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From the Classroom: An Approach to Summer Reading that Celebrates Rather Than Assesses Reading

For over a decade I began the school year by administering a multiple choice test to my students on their summer reading. And for over a decade I questioned this practice as I entered dismal test scores. The testing was not reflective of my classroom practices, did not accurately measure whether students actually completed their reading (some adept test-takers could pass after only studying the SparkNotes version of the novel while other less-skilled testers would bomb despite reading and annotating the entire book), and worst of all it only solidified a distaste for reading rather than encouraging the habit of reading.

After many years of questioning this practice, my colleagues and I were finally able to pilot a new approach. While designing our new plan, we kept circling back to the essential question: what is the goal of a summer reading assignment? Keeping in mind that we ultimately want students to use it as an opportunity to continue to build their reading identities and strengthen their independent reading habits, we realized two elements are key: 1. Choice 2. An evaluation method that celebrates (rather than tests) the reading.

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Wet Paint

Writing prompts to incite sparks to start a writer’s engine is a challenging teacher’s task. Too narrow of a prompt, and the engine remains cold. Too broad of a prompt…and the engine remains cold. 

Recently, I needed a prompt to transition students from writing a personal memoir to writing narrative nonfiction (aka creative nonfiction). In an effort to be clear, I kept the prompt lean: Write a true story as story

Turns out, clarity is contextual. The same prompt can be a springboard for some and an abyss for others. Part of our work is to meet students where they are–adjust the task, the prompt, the context to fit the need.

In my case, mentor texts and discussion clarified the prompt for some. However, narrative nonfiction isn’t fiction conjured up inside our heads. It turns out, tapping into lived experiences or research is only a piece of the process. Yes, we can list and accumulate pieces in our writer’s notebooks; however, converting those experiential fragments or bits of research into a story is challenging! 

Neither my prompt, class discussion nor mentor texts fed into one student’s particular strengths as a writer. Conferring with Jane (pseudonym),  she opened her draft and shared that she gathered a lot of information about Mary Shelly, but she did not know how to convert the information into a story.

In other words, Jane took steps forward under the guidance of the prompt and by reading a couple of books about Mary Shelley, but she still could not convert all of the amassed information into a story, and then THIS happened:

In the middle of conferring, Jane asked, “I made an OC this weekend. Want to see it?”


“Whats an O.C.?”

“An original character.”

Jane retrieved her private journal–filled with sketches–and explained the O.C., named Autumn. Jane knew a lot about Autumn’s “story” just from a sketch. She has yet to write any words about Autumn.

This moment sparked me to make the decision to revise the prompt for Jane. Until now, I had been trying to adjust Jane’s thinking to work within my prompt, the class discussion, the mentor texts,  rather than adjust the prompt so that it worked for her thinking. So, I asked Jane if I could revise the prompt right inside her Google Doc:


What makes Mary Shelley a likable person? What does she do that makes us want to keep watching her, listening to her? Could you bring that to life in a sketch? Could you sketch a scene with Mary in it (and then write it as a story).


Jane read as I typed and she nodded with enthusiasm.

“I can do that.”

IMG_3599After ten minutes, I circled back to Jane.

“I drew Mary tough–in boys’ clothes. She’s really tough and has to be to stand up for women’s rights.”

“Could you write a scene? A moment that brings this sketch to life too?”

“I can do that.”

I hadn’t explicitly thought of prompts as fluid or permutable. So often, prompts in education feel fixed and I wonder how much I have contributed to that feeling in my classes. At the very least, today, I am grateful that my mentors (in person and in text) have given me the guidance and confidence to learn to be responsive to the writer while the paint is still wet. And maybe that is the best way, for me, to think of writing prompts–wet paint as opposed to chiseled stone.


Prompt-ober: Wire Writing

Happy October and welcome to fall! Since our classroom snapshot feature was so successful last month (thank you to all the contributing voices!), we are running another regular feature this month focused on sharing writing activities that we or our students have found particularly engaging. Please check in daily to enjoy our Prompt-ober posts. If you are interested in contributing one yourself, please contact us!

Wire Writing

Early in the school year I give my students a piece of wire about 8-10 inches long (I purchase this in the bracelet making section of any craft store) and I ask them to shape it into something that is meaningful to them or representative of them. This idea was inspired by a writing activity I engaged in at the PAWLP summer institute where the instructors gave us a piece of playdough and similar instructions. I give my students ample time to play with the wire and shape/reshape until they feel confident in their design. While they do this, I welcome conversation and meander around with my own wire checking in and talking with students.

wire prompt.PNG

When time is up, I invite a quick pair share of shapes before we study and discuss a short mentor text titled “My Life has Been like a Basketball Game.”

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Teacher to Teacher: The Importance of Charts in a Writing Classroom

By Lynne R. Dorfman

When I first read Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades (2013), I was struck by Debbie Miller’s question: “How can we hold thinking—making it both permanent and visible?”  I’ve always been a big fan of anchor charts, using them as visible representations of students’ thinking.  Not only does the collective thinking become permanent and visible, but the charts can also serve many purposes.  Charts help students achieve greater independence by providing the information they may need o plan, draft, revise, and edit their writing.

Naturally, when Melanie asked me if I was interested in being part of her blog tour for her new book, Every Child Can Write, I was thrilled to be able to take a closer look at Chapter 6: Co-Create Classroom Charts as Pathways Toward Independence.  Immediately, I was captured by Melanie’s statement of rationale for using classroom charts, linking their use with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a way of teaching and learning that helps teachers give all students an equal opportunity to succeed.  Yes!  It made perfect sense that charts can remove obstacles to success by building in flexibility in the ways learners can access information.

Melanie opens with an anecdote that describes how she used charts to help her daughter learn to cook, sharing that, as in the gradual release of responsibility model, the more her daughter cooked, the more competent and confident she became.  One day, the cooking charts were taken down.  Cecily had reached her goal.

           Melanie gives us many reasons to use charts:

  • They can actually replace the minilessons for thriving writers.  Melanie book cover
  • Strong writers use them as memory joggers and scaffolds.
  • They provide choices or options student writers may want to try.

These big ideas are explored in this chapter.  First, Melanie tells us we should decide on the types and purposes of the charts we display in our classrooms.  The important thing to remember here is that a chart is a living, breathing tool. It can change and grow as the class thinking evolves.  Always accessible and reflective of the work the students do, it does not need to be “perfect, beautiful, or laminated.”  The important thing is that charts are created as a joint effort of the students and the teacher.  A sense of ownership fosters a sense of commitment and pride in using the information the chart provides.

Chapter 6 explores four types of teacher-created charts: anchor, procedural, strategy, and inquiry.  Meehan defines anchor charts as instructional tools that provide the overall skills necessary to complete a task.  One use of this type of chart is to reflect the expectations for the overall tasks of each genre of writing.

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September Snapshot: Learning Stations for Everyone!

After a robust & interactive summer experience at the writing project, I knew I didn’t want to start day one of the fall semester with a typical ‘read the syllabus day’; I just didn’t know what I actually wanted to do.  After reading an article on edutopia about Learning Stations, I thought that the strategies presented could work at the university level. I let the ideas marinate in my mind for a few days and decided that I would give it a try.

As a teacher educator, I try to model best practices whenever possible so my students can experience activities and lessons as learners first, then reflect on their own (future) practice. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen, but I thought even modeling that vulnerability for my students would prove to be a good thing.

I started with making the ‘Station Markers’ on Canva and have linked a copy of them here. Once I settled on the template, and made the first one, it was easy to copy and edit the following. After that, I just needed to gather supplies and come up with a strategy to get everything to the classroom. (This is probably just an issue for us in higher ed or for teachers who have to share classrooms. You will most likely just set up your room for the stations and not have to transport everything.)

Going back to the original article, here’s how I modified her suggestions for my ENG 390: Teaching English in the Secondary Schools course:

Station 1: The Syllabus

This particular class is one of the final methods courses that students take before student teaching; I intentionally left space at this station for students to reflect on what they already know and what they want to learn this semester to best prepare themselves for student teaching. There was an excellent discussion that ranged from theoretical to practical components of the course. After the class was over, I categorized the post it notes into the following categories: Choice, Motivation, and Innovation. Those seemed like fantastic categories to use when framing the course.

I was really proud of my students for being so transparent on the first day of class; to be fair, most of these students already know me from previous courses or their involvement with the NCTE Student Affiliate on campus. This might be why they felt comfortable jumping right into activities like this. Other students might need more community and trust building before being asked such questions.

Station 2: : Poetry Station

Even though these students know one another, I wanted to include some sort of writing that would help them learn even more about one another. I thought a short piece would work for this type of classroom set up. I started with the original “Where I’m From” poem by George Ella Lyons and included a template for the students to use to write their own poems, along with some examples of other student work. Most students used their time at this station to chat and brainstorm then jump into writing. I thought they’d need more time to polish these, so they were actually due at the next class meeting.

Station 3: Reading Identities

This station had two parts really. Thanks to the generosity of Scholastic I had a box of newly released books for middle and high school classrooms. Students were to ‘judge a book by its cover’ and select one to read this semester FOR FUN. I was very clear that this was not an additional assignment, that they need to hold themselves accountable as readers.

Once they selected the text, I asked them to snap the QR code on the chart and share a little about themselves as readers. Those responses can be seen here on Flipgrid. I think this activity was important for several reasons – one, teachers of English need to see themselves as readers if they hope to inspire young people to be/become lifelong readers. Two, by sharing their response on Flipgrid, they could see how diverse the readers in our class were…again, thinking ahead to future classrooms with a wide variety of interests to manage. Three, I also shared my current reading with them to show that I, too, am a reader.

Station 4: Name Tent Construction

While this is pretty standard practice, I take it just a bit further…I ask them to not only write their names, but to identify other factors as well.

  1. Hometown
  2. Book you wish you wrote
  3. Guilty pleasure
  4. Favorite food.

If I’m not mistaken, I got this idea from Brenda Krupp and Mary Buckelew, when I took the PAWLP Summer Institute.

I leave my own name tent out so they can see it as a mentor text; we brainstorm what else you might ask students to reveal a little of their personality at the beginning of class. Since there are only a few students at the station, it’s easier to share that – perhaps – than it would be if you had to share with the whole class.

What I learned…

Students can surprise you with how open they are to new things. I mentioned that most of these students already knew me, but some didn’t. And, none of my WRT120 students knew me, but they did a modified version of this too and none of them dropped the course!

Their reflective feedback also informed my practice. Some students, even in teacher preparation programs, are introverted. The usual ‘go-around-the-room-and-introduce-yourself-to-the-whole-class’ activity can be utterly terrifying for some folks. This approach allowed them the intimacy of small spaces and then we could grow our community over the first few weeks of class. And through a variety of other activities, we did that.

I also learned that this type of activity really set the expectations for the course. We are all in this together. We are all here to learn and experiment. I shared that this was the first time I was trying it…I think they appreciated that vulnerability from a veteran educator and were willing to share constructive feedback that I will definitely implement next time!

September Snapshot for 9/28: Mindfulness for Educators

At a recent meeting with colleagues, I facilitated a 15 minute opening session on mindfulness or also known as ‘practicing presence.’ The use of these 2 terms help remove the stigma that some have about the word ‘meditation’ and religious connotations. I explained this would be a brief time for self-compassion, something we so often tend to not do in our busy lives.

Step 1: I asked the learners if they have ever done body scans and/or mindfulness activities. I obtained a wide range of responses. I shared what mindfulness is- being in the moment, focusing attention on the environment around them and what is going on internally & physically with themselves while also being intentionally non-judgmental.

Step 2: I asked the group to sit comfortably, with their feet flat on the floor, hands in their laps or on their sides and were welcomed to close their eyes or to focus on a point on the carpet in front of them. I told them we’d be taking 2-3 minutes to do a quick body scan to help us ground ourselves in the moment. With a gentle voice, I guided them through the process, starting with them taking deep breaths, then feel their feet, shoes, soles, and let go of any tension while intentionally breathing deeply. We then moved up the body- legs, hips, backside, back, arms, hands, shoulders, neck, head and reminded them to keep breathing, noticing what is happening at the moment. What sounds do they hear? Smells? Feel? Are they being non-judgmental? Are they focused on the moment and their presence in that moment with our group?

Step 3: I guided them out of the body scan. I had them write on a 3×5 card their experiences that could include: What did they notice? What was easy for them? hard for them? Insights? Applications to their own lives- personally and professionally? I gave them 2 minutes and then they shared with a partner or triad.

Step 4: To bring closure to the mini lesson, I discussed gratitude. I shared some of my own for that day and a few from the previous day. I explained how it reminds me of how blessed I am in so many ways and helps me reframe negative thinking I may encounter. That positive thinking helps me appreciate all I have and actually helps my quality of life. I asked them to take another 3×5 card and to list 2-3 items for which they are grateful.

Step 5: I gave them about 1 minute to do this and then had them circulate the room (about 30 of us) to share with someone they have not spoken to in at least 3 days due to how our schedules all vary and we often are out in the field doing our work. This was to help people reconnect and feel part of the group, our commonalities. I had them switch partners 2 times and then we came back together as a whole group.

Step 6: A 1-2 minute debrief was held to discuss how they were feeling. Did they feel more positive? more focused? Less racing thoughts about their past day or the day ahead? Tension versus relaxed? More ‘present’? Then we moved to the agenda for our meeting.