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Teacher to Teacher: Helping Students to Be Part of Their Entire Literacy Journey

By Lynne R. Dorfman

Serious writing requires long thinking…It takes reflection, the courage to dive below the surface, the willingness to live with a topic for a long period of time, turn it over and over in your mind, and decide for yourself what questions to ask about it. ~Vicki Spandel, (2005) The 9 Rights of Every Writer: A Guide for Teachers, 5

            Students in K-12 classrooms have grown accustomed to listening to what is perceived as a strength in their work (whether it is work in writing workshop or other subject areas) and what is an area targeted for improvement. If we want our students to be a part of the assessment process and learn how to reflect on their writing, then we must provide opportunities for students to practice reflection to improve their awareness and analysis of their own thinking processes (metacognition). A natural consequence is that they engage in a struggle with the quality of their writing pieces, viewing the writing process as recursive instead of linear, and embedding revision and editing across the process and as early as the planning stage.

If we focus on our students as essential evaluators in their process, then we are promising them one of the best opportunities that a classroom can afford – the opportunity to be part of their entire literacy journey.  What are the most effective practices we can use to help students make successful decisions about their writing?  By examining how we delegate student responsibility for self-assessment and ongoing reflection, we can determine what is working for our students and for us, what new strategies we may choose to adapt, and what value our students place on reflection as a part of the learning process.

            If our priority goal is to teach our students how to learn instead of what to learn, then we must recognize that students cannot carve out their own pathways (directions) if they are not regularly engaging in self-reflection.  When students engage in a close reading of their work for purposes of self-assessment and reflection, they are making choices about what to keep and what to change. They are in control.  After the minilesson, post one or two reflection questions on the white board or chart paper. Read them to your students just before they begin their independent writing time. Make it a routine that the last two to five minutes of workshop will be about reflection. Ask students to share strategies that worked, problem-solving attempts that failed, new questions, and new discoveries. Sometimes, students will just read a small part of the piece they are working on, for example, their satisfying ending for their narrative in order to link with the minilessons for this week.  Scheduling time to reflect at the end of each writing workshop will help students understand its value. In the end, we want students to become the kind of lifelong learners who don’t need to be reminded to reflect on the events of their lives.

Another way we can create opportunities for reflection is to teach students how to engage in  self-conferences. We want our student writers to have many opportunities to write, to confer, and to think about their writing. We want our student writers to make decisions about their pieces and to be reflective about those decisions. No one knows a piece of writing as well as the writer of that piece knows it. As teachers, we can never know what our students know how to do unless we ask them to tell us what they believe they have done well, what they have worked hard at trying, and what they think they need to do to improve their writing. Student writers, even in the primary grades, need to engage in self-evaluation, for this is how writers become independent practitioners. As they reflect on their writing, student writers begin to recognize their strengths and own up to their weaknesses, resulting in goal setting that comes from self-knowledge. It is that self-knowledge that is the result of understanding the specifics of the skill of writing. Reflection helps students become better learners.

            Self-evaluation does not happen magically. Students need to learn to reflect through practice. We encourage students to be reflective by making reflection part of our daily writing workshop. “What did you write today that you are proud of?” or “What did you work hard at today?” or “What did you learn about writing opinion today?” Students may pair/share their answers to these questions, write responses in their writer’s notebook, or, sometimes, share their thoughts with the whole class. The important thing is to set aside time for reflection; if we believe self-assessment and reflection are valuable, we make time for them in our daily practice.

Sometimes, we can create an experience that will give all our students a chance to evaluate their writing and share their thinking with others. A whole group conference where students have a chance to share something they think went very well and an aspect of their writing that needs some revision allows students to problem solve as a giant think tank. The responses from students always are honest and sincere. Another strategy for sharing an aspect of the writing the student was particularly proud of is to form an inside and outside circle. Students on the inside circle sit facing the students on the outside circle. After the students have had time to share, the students on the inside circle shift to the left or right and the new partners share.  Then, the teacher can shift the discussion to ask students to share a part of the writing that still needs work or a helpful suggestion. 

In Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice, Ayres and Shubitz suggest copying both sides of a paper with a rubric so that teachers and students are using the same instrument to assess a writing piece. They also recommend a space for student comments; in other words, students support the decisions they make in self-assessment with solid reasons – basically, evidence from their text (2010).  When student writers take their time to re-examine a piece they believe to be “finished,” they may start to notice the tracks of the teaching in their text. I have always asked students to look through their writer’s notebook and possibly a class binder that stores notes from minilessons and shared writing experiences. Perhaps there is something in this piece the writer can add, delete, or move based on this review. When we give students opportunities to talk about their writing using the same tool we will use to offer praise, polish, and a grade, we create a quality culture for the drafting process. The act of self-assessment will encourage students to use the rubric (or perhaps a checklist) to revise their writing before they offer it as a final draft. If we truly believe that reflection and self-evaluation is important, we will make time for it within our day—quiet time for students to think as well as write.

If we model writerly behaviors, including reflection and goal-setting, we demonstrate that we believe reflection is important. Metacognition, thinking about our thinking and our practices, is a way for us to grow as educators. Teachers of writers can reflect on how their students are using the craft moves and strategies introduced in the focus lessons in their pieces or if the choices the students are making are helping them improve as writers. Teachers can reflect on student engagement, an important goal throughout the day.  It may be a management issue that needs attention. Do you need to rethink what your students are doing while you are conferring with your students? Are students making good choices for peer conference partners?  Sometimes, it’s a good idea to ask a grade level partner or literacy coach to observe the writing workshop for an opportunity to reflect through collaborative conversations. Sometimes, you can even ask your students for help. “Was it easy to find a good place to get your work done today?”  We must remember that reflection will help all of us, not just our students! John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Building in reflection isn’t easy and takes a lot of practice. Growing student writers never happens instantly. It happens over time. But it isn’t accidental either. It takes persistence and a boatload of patience! Don’t give up if you are disappointed with students’ initial attempts at reflection. As students continue to have opportunities to share their reflections, they will improve over time. Student writers are thinkers. They need to make decisions throughout their writing process before arriving at a final product. Daily reflection will help them imagine the possibilities for their writing and make choices that are sensible and meaningful.  Helping students develop a growth mindset where challenges are welcomed and struggle is something to be expected while learning and growing will help students develop as thinkers who make sage decisions. Opportunities to make choices and engage in self-reflection is essential to grow successful writers.

Lynne Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow. She loves to write poetry, plant flowers, and spend time with her three goddaughters. She also loves to participate in Continuity sessions and the writers’ book group on first Saturdays with other PAWLPERS. Lynne is an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and loves learning with her graduate students. She is looking forward to her next read, West with Giraffes: A Novel by Lynda Rutledge and attending the 2021 PAWLPday on March 6th.

Digital One-on-One Conferences with Office 365 and Teams

Lauren Heimlich Foley

With social distancing and hybrid learning, my students and I needed to find a way to hold individual writing conferences.

Gone are the days where I can plop myself down on a stool or rug next to a student. While my one-on-one writing conferences look and feel anything but normal, Microsoft Teams and Office 365 have helped.

Regardless if students are in class or at home, sharing documents and screens haven proven more effective than I ever imagined. If we are able to social distance, students and I will speak six feet apart in the classroom. If this is not possible, then we have our conversations over Teams the way I conference with my 100% virtual students. Teams and Office 365 make it possible for us to “sit” next to one another. In Teams, students and I can both share our screens, enabling us to look at the same documents and resources. I can send our conference notes and materials through the chat for later reference. We can also work together as they revise and edit their piece on their computer.

In past years, students and I would be able to work on the same computer and/or paper copy, both marking it up and making changes. Students could get feedback on new techniques, ask specific questions, trouble-shoot problems, and revise their writing as we conferred. I might demonstrate or model a skill right on a student’s document, record a bulleted list for them to complete once our conference ended, or act as their voice-to-text phone app, recording their words as they spoke to me. These instances were some of the most crucial in my workshop and the most crippled by social distancing. Without simultaneously seeing, accessing, and talking about the writing piece, the possible outcomes of the conferences were stunted.

I cannot remember the exact date that my students and I re-discovered Office 365 and Teams, but it must have been early January 2021. A student shared his writing piece with me at the end of class for feedback. As I began reading it, I wanted him to focus on paragraphing. Instead of making the changes and emailing him back, the next day in school we conferred. I pulled up his writing on my screen, asked him to pull up his copy on his screen, and we were able to speak six feet apart. (Since then, I have used the same strategy with students at home; we talk via Teams.) At first, I read, pausing to talk through why I would add paragraphs at certain points. After a few practice paragraphs, he began adding them on the same document. We both had the document open and were both editing it. Although we didn’t use the same computer, the technology enabled us to seamlessly move back and forth between modeling and application, student and teacher editing—writer and writer. It felt like we were sitting next to each other swapping one computer back and forth.

Every day offers new possibilities and new struggles. I learn along with my students what is and what is not working in our digital, hybrid writing-reading workshop. I am excited to see what we happen upon next. I would love to hear how you are conducting one-on-one conferences!

PAWLP Social Justice/Anti-Bias Study Group: Our Story Continues By Janice Ewing

             Our December meeting was a time to celebrate endings and to look ahead to new beginnings. We started by checking in with ourselves in the present moment, prompted by the suggestion that we each reflect on and share one word that expressed our current mood or mindset. The words shared included: Exhausted (twice), Grateful (twice), Saturday, Balance, Believing, Courageous, and Ready. We recognized that the words speak to our multiple identities as educators, colleagues, and members of a learning community.

            Following that, we turned our attention to completing our fall discussion of Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, which we had finished reading. We shared both overall and specific reactions to and takeaways from the book. Of course, we’re never really “finished with” a book, nor do we want to be, so Muhammad’s ideas will stay with us and find expression in a variety of ways. One specific goal that we set for ourselves, based on the book, is to adopt the idea of a preamble. Muhammad connects preambles to the practices of Black literacy societies throughout the 19th century” (127), and describes them as  “powerful statements of intention and objective” (128). We are each planning to bring a draft of a preamble for our group to our next meeting. Our thinking is that the reflection and sharing of that work will help us to hone our sense of purpose and actions moving forward. We have many issues to explore, including how to bring our learning to life in our families, schools, and communities; how to determine what is and is not in our sphere of influence; how to share our work with a larger audience; how our various areas of study within social justice intersect; how to persevere in the face of the frustrations and obstacles that we encounter along the way.

            At our next meeting, on January 16th, we will share our preambles to see the patterns that emerge, where our ideas align and where we need further clarity of our common purpose. We also plan to share the independent reading and reflection that we have been engaged in, to help expand our thinking and growth, to explore how our various social justice learning paths intersect, and to guide us in selecting our next shared text. Along with these goals, we are also exploring ways to incorporate our story into the larger story of PAWLP as a whole. We are looking forward to our virtual PAWLP Day on March 6th, at which Tiana Silvas will be our keynote speaker, with the theme of “Decolonizing Your Classroom Library.”

            We ended our meeting by revisiting the concept of gratitude, from our opening activity. Together, we expressed gratitude for the community that we have created and are working to sustain, and the opportunity it affords us to grow together, with humility, vulnerability, and openness to learning. We are a work in progress.

            This is the second in a series of posts about our group. You can read the first one here. We welcome comments or questions about ideas that resonate from these posts, or about the group overall. Thank you for following our story.


Muhammad, Gholdy. Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic, 2020

Janice Ewing has been a reading specialist and literacy coach, and an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University. She currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, of which she is a 2004 fellow. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

Teacher to Teacher: Continuity Sessions Offer Surprises, Support, and Serendipity

By Lynne R. Dorfman

Saturdays are busy days for teachers, right?  They are catch-up days for sleep, chores, reading and writing time, and quality time spent with spouses, children, friends, and relatives. Regardless, there are certain Saturdays – the first Saturday of every month – where we carve out time to join our PAWLP friends in a comfortable hour or so to participate in a Continuity Session.

We all have networking opportunities written within our school and district, but often these are limited to our grade level team or faculty. It is possible that kindergarten teachers will have little contact with fifth grade teachers unless special partnerships are formed that pair their students for reading and writing purposes. Many schools have greatly reduced the number of teachers who can attend conferences, and this means that strategies, procedures, and resources are reduced to what the district has to offer.

The Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project is a K through university network of educators offering limitless possibilities of ideas and support in the form of feedback – group and individual. Consider the first Saturday in October when PAWLPer Chris Coyne Kehan shared an extensive list of new and noteworthy books that she divided into categories or themes. Her enthusiastic endorsements and annotations sent many of us to bookstores – online or otherwise – to purchase her suggestions. What a wealth of books to add to our classroom and personal libraries!  Author/educator Frank Murphy also joined us to talk about his experiences co-authoring his newest book, A Girl Like You, with his wife Carla.  Frank, also a PAWLPer, has a new book coming out this spring, A Teacher Like You. It was wonderful to feel his energy. For Writing Project fellows who dream of publishing a book one day, Frank is proof that hard work, determination, and belief in your idea can materialize into something quite wonderful!

 Poetry is a favorite way to experience literature – whether it is writing it, reading it, or hearing it performed. Terrence Sanders, guest speaker on the first Saturday in November, is changing his name to Poet in the near future. He shared one of his poems with us called, “I want to be a writer.” It was a beautiful spoken word that was quite mesmerizing and inspirational to hear. I think that hearing his poem performed in that way brought life to the words and the language that might not have been as apparent if we were reading the poem silently. 

The focus of Poet’s slide share and talk was about writer archetypes. We learned about what each of the archetypes were, their guiding principles, and selected which one(s) we identify with the most. Poet explained that you may not just be one single archetype, but a mix of a few as well. Later, we discussed how we, as writers, could take on the characteristics of a certain archetype and experiment with that writing style as well. For teachers of writers, this idea would be very insightful work with students to develop and practice their writing style. The archetypes were: the Chimera, the Lover, the Artist, the Warrior, and the Shamanist.  

Archetypes I identified with the most were the Shamanist and the Artist. Our next task was some writing and could choose from any of the prompts for other archetypes as well as the one we identified with and use that. The Shamanist is described as “A complex wounded witness whose work attends both to the conscious and to the unconscious unhealed hurts of humans– the literal and personified.” The Artist is someone coupled with intense feelings and longs to paint pictures with poetry or prose. The Artist is often the most rebellious archetype, caring more for writer’s craft than publishing for mass audiences. The prompt for Artist was, ”How and what can you write to bring more beauty into the word?”

Here is Chris Kehan’s booklist. Enjoy, and please join Catherine, Warren, Pauline, and me every first Saturday at ten a.m. for Continuity. Check our website at West Chester University for Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project and scroll down the page for Continuity Sessions for the link.

Books about being true to yourself:

All Because You Matter by Tami Charles Be You! by Peter Reynolds

Fantastic You by Danielle Dufayet

I Am Enough by Grace Byers

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes I Believe I Can by Grace Byers

My Heart by Corinna Luyken

Rock What Ya Got by Samantha Berger Sometimes You Fly by Katherine Applegate What If by Samantha Berger

When You Need Wings by Lita Judge You Are a Beautiful Beginning by Nina Laden

Books about kindness:

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold Because of You by B.G. Hennessy

Dictionary for a Better World by Irene Latham & Charles Waters

Good People Everywhere by Lynea Gillen I Am Love: A Book of Compassion by Susan   Verde

Love the World by Todd Parr

Most People by Michael Leannah

Tomorrow I’ll Be Kind by Jessica Hische Chapter Books 

Books in Verse:

All He Knew by Helen Frost

All of Me by Chris Baron

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling

Catching a Story Fish by Janice Harrington

The Colors of the Rain by R.L. Toalson

Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes

Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry

Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

Swing by Kwame Alexander

This Promise of Change by Jo Ann Allen Boyce   & Debbie Levey

Books about emotions:

I’m Worried by Michael Ian Black

Love by Matt de la Peña

The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi

A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart by Zetta Elliott

Today I Feel by Madalena Moniz

Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave by Jessica Hische

The Whatifs by Emily Kilgore

When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller

You Are Your Strong by Danielle Dufayet

Books about in the moment:

Daniel’s Good Day by Micha Archer

Happy Right Now by Julie Berry

Here and Now by Julia Denos

I Am One: A Book of Action by Susan Verde

I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong

I Promise by LeBron James

If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall

Someday by Eileen Spinelli

That’s Life! by Ame Dyckman

Books That Stay with You:

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Blended by Sharon Draper

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Look Both Waysby Jason Reynolds

 Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Stay by Bobbie Pyron

Sweep: The Story of a Girl & Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

What Lane by Torrey Maldonado

Wink by Rob Harrell

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 PAWLP fellow. She recently co-authored Welcome to Writing Workshop with Stacey Shubitz. Lynne and PAWLPer Brenda Krupp have written a manuscript called Welcome to Reading Workshop for Stenhouse Publishers and hope to engage in revision and editing work in the coming months. Happy writing! See you this Saturday for Continuity!

Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving each year, I do take time to pause and reflect both personally and professionally. In my professional world right now, the second marking period has started, and I am perusing my students’ feedback forms from the middle of November. I am in the midst of teaching a new unit on the interaction of community and the individual with Romeo and Juliet as my core text. And, the fall semester at West Chester University is almost over; I just need to finish my final paper. Despite some constants and best laid plans, there is much I have no control over. Will we remain hybrid or go virtual? Will my technology work during my lesson? Will Internet issues prevent students from attending class? At times, the questions seem endless. Yet, even though there is uncertainty in my classroom and the teaching profession, I search for the people and moments I am grateful for.

I am thankful for my students. It is a joy to work with them every day even with the struggles of hybrid learning, mask wearing, and unanswered questions. Their patience, technical support, and feedback make our class a better place. I also appreciate them laughing–even at my horrible jokes.

I am thankful for my colleagues and mentors. Although we might be meeting virtually, technology is connecting us in ways pre-Covid meetings could not. Everyone is sharing materials and ideas to help one another out. There are check-ins and how are you doings both online and in person. Even though you cannot see someone’s smile underneath their mask, you know it is there. There is an unsaid understanding of what we are all going through.

I am thankful for my principals and English supervisor who are sounding blocks during meetings, who allow us to voice our concerns and classroom insight. They recognize the crazy times we are teaching in. I feel their support.

I am thankful for reading Laura Rendón’s Sentipensante Pedagogy with Dr. Craig this semester. Rendón’s agreements have reminded me to take time each day to replenish my mind, body, and soul. I have been walking–in the sunshine and rain (as long as it is not a downpour). The fresh air in my lungs and the sun on my face is rejuvenating.

With the long weekend, I am taking time to reflect, rejuvenate, and be thankful–not only for the blessings in my personal life but also in my professional world. I wish the same for you.

PAWLP Anti-Bias/Social Justice Study Group: Our Story By Janice Ewing

How We Got Started

            On the third Saturday of each month, a group of PAWLP TCs and friends meet, now via Zoom, for our social justice study group. This group grew out of an interest and need that emerged during our Saturday Continuity sessions, which also take place once a month.  Our Continuity sessions have the broad goals of carving out a time and space to share questions or concerns about our teaching and related inquiries, writing or presentations in progress, or other collegial sharing. The guiding principles that undergird our sessions are based on the NWP’s ( overall philosophy of teachers teaching teachers, and more specifically the NWP Social Practices of Write, Go Public with our Practice, Learn/Engage the Profession, Collaborate/Respond, Lead, and Advocate. We are also guided by our PAWLP mission and vision statements, and the Teaching Tolerance ( standards of Identity Diversity, Justice, and Action, which we intentionally integrate into all our practices.

            Although issues of advocacy and social justice were interwoven through our work together, some of us felt the need for more focused exploration of these topics. One of our participants, Tricia Ebarvia, suggested that we start a group that would be specifically dedicated to the issues of advocacy and social justice, with the goal of educating ourselves more deeply, individually and together, and working to transform our learning into action in our schools and communities.

What We Do

            We decided to use a study group format to give us specific texts to serve as a focal point for our work. We started with So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  Since then, we’ve read several other books, including The Racial Healing Handbook by Annaliese A. Singh, How to Be an AntiRacist by Ibram X. Kendi and the graphic memoir Good Talk by Mira Jacob. We are currently reading Gholdy Mohammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Through our reading, reflection, and discussion we have explored our own identities as well as school and community cultures, and looked at racism through historical lenses and case studies; our inquiry framework had guided us to identify specific goals to pursue in our anti-bias/social justice work. Most of our reading has been of shared texts, but we have also taken time to explore individually-selected books, articles, poetry, and art and share our takeaways with the group. We also maintain a Google doc where participants post additional resources in a variety of media and formats, as well as inquiry questions that these texts have raised or amplified.

Where We Are Now

            Many of our Saturday morning meetings have started with a shared acknowledgement of a recent tragedy or trauma, in our local community or beyond. We also acknowledge the ongoing traumas and challenges that we live amidst, which are not always as startling, but always present and corrosive. When we turn our focus to our study and our ongoing work, there is progress and growth to acknowledge as well, and always, the strength that we find in a shared community. This week, we will meet on Thursday evening. This is a session that Liz Mathews, our facilitator, and Pauline Schmidt, our PAWLP director, have set up to provide a space to reflect and respond together about the recent tragic killing of Walter Wallace, Jr. in Philadelphia, and the aftermath of the election, whatever that will be at that time. With our texts as a focal point, we share the insights and experiences we’re gaining on our inquiry journeys. We share struggles and evolving questions. Then, we each strive in our own ways to bring our learning to action in our families, schools, and communities. This is ongoing work.

            Our regular meetings continue to be held on the third Saturday of each month, but we’re leaving space in November for participation in the NCTE ( conference and related NWP events, so our next regular meeting will be on Saturday, December 19th. Our meeting dates and agendas are posted at In future posts, we’re looking forward to hearing perspectives from other participants in our group. Questions or thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

Janice Ewing is a 2004 fellow of the PA Writing and Literature Project and currently serves on the advisory board. She is also an active member of the Keystone State Literacy Association, the KSLA Delaware Valley Reading Council and other professional organizations. She and Dr. Mary Buckelew are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).