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Teacher to Teacher: Advice for Writers

By Lynne R. Dorfman

I think the best advice I can give you is to find and honor your process (which may be different from a writing partner or the peers in your class). I am good at thinking on my feet and getting my thoughts down in just the right way the first time. Several of my writing partners prefer time to think things through and let thoughts smolder awhile. (They often jot them down in their writer’s notebook before the fire goes out!) I often use my notebook as a prewrite: “Think before you write!”  My notebook is filled with lists, sketches, graphic organizers, explanations, and examples. Lots of pages have examples taken from a mentor text, an explanation from me as to why I think the author chose a particular craft move, and my examples of imitation – closely imitating in the first attempt, and then moving away from the lines I lifted from the book by making it my own in some small way.

When Rose Cappelli and I wrote the books about mentor texts for Stenhouse Publishers, we collaborated by sitting at the table in her sunroom. At first, we did some writing separately, but as time went on, we did more and more together. We just found that collaborating on ideas helped us better say what we thought teachers needed to hear. Rose and I seemed to fall into a comfortable rhythm, and I think actually created a new process for working together. However, there were still parts that we worked on separately. That’s where the notebook came in handy. We set aside some days we would write together and then before we left we decided on the part each would work on, whether it be writing, gathering books, collecting student samples, or even just thinking. We would write this all down in a sort of checklist so we knew what we needed to do. We always were jotting down thoughts and ideas. 

When I am composing, I do a lot of oral rehearsals, writing a narrative, poem, or speech in my head and even saying the words aloud before I even pick up my pen. And yes, I like to draft with a pen, preferably a pen with purple, green, or even pink ink before I go to the computer. The movement of my hand as I half-print/half-write the words seems to kick my brain in gear. It’s magic – once I am engaged and have written something on a page of my notebook, I am on my way to working hard until I finish my initial draft. Of course, if I need to establish a stronger foundation of background knowledge, I do tons of reading and research before I get started.

Of course, if you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you. Writers have to be preoccupied with time-management. Carve out a time for writing every day – even if it is only ten to fifteen minutes to begin with. You must make a commitment to writing – like it is your job – and try to stay true to your schedule just as you would do for feeding and walking the dog, exercising, arriving to work on time. No excuses!  Daily writing will help you maintain the flow – get into the writing zone where distractions are not noticed and time moves quickly.

Find the joy within your work, even if that means looking in the most unexpected places. Find the joy within your process and the joy of finishing a piece and finding the perfect audience to share it with. Find joy in elevating yourself to a conscious level of “I am a writer.”

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, a stop on June 15th at 5:00 p.m. Eastern in the Write Across America writing marathon offered by NWP. Use this link to register for this free writing experience and plan to participate whenever you are able: https://lead.nwp.org/writeacrossamerica-a-virtual-writing-marathon/

Lynne loves to write poems, read mysteries, and garden. Right now, pink roses fill vases in her home, cut from a section of her garden. Lynne visits Longwood Gardens regularly to walk and take photos of the blooms and trees that make the grounds a magical place to visit. Often, Lynne takes her writer’s notebook along. The garden’s beauty inspires her to write.

PAWLP Social Justice Group – Time for Reflection

By Janice Ewing

            This school year has amplified ongoing challenges and created unique ones as well. Now, as the end of the school year approaches, many teachers do not know what the fall will look like. More than ever, teachers need supportive communities in which to learn, grow and refuel. One such community is PAWLP’s social justice study group. As we’ve shared in previous posts, this group challenges us to examine our biases and assumptions, to place them in a larger historical context, and to translate our new understanding into action within our schools and communities. Along the way, we find that a corollary to learning and growth is discomfort. The willingness to sit with discomfort has led us to a deeper refueling, based less on restoring equilibrium than on finding new ways to see and to navigate the world around us, personally and professionally.

            Our social justice study group continues to meet on the third Saturday of each month. When we meet on May 15th, we will finish our discussion of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua. Of course we are never really finished with a book, because the ideas and reflections that we have shared from and in response to the book are ongoing.  Still, each book that we complete offers a natural stopping point for reflection, and that process leads into the selection of the next shared text. In the past, we have also used the summer months as a time for members to choose individual texts and share their new learning with the group. We’ll talk that through and make that decision at our May meeting as well.

Along with This Bridge Called My Back, we have also been reading The Tradition by Jericho Brown. One of the reasons that we chose to read this poetry collection is that it is as the One Book/One Philadelphia selection this year. This led us to set up a collaborative book talk session with the Philadelphia Writing Project (philwp.gse.upenn.edu), which will be held virtually on May 12th (You can find details about this event and our study group at pawlp.org).

            In a year that was filled with challenges at all levels, this group has provided a valuable space. Some of the participants have commented that they didn’t know what to expect from meeting virtually, whether the atmosphere of sharing and trust that we had been cultivating as a group would flourish. We were gratified to find that it did. In spite of some people feeling over-Zoomed from their weekday schedules, this group flourished as a time and place for growth. In addition, as in many groups, our experience was enriched by the participation of members from other geographical areas, who would not have been able to join us face-to-face. We’re grateful for these new relationships and hope they will continue.

            I invite you to reflect on the groups or communities that have sustained you this year.  How have they provided sustenance?  Have they also opened the door to discomfort and struggle? How have you changed? Thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.            

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 her colleague, Dr. Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

Re-Imagining Romeo and Juliet: Providing Students with Strategies to Help them make Better Choices and Live Healthy Lives

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

“It’s about two teens who fall in love and kill themselves in the end.”

When my 9th graders learned that we would be reading Romeo and Juliet, this was the first reaction I heard in every class.

Once my planning began for this whole-class text, I knew I wanted to do some re-imagining. How could I make this play more relevant for my students? How could I leave them with knowledge that would help them? I vowed to myself that by the time my classes finished reading Romeo and Juliet they would take away more than a sad love story of two star-crossed lovers.

In class we watched and read selected scenes from Stratford Festival‘s pre-recorded play. A colleague of mine recommended the resource–it is amazing! For homework, students were invited to either watch the scenes or read the summaries we were not looking at as a whole class.

Students also read articles that addressed issues present throughout the play and relevant in today’s world. I split the articles and topics into separate days. Students chose at least one article to read, analyze, connect to, write about, and discuss. Day 1 focused on topics related to the first half of the play. The following week, after finishing Romeo and Juliet, students completed similar work for a new set of articles listed under Day 2. I encouraged students to select a topic and article that spoke to them or they found most interesting.

  • Day 1
  • Conflict resolution
  • Peer mediation
  • Ways to control/work through anger
  • Negative peer pressure
  • Mob mentality
  • Day 2
  • Problem solving skills
  • Communication skills
  • Brain development
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Strategies to clam down
  • How to manage stress
  • Mental health resources

The connections students made included text-text, text-self, and text-world. I asked them to consider how the information in these articles would have helped Romeo and Juliet had they had the resources and how these resources might help teens today.

Also, we read the article, “How to Help a Friend” from the National Alliance on Mental Health as a class. I reached out to my guidance counselor who recommended it.

In thinking about our world today and the struggles that many of my students experience, I wanted to provide resources for the issues that come up in the play. My hope for the unit was to help my students move beyond their initial ideas of Romeo and Juliet, make better choices, and live healthy lives.

A few weeks after the unit, I was speaking with one of my student’s parents who thanked me for the way I approached the content of the play and the resources I had provided. In the end, I am glad I re-considered how to teach Romeo and Juliet.

Consider the Summer Institute

By Lynne R. Dorfman

Do you want to have a unique experience with a graduate course that will change your life as a teacher? One that will change your students’ lives as writers?  An experience that will help you imagine the possibilities? The annual writing institute brings new teacher leaders into our large K – university network of educators who have something in common – they want to learn and grow as teachers of writers.

This year, the summer community begins with virtual Saturdays in spring followed by two weeks in July and a final celebration in fall (Contact pschmidt@wcupa.edu or cpilla@wcupa.edu if you want more details).  It offers six graduate credits for a total of 14 dates!  The teachers-teaching-teachers model is the heart of the Project’s foundation.

The writing institute offers lifelong friendships. I have often asked for guidance from the friends I’ve met through myriad opportunities that PAWLP has offered its fellows. Many of us have become graduate course facilitators or teachers for our Young Writers & Readers summer programs. We’ve posted on PAWLP’s blog – write.share.connect – and contributed to our literary magazine, Around the Table. Some of us take on weeks of tweets for the Project, lead Continuity sessions, or are active members of our writing group or social justice group. We often submit proposals to NWP and PCTELA as a group and enjoy the conference together. As you can see, we stay connected throughout the year.

The writing institute gave me confidence to take risks and try new things in my classroom. I explored writing portfolios during my summer institute and read extensively about their use. When I returned to the classroom in September, I was energized to try to use portfolios as a way my students could document their writing skills and growth. I saw portfolios as a way to unlock possibilities for student-driven personalized learning. My institute members all found areas to explore.  Joe hoped to discover an effective management system to hold writing conferences on a regular basis for his high school students; Linda wanted to use poetry writing throughout her social studies curriculum. Jane was eager to fully implement a workshop approach with her fourth graders. Pam, a kindergarten teacher, focused on invented spelling — kids trying to spell words based on what they know about letter sounds —as productive practice with their decoding skills and as a way the teacher and the author could read the stories during a conference or share time.

A transformative experience, teachers who had not linked the teaching of writing with being a writer took on teacher as writer as their mantra. Teachers of writers need to be part of their community by modeling with their own writing and sharing bits and pieces from their writer’s notebook.  Writing institute participants often come to this brave space to turn down the outside noise and tune in to the amplified voices of the writing institute community. They embrace their fears and begin to work together to write, read, share, and grow.

My summer institute ran like an efficient writing workshop, promoting small and whole-group discussion, offering opportunities to confer and receive feedback, providing large chunks of time to write and share each day, and building in time to reflect on our goals and literacy practices.  Today’s writing institute helps teachers promote engagement and a strong sense of community through the workshop method.  With time to reflect upon, describe, and document our teaching philosophy, goals, and achievements, we can prioritize student voice and participation. The writing institute is a place where educators not only gain knowledge but also discover who they are and who they want to be as teachers of writers.


Application forms are now available through the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Deadline is extended to April 17th.   https://www.wcupa.edu/arts-humanities/writingProject/courses.aspx

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow.

The PAWLP Social Justice Study Group Goes to PAWLP Day

By Deanna Gabe

When Pauline Schmidt, the Director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, asked for volunteers to lead breakout sessions for PAWLP Day on March 6th, I piped up and said, “I guess I could talk about what we do in our study group.” Immediately after she accepted my offer I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” It is a question that I frequently ask myself during our third Saturday study meetings as well because while my tone here is light, the work we do there is not. Critically examining the history and evolution of our own racial identities as well as the historical and current systemic racism that is embedded in the foundation of American culture is heavy lifting

Just like lifting heavy weights makes muscles stronger, doing this deep and challenging work both individually and in community with each other has strengthened our ability to extend our discussion about race and racial inequality outside of our collective and into our institutions. Furthermore, the group provides a network of support and a proving ground to test ideas about how to translate that discussion into transformative action. 

Recently, inspired by the Black Literary Societies we read about in Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad, we challenged ourselves to write a preamble for our little study society. We thought this exercise would be a good way to bring some clarity to our purpose and provide trailheads for further study. These snippets from the working preambles of several of our members give insight into our collective work and the norms that have organically evolved from our shared and divergent identities.

  • Through critical reading, writing, and discussion that centers race, we challenge ourselves and one another to expand our perspectives on issues of race.
  • We question our own biases, assumptions, and intersections of privilege and oppression in order to understand and develop our racial identity.
  •  We apply a critical social justice lens to our own teaching practices, individual schools, and larger systems both in America and globally.
  • We use our study as a catalyst for transformation in big and small ways.
  • We provide support to each other in our endeavors to bring social justice and equity work into our institutions, which can be precarious.
  • We embrace discomfort and vulnerability, and take a stance of inquiry and critical humility.
  • We listen to each other.
  • We take responsibility for educating ourselves about the true history of America and American education.
  • We acknowledge that we are a work in progress and that our understandings and knowledge are incomplete. We commit to speaking out and taking action in this incomplete and imperfect state.

I plan on bringing this spirit of collective inquiry and critical humility to my PAWLP Day breakout session on Saturday, March 6th. If you have already or want to begin a journey of individual or collective inquiry centered on race and social justice, and would like to experience how the PAWLP Social Justice Study Group goes about doing that, I hope you’ll stop by!

Deanna Gabe is an adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at West Chester University.

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.