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Influence. Pause. Inspire.

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

Here are three more classroom practices that I am adapting for distance learning.

Influence: Student Showcase

“What book is that from: I want to read it!” a student asked at the end of our quick write time.

I responded, “Well . . . it’s actually written by one of your peers from sixth period.”

“Wow a student wrote that! Tell them I want to read the story when they are finished.”

Similar reactions have been happening throughout the school year. Students are acknowledging and congratulating their peers on exemplar writing. Book talks are increasing conversations and To Read Next lists. Mentor texts and quick writes are inspiring new writing pieces. While there were successes with the student leadership opportunity, I have revised many procedures since I first launched and wrote about this idea in September 2019.

After modeling student leadership for my students, I launched an assignment asking all of them to submit either a mentor text, quick write, or book talk. I ended up with too many submissions: I did not have enough days in a month—or two—to share their responses and apply them in a meaningful way within our class. In some ways, I still felt like the gatekeeper of knowledge instead of handing over the reins to my students.

So, I asked them for feedback in a Forms survey and conducted whole-class and small-group interviews to learn more. Here were the takeaways:

  • Call this Student Showcase instead of Student Leadership Opportunities (the alliteration is catchy)
  • Have two categories: book talks and writing inspirations
  • Instead of an assignment, use a discussion board for students to post to
  • Streamline what we should include for the mini-lesson, quick write, and book talk
  • Offer a bibliography and book cover option
  • Still ask us if you see something that should be shared
  • Encourage more presenting (maybe even make it mandatory)

Based on the feedback, we were off to a strong start in February. Students began posting to a discussion board, and we had a few book talks each week. Unfortunately, this new plan was cut short with distance learning, so I am again revising.

With distance learning, I am asking my eighth graders if they would like to share a specific assignment or discussion board post with the class. As students submit to our learning management site, I am emailing them. See my email template below. At the end of the week, I upload a PowerPoint with exemplar pieces and have a call for Student Showcase. I also used one student’s work for our imagery mini-lesson. Afterwards, two students commented on how awesome her example was. Most writing pieces are around 300-500 words.

I also want to include students’ books. Students posted fantastic examples of craft and grammar from their independent reading books to our discussion board. Some students have even responded to their peers commenting on a specific technique that they like from the passage. Highlighting these examples as mentor texts and quick write inspirations will help students lead our class. Next week, I want to invite students to book talk their books through a PowerPoint with voice recording, flip grid, WeVideo, or other audio or recording program.

My goal, both in a physical and digital classroom, is to foster student reading and writing. Inviting students to take on leadership roles has motivated them, helped them to engage in conversations, and enabled their voices to be heard.

Pause: A Moment of Mindfulness

“The fireplace is on again!” Alex squealed as she entered our classroom.

I started projecting a fireplace video in November when the weather first turned cold. It was on in the background while we read. The crackling created ambient noise. As a note, I like hour-long videos because I can set it for the day and not think about it.

However, at a district-wide professional development day in early February, I spoke with a high school principal who advocated for mindfulness in the classroom. So, I decided to try something new.

With my eighth graders, I shared my own experiences with mindfulness as a student and explained to them that I wanted to give it a try with them. I reviewed guidelines and expectations:

  • Once the fireplace video turned on and the lights went out, everyone needed to pause their conversations, remain still, avoid eye contact, and focus on a visual or close their eyes.
  • The one exception I made was for students who had already begun reading. For some, reading is the most relaxing part of their day, and they wanted to soak up every minute. I also felt this gave students a way out if they did not want to participate in the moment of pause.

Since starting this class routine, students have been visibly calmer and more focused. When students enter the classroom, they say hi to their friends for about 30 seconds to a minute after the bell rings. This time serves two purposes. One, as a traveling teacher, I can connect my laptop to the board and take off my backpack. Two, students practice their speaking and listening skills.

After this time, the fireplace video is connected, and I turn off the lights. The conversation automatically stops. My students settle into this moment of pause: either looking at the fireplace or outside. Some students even close their eyes and place their heads on their desks. I invite students to breath, roll their shoulders, pause their minds. This one-minute pause resets my kiddos and gets them ready for my class. In their busy lives, they rarely find this space. When the time is up, I invite students to begin reading. Quietly and calmly, they transition to their independent reading time.

I had planned on asking my students to complete a survey at the end of the third marking period to get their feedback, but that is going to have to wait.

Now with distance learning, this pause has been placed on hold. I posted the fireplace video on our learning management site and invited my students to use the video before they read, write, or complete their other work. I am also inviting students to listen to the noises around them: birds chirping, the wind, the rain. I still want to invite my students to find the pause in their lives during these uncertain times.

Inspire: A Daily Image

“Mrs. Foley, remember the penny picture from last week? I based my SSW off of it.”

I started adding an extra picture each day to our learning management site. I heard of another teacher in my district sharing paintings by renowned artists and thought I might want to try something similar.

After reading time, our class transitions to a mini-lesson, quick write, or workshop time. As they open their laptops and take out their notebooks, many students keep reading, and others talk with their groups about their books. However, I wanted to offer another component to this transition time—a third option where students chat or write about a picture. This inspiration becomes another idea or line that students can return to as they quick write or develop a Self-Selected Writing (SSW) Piece.

Although my students may not be together with their table groups, I still want to offer this classroom practice. Perhaps it will inspire a quick write or SSW. Perhaps they will chat about it in one of our discussion boards or with their family and friends outside of our class.

Below are some of the pictures I have taken and some of the quotes I have used.

Closing Thoughts

How is distance learning going for you? What tips or tricks have you learned? We would love to hear from you!

Next week I will share how I am collecting feedback from students to improve distance learning.

Distance Learning Writing-Reading Workshop

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

“Thanks for keeping things as normal as possible and for being positive. It’s helped me. I know this hasn’t been easy for you either.”

Kasey, an eighth-grade student, said this to me as she left one Friday afternoon in November 2019. Earlier that week, our school was rocked by the unimaginable–a student attempted to take their life in one of our school bathrooms. 

As a teacher and as a human, this November experience was one of the most difficult things I have ever faced. And, something I never thought I would deal with. As an educator, I had to figure out the best way to help my students cope with the situation while at the same time continue teaching. “Keeping things as normal as possible” helped me and helped my students.

Now, in March 2020, I am faced with another unimaginable teaching experience: distance learning. While I feel more prepared and less rocked than in November, I again needed to figure out how to keep things “as normal as possible.” When our school closed, my classes were in the middle of drafting their text dependent analysis core, a district requirement. Luckily, the day before we left, I told my students, “If we move to distance learning, our core will be put on hold until we return, and we will move into our next unit, Self-Selected Writing (SSW).” For more information on SSW, click here.

In this post, I want to share how I have moved my writing-reading workshop and our self-selected writing to an online course through Canvas (my district’s learning management system). Below are the main components of our workshop that I am implementing this week in order to keep things consistent:

  • Time to read and write
  • Mini-lessons
  • Quick write inspirations
  • Choice
  • One-on-one conferencing
  • Student sharing and collaborating

Daily Plans

To streamline directions, my district asked teachers to post daily updates with the date, topic, overview, tasks, estimated time, and links. While I have swapped out learning targets and agenda to overview and tasks, the overall look of my daily page has stayed intact.

I am also trying to keep our weekly schedule similar even though students should be working on English for only 30 minutes each day. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I allotted time for reading, writing, mini-lessons, and quick write inspirations. Thursday is dedicated to reading workshop, providing students with additional independent reading; time to work with their books in various ways; and the opportunity to share their ideas with classmates. I wanted to digitally replicate our workshop feel as best as I could.

Friday always focuses on SSW with style, craft, and grammar mini-lessons plus workshop time for students to write, conference, and collaborate. Because of distance learning’s limited time, I took out the minilesson. However, if students wanted to read for 10 minutes, they were welcomed to do so. For student conversations, I created discussion board groups based on their table groups in class. They could share their work with their classmates and collaborate through Canvas. At the end of their 30 minutes, students were invited to complete two tasks: submit your weekly quick writing (or SSW) to the assignment for feedback and share your current independent reading book title and page number.

(Since my district went offline on Friday, our SSW day will be moved to Monday, March 23rd)

Below are pictures of my lesson plans for March 17th, March 18th, March 19th, and March 23rd.

Mini-lessons and Directions

PowerPoint has always worked to share text excerpts and mini-lesson notes with my students. I like how easy it is to add and move pictures, and the recording option comes in handy. With distance learning, PowerPoint has helped me compile and share materials. As per our district’s directions, all lessons should review and enrich student knowledge. This approach supports Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s “laps” and “spiral back” practice in 180 Days since we are returning to and extending previously learned concepts.

In our Tuesday mood mini-lesson, I selected a passage from The Children of Virtue and Vengeance (you should read this series!) that illustrates a change in time and mood. For Wednesday, I selected another passage from The Children of Virtue and Vengeance that used imagery. While we analyzed mood and imagery earlier this school year, we have not done so in this capacity. Thursday’s PowerPoint reviewed discussion board expectations and directions. I offered two possible post topics and included student examples of posts and responses. See some of the mini-lesson slides below.

Conferences, Assignments, and Discussion Boards

Reading and writing conferences are vital to our classroom. Being at home, I am missing chatting with my students. To help solve this issue, I turned to Canvas; however, any learning management system, online sharing platform, chat feature, voice recording app, email, etc. will work to digitally conference with your students. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I invited my eighth graders to submit items between the hours of 7:30 am to 2:00 pm for optional feedback and conferencing. Some topics that we discussed were reactions to their independent reading books, their quick writes, answers to or questions about the mini-lessons, and book recommendations.

On Monday’s SSW day, I will ask students to share their writing progress for the week and their book titles and page numbers. In school, I check student reading progress weekly through conferences and page numbers. During distance learning, Thursday’s discussion board replaced my one-on-one and table group conferences so that students and their peers could also talk about books and swap ideas.

With non-graded distance learning assignments and the uncertain circumstances students are facing at home, I cannot control who submits and who does not. Although I have not had one hundred percent participation, 48 students posted to the discussion board on March 19th, and 49 students shared their work during the optional submission days on March 17th  and March 18th. Regardless of participation, my main goal is to offer a “normal” space for students to interact and enjoy their reading and writing.

Closing Thoughts

Even if you have not previously implemented a writing-reading workshop in your class, I believe that this structure or an adapted version of this structure could help you and your students share writing pieces, talk about books, and encourage conversation.

During this past week, I kept returning to Kasey’s words: “Thanks for keeping things as normal as possible.” As I implement distance learning, that is exactly what I am striving to do.

I would love to hear how you are implementing an online writing-reading workshop and what tools you are using to make distance learning a success!

Next week I will share how I am maintaining other classroom practices during distance learning: a moment of pause, daily inspirations, and student leadership.

From the virtual classroom – practicing socially distant teaching

If you are anything like me you went from an in-person educator to an online educator overnight. And if you are anything like me, your biggest concern as you transition into this new and unfamiliar role is how you can engage your students in meaningful literacy activities that will move them forward as readers, writers, and learners. Throughout the upcoming weeks or possibly months, I want to avoid miring my students in pointless busy work. So, for these first few days I’ve embraced the “keep it simple” approach by inviting students to spend time each day reading, writing, and participating in learning extension activities. Below are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful as I’ve started to develop our new online approach to learning.

Kelly Gallagher’s Instructional Materials:

As Kelly explains, “The last thing I want to do with my home-bound students is to load them down with brain-numbing packet work. So this lesson plan was designed to honor student choice, student agency, student voice.” One of my favorite things about Kelly’s plan is it invites students to spend time journaling about this developing situation everyday. He not only acknowledges that we are living through history in the making, but he creates space for students to spend time reflecting on and cataloging their histories as they unfold. I am now on day three of engaging in this journal writing approach with my students and have been astounded by some of the observations they are making and sharing (note: my students are invited to share their thoughts with each other and/or me, but not required). One student reflected:

Another wrote about how she’s been coping and shared her song suggestions with the class:

While I’ve invited students to write about whatever is on their mind in any format that feels right for the moment, I’ve also been sharing daily seeds/prompts to help them with their thinking if needed. For example, tomorrow, I plan to share this poem with students and encourage them to write their own poems in response if they feel inspired to do so:

My School Librarian:

If your librarian is anything like mine, first you are very lucky, and second he/she is eager to help you and your students access books throughout the school and library shutdown. Above I linked a document my librarian created and shared with our staff. It provides a wealth of resources for students to access free ebooks and audiobooks, as well as a plethora of suggestions for them to engage in additional literacy activities. If you have not done so yet, contact your school librarian as soon as possible for school-specific resources you can pass along to your students.

While my students all went home with independent reading books, many will finish them in a manner of days. These resources will prove vital in enabling them to continue reading what interests them as we move further into social isolation.

School Library Journal:

Not only is this journal a great way for educators to stay up to date on the latest books to recommend to their students or add to their classroom libraries, but they have been working hard to keep us up on the latest industry news in relation to the shutdown. For instance, one of their recent posts details ways various children’s and YA authors are offering their services as we transition to online learning across the nation.

Common Sense Media:

This linked article from Common Sense Media offers ways we can take our current circumstances and turn them into teachable moments. They also suggest ways we can help our students reduce and manage their stress.


I addition to moving our instruction to an online platform, my district is also asking us to spend time engaged in professional development throughout the week. For this, I turned to NCTE and the collection of resources they curated for virtual learning and online teaching. I have only just begun to skim the surface of the 9 pages of linked materials they suggest. However, I highly recommend checking out the blog post titled “Audiobooks in the Classroom.” This post presents a podcast that discusses the production of and merits for audiobooks. They also play samples from an array of high-interest audiobooks. I plan to share this podcast with my students in the coming weeks in an effort to encourage them to find new books to read and new ways to read them.

How have you been transitioning to online teaching? What are some of your go-to resources?

Your Local Library: A Hidden Gem

I don’t have to look far to find treasures.  I discover them every time I visit a library. ~ Michael Embry

I have always loved the library. As a young girl, I spent many summers participating in the Vacation Reading Club at the Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia.  I also worked as a “page” shelving books in the picture book room. It was heaven!  But oh how libraries have changed.  Back in those days, the library had books and magazines, microfiche, and a card catalog.  Today, you can find just about anything you need or want.

According to a Gallup Poll, “In U.S., library visits outpaced trips to movies in 2019.”  The library is most utilized by young adults, women, and residents of low-income households. “Visitin the library remains the most common cultural activity Americans engage in.”  They average about 10.5 trips a year.  Frankly, I don’t know why even more people aren’t using libraries.

Take my local library, The Horsham Township Library, for instance. I spend a good deal of time tutoring there during the summer. On any given day you will see senior citizens using the computers to check email or watch movies, teenagers gathering to study or to hang out and have coffee, or young children who are happily searching for books or playing in the picture book section.  It is delightful.

Here is just a taste of what my local library offers.

  • Book Clubs – fiction & nonfiction
  • Summer Reading Incentives
  • Museum Passes
  • Movies – to borrow & movie viewing events (day & evening times)
  • Story Times – preschool (day & evening times) – Stories & STREAM
  • Career Readiness – resume writing & polishing
  • Watercolor Classes 
  • Holiday events

Of course there are many things to borrow besides books.  My library has kits & cake pans, movies, audio files, and e-resources all available for its patrons, and they are adding materials and services often.

I do have quite a nice collection of books in my classroom, but I could never afford to get every picture book title I might want to use with my students.  I simply go online and reserve the titles I want, and I am notified when I can pick them up.  If my local library doesn’t own the title, they import it from another library.  This has been an invaluable service to me over the years.

What have been your experiences at your local library?  Give a shout out to your favorite library, and tell us what you love about it. How has your library helped you to be a better teacher? A better writer?  Looking forward to hearing from you!




Teacher to Teacher: Grammar and Conventions Instruction in Our Classrooms

The way we deliver grammar instruction will have a significant impact on how students retain the information and apply it in various contexts. Studying grammar in isolation does not make someone a lover of words nor a better speaker and writer. Neither will isolated grammar lessons and workbook pages create confidence and proficiency in grammar and mechanics. There is ample evidence to support this:

  • “…the results from tests in grammar, composition, and literary interpretation led to the conclusion that there was little or no relationship between grammar and composition or between grammar and literary interpretation.” (1986. C. Weaver, Teaching Grammar in Context)
  • “The study of traditional school grammar… has no effect on raising the quality of student writing.”(1991. Hillocks, Grammar and Usage)
  • “The meta-analysis [of grammar instruction involving the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences] found an effect for this type of instruction for students across the full range of ability, but surprisingly, this effect was negative. This negative effect was small, but it was statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing.” (Writing Next, p. 21)

The simple truth is that grammar is always a writing trait that is on the backburner, regardless of whatever we focus on in our writing classrooms and across the day.  We often embed the teaching of grammar and conventions implicitly, stopping to chat about a skill or concept during conferences, small group instruction, or end-of-workshop reflection time. Sometimes, when we introduce something new, we move grammar to the front burner and do some explicit teaching. Read more