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Acts of Doing

A roundtable discussion evolved into how teachers offer differentiation and choice while still managing to work through the standards inspired a change in my classroom. An elementary school teacher planted a seed when she shared an overview of how she designs various stations (built on individual standards) throughout the classroom. Kids literally have to move around the space–station to station–to complete each task.

For example, this fourth grade teacher used the PA Common Core Standard (CC.1.1.4.E Read with accuracy and fluency to support comprehension) as her example. A small group of students gather up the iPads, take them to a comfortable chair and record their reading of a grade-level passage and an above grade level passage on a similar subject. Then, students are asked to record a brief summary (and eventually analysis) of the similarities and differences between the texts.

After completing this station–which might take more than one class (and that is ok!)–students would move onto another station in the order that they choose.

In one elementary classroom, there might be anywhere from 4-6 stations all built on the standards. The standards become the actions and expectations of our students. It becomes messy and noisy and kids are playing with words and ideas. The teacher emerges free to mentor students through what they do. And she mentioned that students will even opt to take their independent reading time on different days–”because that is just what they want and need.”

I wish I remembered this teacher’s name. Even though she is in Pennsylvania, someplace, I met her in Minneapolis at NCTE. I thought her method and attitude were brilliant. Everything we discussed crystallized the standards for me into acts of doing. Not what I do, what the students do. Since last November, I have been chewing on what this model might start to look like in my classroom and then I saw an image shared by Penny Kittle on Twitter.

Now, I am not certain how Penny facilitates her goals for her students, but her image looked an awful lot like the stations the elementary school teacher described–and what I imagined for my classroom.

Inspired by conversation and sharing, I created the first “Writer’s Studio” this week (a work still very much in progress).

Standards lay the foundations for each the individual tasks in this studio approach. For example, in the Punctuation Station (sounds alliteration, eh?) I used two PA Common Core Standards (E08.D.1.2.1 Use punctuation (comma, ellipsis, dash) to indicate a pause or break; E.08.D.1.2.4 Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements) to build a task.

The order of the tasks at each station (Punctuation, Elements of Nonfiction & Literature, Grammar, Elements of Poetry) is to read something, discuss it, reflect on it in writing, and then try the skill or element in an original piece of writing. Four tasks over two weeks–and this still allows for one independent reading day each week.

The benefits outweigh any initial resistance to change or doubt in my mind:

  • We generate evidence of each student accomplishing each standard.
  • Students write with choice throughout each station.
  • Every day, students collaborate, talk, write, and follow their curiosity.
  • Students move at their own pace.
  • I get one-on-one time or small group conferring time every day.
  • Students revise writing naturally as they move station to station as some choose to work on the same piece of writing at each station.
  • Students have the opportunity to develop multiple drafts on different subjects and in different genres as they move station to station. I encourage students to choose to write whatever they want at each station: poetry, essay, recipes, obituary, fiction, travel blog, et al. Anything at all.

A few takeaways have emerged over the past two days. First, students absolutely thrive under the conditions of collaboration. Yes, some students need my guidance to remain on-task, and students often need help understanding specific concepts, but they willingly work together to learn together. For example, in the Elements of Poetry station, students are reading Oranges by Gary Soto, discussing the presence of imagery, simile, and metaphor, reflecting on it in their notebook, and then writing their own poem using Oranges as a scaffold.

While some are writing a collaborative poem, others are writing individual poems and using writing partners to help them get “unstuck.”

I go table to table and teach students in small groups or individually. I have worked with many on finding the metaphor in Oranges (an early struggle). I have shared mini-lessons on verb moods and the difference between direct and indirect characterization. I have had to show some students what an ellipsis looked like. And there are others who had a working knowledge of most of these concepts and have steamrolled ahead, deep into a piece of writing.

As students write, I notice them writing together–individual poems, but they assist one another with their ideas and word choice. Their writing is social and as the insight of James Britton was channeled in recent PAWLP blog post “floats on a sea of talk.”

Part of me feels like I am late to the game (in designing a classroom this way)–and part of me wonders if am I on to something that others might benefit from. Regardless, change is happening. And change was born through professional conversation and sharing.

And so I ask, does anyone do anything similar in their classroom at the middle school or high school level? What tips can you offer if you do?


11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cassie Unrath #


    I, too, have gone through a similar classroom reinvention. After teaching high school English for the last four years, I have made the transition to teaching a remedial 8th grade reading class. The curriculum consists of four units with two common core standards for each unit, one of which is always based on vocabulary. In the past, the class was taught as a skills-based class, focusing entirely on non-fiction articles, graphic organizers, and close reading – things that are great in moderation, but bore both the students and teacher to tears when it is the sole focus.

    After floundering for a bit, realizing that this method wasn’t working for myself or my students, I sought advice from anyone and everyone I could. My classroom underwent a transformation where we ditched the traditional desks and met together at a table conference-style (my largest class has 6 students). I also brought in various forms of comfortable alternative seating, including camping mats they can lay on the floor and a big purple recliner that we have to sign-out since it is such a hot commodity.

    Instead of a traditional classroom with a focus on boring skill-and-drill based lessons, we have created a reader’s workshop. Our texts, too, have transformed from the dime-a-dozen nonfiction article to a unit on memoirs. Every Monday we focus on vocab, every Friday we devote to silent reading texts of our own choosing (fiction, graphic novels, magazines, etc.), and every day in between we start the period at the conference table to go over a mini-lesson that students then apply individually, at their own pace, and differentiated based on ability and choice in a seat of their own choosing.

    This is definitely something that is different for a secondary classroom, at least in the middle school I work in, but I know that we are on the right track because the audible sighs have been replaced with comments such as “I love being able to just relax in here” and “Is this a conference table activity or a comfy seat activity?” You aren’t alone and you’re on the right track!


    October 2, 2016
    • Cassie, thank you for the thoughtful reply! I like reading that your classroom has been in transformation. I kind of think it always should be…and I don’t know that I always thought that way. You should share some of it online–do you?

      In the end, the best thing we can do for one another is share our story.


      October 3, 2016
  2. Abby Holden #

    I love the idea of establishing a writer studio in the classroom. Allowing students to move at their own pace (with the guidance of a teacher of course) is key in the learning process. I worried at first that the students who were more advanced would not find this as beneficial as those who are not. But when you explained that the more advanced students delve deeper into their stories I was put at ease. I also specifically noted your statement “Students absolutely thrive under the conditions of collaboration.” Collaboration with another teacher seemed to inspire your attempt at this “experiment” in your classroom. Teaching students at an early age that collaboration is an important tool will help them not only in their writing but beyond it. I did wonder how many students you think would be ideal in order to sustain this model. I think that it may be difficult to facilitate this with a large class without the support of another teacher.That being said, I think it is a beneficial model to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 25, 2016
    • Abby, this is totally a work-in-progress and I definitely faced some challenges. Actually, the more advanced students really dug in and extended themselves…but the students who need more support, well, needed a lot of support. The good thing is that I had a lot of time to confer with everyone AND they all helped one another through the process.


      October 3, 2016
  3. Brian,
    I love the idea that each individual station is geared towards reaching the goals of the PA Common Core Standards. During the course of my student teaching experience, I’ve found that giving students choices within the classroom not only increases their level of motivation, it helps them reach their maximum potential because they feel that they are just as important in the decision making process to reach classroom goals. Having the stations set up so that students move at their own pace is essential to differentiating instruction because it gives all students the necessary time to work individually while simultaneously collaborating together. It is not easy to be able to give enough time and personal attention to each individual student since we as teachers are only given a certain amount of time with them in the classroom (especially since there are so many!). Through the Writer’s Studio, however, it sounds as though you have created a plan where you get enough one-on-one time or small group time with your students each day.
    I would love to try something like this in my own classroom one day because I feel as though it would be perfect for a middle school and high school classroom, especially if there is block scheduling. When I taught 7th grade Humanities and Language Arts, the classes were 80 minutes long which can be very difficult for students if the lesson is not planned properly. Students at this age can only spend a certain amount of time on one task and then they start to get antsy if they sit too long. The Writer’s Studio would give students the opportunity to move around, work individually, and then collaborate together which would essentially help them stay on task in order to reach goals. Although I am new to the teaching world I would like to offer one tip (if you can): If students are having a difficult time grasping certain concepts, spend a day where the students who do understand the concepts help the others in “Teaching Stations”. For example, if a few students have trouble with imagery, have an “Imagery Station” where a couple of teachers (students) get to teach them about imagery. This would be fun for them and may help. Hearing the way another student grasps the concept may help them understand it better. Hope this helps!! Thank you for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

    September 25, 2016
    • Thank you for replying, Michele! After trying this for the past two weeks, I found enough success the continue developing the idea. I have a colleague collaborating with me for the next round, so I anticipate it going even better.


      October 3, 2016
  4. That sounds so complicated wow. But good for you ! I would love to hear how this works. What grade do u teach? I think of 3rd grade and idk if they could handle that


    September 23, 2016
    • Hi! Thank you for the reply. Actually, an elementary teacher planted the seed for the idea! Yet, I discovered that I made some decisions that overly-complicated things just by how I worded the process. I will be doing it again in another week and I learned to simply label the stages: read, discuss, reflect (write), and try it (write).

      Liked by 1 person

      October 3, 2016
  5. ritasorrentino #

    Brian, as I worked mostly in elementary classrooms, the learning station, learning center or learning menu was an intentional space-and-time tool for targeted independent reading/writing strategies and activities. Your “Writer’s Studio” sounds inviting for middle and high school students – like the real world. Look forward to hearing more about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 21, 2016
    • Thank you for replying, Rita. I had never thought of stations. Actually, my stations this time were stationary. I need to learn how to make them more active…


      October 3, 2016

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