scope of their decisions will vary, depending in large part on the belief systems and resources that provide the foundation for writing in their classroom, school, or school district. For example, if they are following a highly structured and prescribed writing curriculum, the emphasis might be more on correctness and adherence to a formula than to making thoughtful choices. In a setting with no restrictions, but minimal guidance, students might have the freedom to make decisions but lack the opportunities to grow and learn from other writers.

            My view is that in an authentic reading/writing workshop model, one of the lenses that students read through is that of reading like a writer. In my experience, I have seen this start as early as kindergarten, where students might read different versions of a fairy tale, for example, and discuss which one they preferred, based on features such as the beginning or ending, the way the story made them feel, the illustrations, or other relevant factors. In higher grades, this lens might provide insight into any number of features, such as point of view, genre, format, time span, tone, perhaps viewing multiple texts on the same topic crafted in a variety of ways, depending on decisions that the writer has made. A related authentic step is for students to try out some of these “noticings” in their own writing; this is how we frequently use mentor texts. There is great value in using a shared text to highlight a writing feature, but the goal of course is for students to develop this lens on their own, so that reading like a writer becomes a natural part of their experience of interacting with text.

            As reflective teachers, coaches, administrators, or teachers of teachers, here are some questions we might ask ourselves:

            *What is our own comfort level with reading as writers and making decisions about our own writing?

            *What degree of agency do our students have in making decisions about their writing — topic, genre, format, point of view, etc.?

            *Do we have writer-to-writer conversations and conferences with our students, rather than assuming an assigner, time-keeper, and assessor role?

            *Have our students, from the earliest grades, had experiences with texts that encourage them to include reading like a writer in their approach to reading?

            *Are we supporting our students in the process of expanding their toolbox of approaches that they might use to enhance their writing?

            Ultimately, we want students to find their own voices, their own strengths and interests, their unique writing identities. Along the way, how can we create the conditions that will give them the experience and agency to make their own decisions as writers? You’re invited to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Janice Ewing is a 2004 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, now the West Chester Writing Project, and a current member of the advisory board. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and her colleague Dr. Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

Teacher to Teacher: Read Alouds Help Our Student Readers & Writers Grow in School & at Home



Read alouds are the time we gather students together to discuss texts we value and often write about them. This time brings all readers into the same experience even if their reading levels vary greatly. Reading aloud gives children an opportunity to access books that may be more difficult to comprehend because of the subject matter and readability. By sharing the text aloud, readers can rely on each other to come to a deeper understanding of the text. Shared discussions open up new possibilities. Through the read-aloud comprehension strategies come to life as they are demonstrated by the teacher and used by the students.  The read-aloud can push readers into a deeper understanding of the text as children study the work of the author.

Choose a book you love and may use as a read aloud in reading and/or writing workshop. Read it as a reader with sticky notes on hand to note your thoughts and feelings. Read it as a writer and find writing in the text you can highlight later for your young writers. Is the lead something they could emulate? Does the author use interesting vocabulary or descriptions? These noticings could become mentor texts for read alouds in writing workshop and across the day. Mark sentences and/or passages that can be used to model craft moves in your minilessons. Use them in your writer’s notebook to study craft and imitate it before you teach it to your students.

Poems as read alouds can last for a week and be used for word study, vocabulary building, and fluency. Three-minute poems can reap rewards throughout the language arts block and become mentors in both reading and writing workshop. Poems are a great way to read aloud to students to begin a science, math, or social studies lesson, too. Visit http://www.poemfarm.amylv.com/ to glean ideas and find poems shared by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.  Visit https://pomelobooks.com/ where Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong share poetry and books such as the Poetry Friday Anthology Collection series such as The Poetry of Science: The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science for Kids.

If read alouds help our students learn how to think, talk, and write about texts, then we should make sure our read-aloud choices are varied. Keep a list to track read alouds and be sure to include a wide variety of authors and genres as well as ways you might use the book with your students.Keeping a sticky note on the inside cover can remind you of possible ways you can use this book as a mentor text. Lynne tags pages where she will stop to do a think aloud to introduce a strategy or skill such as making a prediction or making an inference. Read alouds are often tagged in numerous places for teaching possibilities – similes and metaphors, rich description, evidence of the author’s voice, unusual sentence structures (adjectives appearing after the noun or an example of a compound/complex sentence), an example of an anecdote, and times to stop and reflect. 

The experience of sharing reading doesn’t have to stop at school. Sharing books at home allows parents and children to connect in a very special way.  This is quality time we spend with our children. It strengthens relationships and helps children develop interpersonal skills. As we read together, we build curiosity, memory, and language, especially early on. Children who are read to at home come to school with a greater vocabulary and are ready to learn to read in school. Access to books in the home allows children to see themselves as readers in a family of readers. When children own their own books, they further develop their own reading identity in their family. Parents often want to know how to help their children at home, you might want to offer them some of these suggestions during conferences, Open House visitation, or in a monthly newsletter. Here is advice for parents:

  • Ask your child for his/her opinion of the book you are sharing – orally or in writing. Share your opinion, too. If it is written, consider posting it on facebook or tweeting about it. Your child can keep a log of his/her opinions and take it to school to start a “Book Reviews” section on the classroom bulletin board or request a “Book Reviews” section for the classroom website.
  • Ask your child to choose the book to read aloud.
  • Read the book to yourself before you share it with your child. Your read will help with fluency and could determine whether this book is a good match for your child’s interests.
  • Share the read aloud as you take turns reading – your child reads as one character and you as another, or take a paragraph or page (depending on the amount of print on a page).
  • Ham it up and take on different voices for the characters!
  •  Create a book basket for each family member to hold their own personal book choices that reflect their interests and passions for read alouds.  Remember, favorite books can always be read more than once!
  • Start a family book club with the nuclear or extended family – relatives do not have to live close by. Technology allows us to chat with Zoom, Skype, Google hangouts, or FaceTime. Here is a chance to highlight a family interest such as a sport, culture, favorite genre or character, or vacation spot through a book that everyone is reading.
  • Read the book before you watch the movie and then talking about the differences, the similarities, and your child’s preferences. Write a movie or book review – or combine them into one review.
  • Check out the school and local library for audiobooks that your family can listen to when traveling to visit a relative or a sports event or just whenever travel will take more than ten minutes. Remember, when you have a library card, you can use it at other local libraries, too. The library card is obtained from the library in the community where you live, but you can access books anywhere with your card. Your library can often check for audiobooks in other locations and have them sent to your library for pickup and use.

Provide a bibliography of poetry books for parents. A good place to start is “A Treasure Chest of Books” in Poetry Mentor Texts: Making Reading and Writing Connections, K – 8. We know parents are busy people, but everyone can find the time to share a poem. Post favorites on your website or a designated school page that parents can easily access. Vary the genres and formats to include joke and riddle books, nonfiction, graphic novels, picture books, and even wordless books. Share links to websites such as WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) introducing books written and/or illustrated by people of color, the Brown Bookshelf (designed to raise awareness of black voices who are writing for young people), Colorín Colorado to serve our families of English Language Learners, and Jane Addams Peace Association that annually gives book awards to children’s books that engage children in thinking about peace, social justice, global community, and equity for all people (https://www.janeaddamschildrensbookaward.org/).

And do not forget to provide some tips for reading over holidays and summer vacation! In Shelly Keller’s kindergarten class, students wrote reviews for their favorite books. Shelly created a “Read a Good Book” newsletter with students’ reviews to help parents choose books for their soon-to-be-first grader to read over the summer months.  In It’s All About the Books: How to Create Bookrooms and Classroom Libraries That Inspire Readers Illustrated Edition, Landrigan and Mulligan (Heinemann, 2018) help their students create a plan for summer reading before they leave school, providing their students with a calendar that shows when school ends and starts again so they know how many reading days they will have (123). They suggest summer book swaps by appointment at the school where a teacher, the principal, a literacy coach, and parents can volunteer to organize books and oversee appointed times for book swaps. Post invitations on the school website to visit the public library for special events such as author readings or book talks about new releases. Highlight a few great read-aloud choices for parents – books that may be a slightly higher level than most students’ independent reading level. These books will introduce new vocabulary, sentence structures, and author voices.

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 fellow and serves on the West Chester Writing Project’s advisory board. She loves to read and write poetry, plant flowers, and spend time with her three godchildren and her three Welsh Corgis. Lynne is currently working on a book for Stenhouse Publishers with Brenda Krupp. She hopes to see you on the first Saturday of each month at the WCWP Continuity Sessions with Jolene Borgese and Kelly Virgin.

Teaching Kindness

Some of you may be too young to remember, others may be old enough to “never forget” the events of September 11, 2001. In the years since that fateful day, I have marked the tragedy in my middle school ELA classes by showing a video, engaging in reading and writing activities, and having a class discussion. While we touch on the sequence of events of 9/11, I like to spend most of the time sharing the things that happened on 9/12. The American people were united; they were kind to one another – friends and strangers alike.

https://www.ihatestevensinger.com/

Why does it take the worst to bring out our best? This question has been on my mind a great deal recently. Lately, the climate in America is definitely not like the days following 9/11. I have been thinking that I need to do more to nurture kindness. With this in mind, I have started curating a list of reading and writing activities to share with my 7th-graders. Below is an outline of my thinking. Hopefully, you will find something you can use with your students no matter what grade level you teach.

What is kindness?

  • Begin with a focused-free write – have students answer this question in their writer’s notebook
  • Turn and talk – then class discussion
  • Solicit examples of kindness from the students
  • Craft a class definition of kindness; then compare to a dictionary definition

kind·ness/ˈkīn(d)nəs/noun

the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.

Reading About Kindness – Below are a list of a few of the books on my list to use this year with my students.

Picture Books (all grades)

Books for 4-8 Students

https://www.wishtreebook.com/resources

Writing About Kindness – Below are some writing activities I am exploring to use with my classes.

Classcraft

5 activities for teaching kindness in class https://www.classcraft.com/blog/awesome-teaching-kindness-activities/

  • Send kindness postcards
  • Take gratitude brain breaks
  • Make it rain kindness cards 
  • Start your class with a Random Event
  • Play kindness bingo

A place to find “good news” articles to read and respond to.

EDUTOPIA https://www.edutopia.org/blog/kindness-lesson-plan-rebecca-alber

This site includes the activities listed below for writing and speaking along with other kindness resources.

  •  Good Things
  • The Write Around
  • Shout-outs
  • Appreciation Box
  • Temperature Check
  • Buddy Up
  • Community Circle

By no means do I think kindness is dead, but I think the 20th anniversary of 911 gives us the perfect opportunity to remind students that being kind can make a huge difference in others’ lives. Please share a book or resource about kindness that you like to use in your classroom. I would love to add to my lists.

Rita DiCarne is a 2000 PAWLP Writing Fellow.  She teaches 7th grade ELA at Our Lady of Mercy Regional Catholic School in Maple Glen, PA.  Rita married her high school sweetheart 41 years ago and with him she shares two wonderful children, their fabulous spouses, and four fantastic grandchildren!

Ending the Summer with an Old Friend: A Poetic Inquiry By Janice Ewing

            During the month of August, I felt myself drawn to reread Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (1994). If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a short, but rich text in which, as the title suggests, Oliver takes the reader inside of her writing process and shares what she sees as the core elements of poetry. If you’re not familiar with Mary Oliver, she was a prolific poet who has left a legacy of numerous collections of mostly poetry and some prose. Much if not all of her work is centered on her intertwining passions for nature and language.

  I found that although I had read the book before, even annotated it, much of the content felt new to me. I don’t know if this was simply an issue of memory, or of approaching the book from a different perspective; it was probably a combination of both  of those and more. As an aside, I wonder if others have had the experience of seeing what your “previous self” chose to highlight, as if you were looking over someone else’s shoulder at their notes. I was particularly struck, this time, by Oliver’s emphasis on the poet’s need for diligence, patience, a balance of solitude and community (mostly solitude), and the often long road from inspiration to revisions to completion.

             After reading and reflecting on this book, I felt inspired to reread some of Oliver’s poetry, partly for the sheer joy and peacefulness of it, but also to read through the lens of seeing her craft moves and decisions more clearly than I had before. Whatever trail had brought me back to Mary Oliver was becoming a journey of inquiry into the relationship between the poet and the poetry. I chose to reread her collection Why I Wake Early (2004). That is the title of the book and of the first poem in the collection. This time, some of poems that stood out as favorites were different from ones I might have selected before, maybe because of more appreciation of intentional uses of craft. I noticed how she frequently spoke directly, conversationally, to the reader. I paid close attention, as she did, to the very specific natural elements that took on a fuller meaning as the poem unfolded.

            Then, I decided to continue my inquiry by going back to Oliver’s Upstream: Selected Essays (2016). I had received this book as a gift, several years ago, from a family member who knew of my love for Oliver’s work. I had read a few of the essays, and then put the book back on the shelf for another time. This was the time. Revisiting the book, I was reminded of how Oliver’s love of nature, reading, and eventually writing were refuges through an often unhappy childhood. She treasured these passions early on, and went on to live her life with a clear sense of purpose and intention, making choices that fit with her true self. She had many writing mentors, seeing them as friends she had never met; foremost among them was Walt Whitman. In addition to the content, I was also interested in exploring how the craft techniques that I had read about and seen exemplified were or were not evident in her prose. I found that Oliver’s use of imagery and reverential description were employed throughout the book. I heard poetry in her prose.

             Like most inquires, this experience left me with much to reflect on, and more questions to pursue. I’m wondering about the connection between the deliberate and definitive choices Oliver made in her life and her dedication to choosing the apt word, the precise image, in her writing. I’m contemplating the  craft elements that I can aspire to in my own writing, both poetry and prose.   Of the greatest value, perhaps, was the joy of reconnecting with an old friend, one that I had never met.

            I invite the readers of this blog to reflect on any connections you might make to your own reading, writing, or inquiry practices, and/or those of your students. Responses are welcome in the comments section below.

Janice Ewing is a 2004 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, now the West Chester Writing Project, and a current member of the advisory board. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and her colleague Dr. Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

The Top Ten Reasons to Belong to WCWP

By Lynne R. Dorfman

The Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project will take on a new name this fall. Welcome to West Chester Writing Project! We are excited to meet new challenges and new educators in the 2021-2022 school year. We are thrilled to have the continued support of our past teacher leaders and new writing institute graduates! The Writing Project offers many opportunities to grow and learn together, including our Teacher as Writer course this fall with facilitator Dr. Mary Buckelew. Our social justice group meets on the third Saturday of each month. We will meet on August 14th for our virtual writing group. Please join us. New dates for our continuity sessions and writing group will be announced soon. We look forward to reconnecting with you this school year. Please bring a friend to our events. There are many reasons to be part of our community. Here are the top ten reasons for you to stay connected or join us for the first time:

10. To belong to a group of like-minded educators to share the journey with and to imagine,
       dream, act, and achieve professional goals together.

9. To be able to receive graduate credit and/or a master’s degree with a concentration in
     writing from West Chester State University.

8. To receive our newsletter and be able to contribute to our literary magazine, Around the
     Table
, and to our blog, write.share.connect.

7. To support teachers across school districts and grade levels to reach their goals and provide
     support for activities to improve writing skills for all students in ELA classes and across the
     content areas.

6. To bond with educators at the local and national levels and create lifelong friendships and
     networks.

5. To be able to participate in monthly virtual and face-to-face discussions and writing sessions
    and receive valuable feedback and ongoing support.

4. To be able to participate in Writing Project events such as our speaker series and social
     justice group.

3. To be able to participate in committee work to support literacy endeavors in our
    community and across the world.

2. To acquire mentors and confidants as guides and resources to broaden your horizons and
     help you achieve your professional goals.

1. To open a dialogue to address positive ways to reinforce actions to embrace
     diversity.

Be sure to visit pawlp.org for information and remember to look for updates about our new website, coming soon!

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 PAWLP fellow and a member of the advisory board. Lynne blogs for write.share.connect throughout the year and enjoys participating in as many Writing Project offerings as possible. Currently, Lynne works as an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and as a co-editor for PAReads: The Journal of Keystone State Literacy Association. She regularly blogs for MiddleWeb and is finishing a book, Welcome to Reading Workshop, with Brenda Krupp for Stenhouse Publishers. Lynne and her husband just acquired a new Corgi puppy, Rosie. She joins their Corgis, Arthur and Merrill, as welcomed additions to their home.

PAWLP’s Summer Institute: A Fresh Look By Janice Ewing

            This year, our Summer Institute has a new configuration. We met on four Saturdays during May and June for virtual sessions and will meet for two weeks face-to-face later in July. Pauline Schmidt and Jen Greene are the co-facilitators, and I have a coaching role, supporting participants as they design their projects.

             The Institute started with an activity in which the three of us, along with the other participants, introduced ourselves via a slide show, using pictures and text to share aspects of our professional and personal lives. We also used Jamboard to share other aspects of our background experiences, consuming issues, and wonderings about the Institute itself. These experiences furthered community-building as well as planting seeds for narrative topics. Participants wrote their narratives during May and June, outside of class time, but there were opportunities for reflection and feedback within the sessions. For example, in response to PAWLP TC Abigail Turley’s presentation about sentence fluency, writers identified short lines that stood out in their pieces, exchanged them with a partner, and then wrote pantoums with each other’s lines. This process provided feedback to each writer as to how their partner interpreted the focus of their piece, highlighted by the inherent repetition of the pantoum format. In another small group feedback session, participants exchanged comments and questions via a “Warm and Cool Feedback” protocol, in which partners offered specific comments about what was working in the piece, and well as “what-if questions” for the writer to consider.

            The virtual sessions were also enriched by presentations from TC Melissa Keer, about writers’ notebooks, and from Matthew Kruger-Ross, a recent TC and Pauline’s podcasting partner, who shared authentic strategies to enhance speaking and listening in the classroom and beyond.

            By the end of the four sessions, participants had decided on topics for their teaching demonstrations and had joined coaching groups based on related topics. In the time period between the last virtual session and the beginning of the face-to-face portion, participants are designing their demos and multigenre projects in collaboration with their groups and coaches.  Those meetings are taking place in whatever format and on whatever schedule meets the needs of the group.

            When we meet face-to-face, the first week will provide workshop time for the demos as well as multigenre and other projects, additional demo presentations from other PAWLP T.C.’s, and a variety of other reading, writing, and sharing experiences. The second week will include presentations of the new demos and book talks, and will culminate in a writing marathon in the West Chester area. Following the two-week session, participants will have additional time on their own to work on other reflections, including a “Letter to Self,” and we’ll meet again at the Institute Celebration in September.

            What will our Summer Institute look like in the future? This is a question that we’ll be exploring this year. In the fall, with feedback from our participants, our observations as facilitators and coach, and input from our larger PAWLP community, we’ll reflect on the outcomes of this year’s format, and look ahead to possible configurations for next year. There is much to consider – the needs and interests of potential SI participants, the essential elements of the program, the variety of options for using time and space, and the readiness to make adjustments as needed.

             In many ways, the pandemic has strengthened our concepts of flexibility and paring down to what is most essential. For our Summer Institute, that includes immersion in writing and reading experiences that promote growth as writers and teachers of writing; building a community that honors all voices; creating conditions that encourage risk-taking and ventures into new topics, formats, and ways of collaborating. What would you add to this list? What does your Summer Institute look like this year? What has changed and what has remained the same?

Janice Ewing is a 2004 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project and a current member of the advisory board. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and Dr. Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).