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Treading Water During Online Conversations

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

Five years ago, I made a poster with James Britton’s famous words: “reading and writing float along a sea of talk.” I whole-heartedly believe this statement as a reader, writer, and teacher. Today, I wish I could talk with him—share the difficulties my students and I face to simply have a conversation. I am trying my best to foster meaningful conversations when masks physically silence my students’ voices and technology digitally mutes them. I never realized how much of my writing-reading workshop hinged on students being together and talking with one another until now.

Struggling to move beyond what was and what is drives me to continually re-see how I can best implement breakout rooms and discussion boards. Although Teams and Canvas cannot come close to the authentic and immediate conversations that occurred in my brick and mortar classroom, I am grateful to have the technology.

What I share below are some of the Band-Aids I am experimenting with for student-teacher conferences and student conversations.

Student-Teacher Conferences: Since I cannot pull up a stool and chat with a student or table group, I started weekly small-group Teams conferences based on our hybrid schedule. I am able to meet with all students once per week to discuss their books and/or writing pieces. It’s not ideal (I previously engaged in many more conversations throughout a class period and week), but I have to re-imagine my student-teacher conferences. I invite online students to lower the volume and I use headphones so as to not disturb the students physically in the room; however, I am still available to answer questions for all students. Below is a chart, showing how I separated my conference groups by hybrid 1, online only, and hybrid 2 students. We meet during workshop time. For some meetings, I break students into smaller groups and assign them different times to meet with me.

Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Meet with 4-6 online only studentsHybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams
Hybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams

Table-Group Breakout Rooms and Discussion Boards: Students selected the “table groups” they wanted to work with through a Forms, regardless of their schedule: hybrid 1, hybrid 2, and online only. The first time we tried this breakout room, students in school experienced terrible audio feedback and echoing. To remedy this problem, students in school used headphones or group members sat in nearby desks, so only one person in our physical classroom needed to join the Teams call. Even so, the way the breakout rooms work is ongoing and ever-changing as I learn more about my students and my students get to know one another.

For example, each period is set up a little differently. In 2nd and 5th period, students across the different schedules meet digitally. In 4th period, my students and I worked to regroup students by schedule, so hybrid 1 students work together, hybrid 2 students work together, and the online only students are interspersed throughout. This is helping them stay more focused in our brick and mortar classroom. 7th period is a combination of what I mentioned above. I needed to be flexible in order to meet everyone’s needs. Particularly for a group of three students who work really well together. They all have a different schedule, but they meet to work in Teams throughout the week.

Additional Breakout Rooms: In addition to the Wednesday “table group” breakout rooms, students, who are physically in school, turn and talk from their desks while remaining 6 feet apart. Online students join breakout rooms.

Going into this year, I knew online and hybrid learning would challenge the routines of my brick and mortar writing-reading workshop. Re-thinking conferences and group work is a continual focus of mine. I miss the roar of my students’ voices coming to life after reading their independent reading books or completing a quick write. My students miss the opportunity to easily and naturally chat with peers and friends. Through it all, I remind myself to stay present, breathe often, tinker with technology, and trust that my students’ voices will float whether online or in person.

I would love to hear how you are conferring with students and creating opportunities for students to talk and collaborate.

Teacher to Teacher: How Teachers & Students Use Independent Writing Time

By Lynne R. Dorfman

If we want our students to grow as writers, we need to give them ample time to refine their writing skills by flexing their writing muscles during uninterrupted periods of independent writing. This writing time, if at all possible, should occur daily.

Before you send your students off to write, they need a plan of action or a goal – what do they hope to accomplish today during independent writing time? They may focus on a teaching point from the mini-lesson, but they may also have another goal or problem to solve.

While they are writing, teachers observe and offer roving conferences, actively teaching their students in highly individualized ways. During the first 5 – 10 minutes, you can be a kidwatcher. Everyone is writing. There are no conferences, trips to the bathroom or pencil sharpener, or questions for the teacher. During this short period of time, teachers can observe writerly behaviors:

  • Observe posture, focus on the writing piece, where his eyes look in the classroom
  • Does she reread pages from his writer’s notebook?
  • Does the writer appear to be distracted? Is she focused on her writing piece or looking around the room or perhaps out the window?
  • Are there some topics or a writing type that the writer prefers (has more confidence) than others?
  • Does the writer spend most of his time writing or drawing?  Planning or drafting?
  • Does the writer look at the anchor chart from the mini-lesson?

Take some notes. Does the student create or use a memory chain, add to her expert list, or create a neighborhood map or heart map? Does he illustrate a notebook entry or add details to a drawing for his piece of writing?  Perhaps he is writing an annotation for an artifact in his portfolio or conducting research for an opinion piece he is writing. When she drafts, is she skipping every other line to make revision easier?  The notes you take during the first ten minutes of writing time help you learn more about your writers. Circulate around the room to observe who is getting the concept, skill, or strategy, find suggestions for future topics for mini-lessons, or gather information to place students in small groups for focused instruction.

During independent writing, you may offer a tip from a student in the form of a mid-workshop interruption. As you rove you may see a student doing something extraordinary that could be shared with the writing community. These mid-workshop interruptions boost confidence and self-esteem in the writer you choose to highlight and serve as an inspiration to other writers.

During independent writing time, students can meet in a peer conference or return to a previous piece of writing to rewrite in another format – a poem, perhaps. They can reread notebook entries to look for a new topic or even consider abandoning the piece of writing they are currently working on in favor of a different topic. There are many reasons to abandon a piece of writing. Make it the topic of one of your mini-lessons and create an anchor chart with the students. It may look something like this:


  • When it feels like a chore.
  • You have no passion for the topic – you are no longer having fun writing this piece. 
  • You are thinking about other story ideas.
  • You cannot visualize your characters.
  • You realize you do not have enough background – need to research and read more to be able to write this.
  • You are not the best person to write this piece.
  • It is someone else’s story (your mom’s or dad’s).
  • Rewrites/revision does not improve the piece.
  • The writing lacks energy.  It does not sound new/original or inviting.
  • It is not a topic for the target audience.

Fletcher (2017) would argue that the most important part of writing workshop is the daily independent writing time, not our mini-lesson. That’s why it’s so important to keep our direct instruction short – about ten minutes. If we plan wisely, we can deliver important explicit instruction and still give our students the gift of large periods of writing time each day.

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow of the PA Writing & Literature Project. She is currently working on Welcome to Reading Workshop with Brenda Krupp. Lynne serves as an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and is co-president of KSLA Brandywine Valley Forge, her local reading council. Last Saturday she spent the morning in PAWLP’s writing group and the Continuity session. She looks forward to attending both groups on Nov. 7th. Look for the links on the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project page of West Chester University. Here is the link for the page:

Reading Together through Computer Screens

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

My favorite period each day is my small-group Reading class. Despite the fact that they are labeled at risk, my students like to read. Together we enter the joys of fantastical adventures, real-life struggles, mysterious plot twists, and beautiful language. Together we make connections to ourselves, other texts, and the real world.

My reading workshop is grounded in the research of Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Kylene Beers. Reading conferences are foundational to our class. On a daily basis, I read with students: I read to them, and they are invited to read to me. We think aloud and engage in conversation surrounding mini-lesson skills. These conferences remind me of when I was little, sitting on the couch next to my mom. I have very distinct memories of her reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me, and reading Nancy Drew books to her. Those afternoons and evenings fostered my love of reading. They also strengthened my comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, etc.

During distance learning, my Reading class was rocked. Choice, individualized instruction, reading conferences, and think alouds disappeared. I had to find a way to re-claim my reading workshop for the 2020-2021 school year.

Since June, I have been searching for a way to overcome the virtual divide. My big question: How can I read with and to my students if I don’t have their books in front of me.

Then, one sunny, August afternoon, I drove past my local library, and I had a breakthrough: get students’ independent reading books from the library so we both have a copy!

Although separated by computer screens and Covid protocols, neither have posed a threat this year to reading together and engaging in think alouds and conferences. By the end of the second week of school, my Reading students had their books, and I had my copy.

We have been reading together ever since!

Reading: Your Health Depends on It

Today was my first day of in-person teaching 7th grade ELA. It was a very LONG day, but all things considered it went well. No matter whether you are teaching in front of live students, or you are going “live” virtually, keeping yourself and your students healthy is even more important this year than ever! Lucky for me, one of my first loves is actually good for my health.

A study directed by Dr. David Lewis at Mindlab International at the University of Sussex in the UK, found that, “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. “As the paper reported, Psychologists believe this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart.” The best part is that you only have to read six minutes a day – six! No matter how stressed I am, how long my day has been, or how many things are on my “to do” list, I am certain I can carve out six minutes a day. (View a video of Dr. Lewis here:

What are the benefits of reading? I am glad you asked. Reading –

  • lowers blood pressure
  • lowers heart rate
  • reduces muscle tension
  • drops stress levels (up to 68%) faster than walking or drinking tea.

There is just one catch – it can’t be required reading. It must be something you are reading just for fun, so you can really make that great escape.

These weeks leading up to the start of school have been VERY stressful, and I haven’t taken much time to nurture my soul, but there were two bright spots. The night before two of my grandchildren were beginning 1st grade, I video chatted with each of them and read them First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg. They attentively listened to “Nona” read them this adorable story about Sarah Jane Hartwell’s first day of school. They loved it! What I noticed after each reading experience was that I was smiling the entire time I was reading and felt the weight of my day fall away. That feeling changed the way I approached the rest of my evening, and I actually felt more energized.

That experience has shored my determination to make time for reading aloud to my 7th graders. Kids are never too old to be read to, and if it can lower their stress levels (and mine) than it definitely has to be one of my priorities!

So, if you are thinking that you do not have time to engage in reading self-care, here are a couple of ideas to try.

  • Audible books: Use your commute to listen in the car – just don’t take your eye off the road. I especially love listening to books set in other countries, so I get to hear the characters’ accents.
  • Meditation Apps: Many of these apps have sleep stories that help you wash away the stress of the day and fall alseep easier. My sister gifted me with a year subscription to the Calm app and a bluetooth headband. I put on my headband, choose a story, and direct all of my attention to the rich descriptions read by the gentle voice of the narrator. Before you know it, I am out like a light and on my way to a great night’s sleep.

So when you’re feeling stressed, make time to read. The life you save may be your own! Please add your ideas for making time for the daily six minute read in the comments below.

Tips for Developing Effective and Engaging Professional Development Through a Virtual Learning Environment

In March 2020 the world as we know it turned upside down in a heartbeat. Educators of all levels and at brick-and-mortar schools were forced to go into emergency remote learning mode in a manner of days to support their students.

For those of us who are educational consultants, we too, had to do a sudden shift to providing our training and technical assistance to schools across the Commonwealth through virtual means.

Over the past six months we have become more adept at providing what we are informed is needed by the stakeholders: educators, families, community agencies and so forth.   It was a necessity to become more creative, to expand our tools and techniques in delivering meaningful and engaging content.

In the journey of continual learning in how to improve professional learning experiences, I offer to you some tips to consider, whether providing training through synchronous or asynchronous virtual learning environments or through a face-to-face learning environment.

Here are some tips based on the work of Sharon Bowman, author of Training from the Back of the Room.  Visit her blog for more tips to enhance your professional learning sessions.   Keep in mind the tips are equally helpful with teaching youth in our classrooms!

  1. A few days prior to the professional development (PD) inform participants of the topic and objectives by sending out a warm-up activity such as:
  • Prepare the first 2 columns of a K-W-L-S chart (What I Know, What I Wish to Know, What I Learned, What I still Wish to Know). Have it ready to participate in the PD. This may be accomplished by providing a link or a QR code to a Google Form, Padlet, FlipGrid, Jamboard, Wakelet, Microsoft Forms or other interactive applications.
  • Speak to someone who is knowledgeable on the topic for 3-5 minutes and be prepared to share out.
  • Draw, doodle or create a Word Cloud of key concepts associated with the topic.
  • Be sure to give the anticipated learners choices.
  1. In addition to the warm up activity, email a graphic organizer or possibly a link to one stored in a shared file for the learners to have during the PD
  • Consider using a Venn diagram, flow chart that has parts left blank, a basic outline with key subtopics listed.
  • Consider allowing for a free write or to ‘doodle’ thoughts.
  • Consider a page of speech/thought bubbles with a prompt posted at the top
  1. Start the PD by having the learners share out what they found out in their warm up activity.
  • Consider using break out room/small groups to share for 3-5 minutes.
  • Use the white board feature in your platform or provide a link in the chat box to other applications such as Padlet, Wakelet, Jamboard and Google Forms/Slides.
  • Consider creating a QR code to present via your shared screen. See end of blog for two options of many free sites available to create QR codes. Very simple to use.
  • Use the participant features of the platform to direct learners to use their ‘raise hand’, ‘yes/no’ or polling options when you ask for a response to an anticipatory question or statement.
  • Remember that just because the learners and presenters are usually sitting in a virtual environment, there is the option to ask them to stand up or use their upper body to respond to a prompt given. This may include using arm/body motions similar to a charades or using a marker to create a response through a handwritten drawing or dry erase board.
  1. Follow the 10 to 15-minute rule: Break up your slides, information sharing or printed materials into segments of 10-15 minutes
  • Consider inserting a short 1 to 2-minute activity in between the longer segment to review the materials/concepts just presented.
  • Using their graphic organizer, write one sentence to summarize the learning.
  • Think-Pair-Share using the breakout rooms.
  • Ask learners to summarize in the chat box.
  • Continuing using the applications that are being in use in other parts of the training.
  • Note that any more than 20 minutes is most likely going to lead to learners tuning out and disengaging.
  1. Build in Movement Breaks
  • Invite the learners to take 1 minute to stretch, stand, walk, and/or deep breathe.
  • Stretches may be as simple as a micro stretch such as stretching out arms, fingers, legs and/or toes while sitting
  • Consider using a slide to offer the short break that shows a visually engaging picture- something not directly related to the topic of the PD.
  • Consider using a snippet of energizing music, GIF or sort video.
  • Provide choice.
  1. Be sure to become familiar with the interactive features well in advance of the PD
  • Explore what features your platform has built into it. Companies are providing upgrades constantly.
  • Check with your IT team for any advice as deemed necessary
  • Test the other applications you planning to use. Possibly invite a colleague to try out what you prepare.
  1. Extend learning and commitment to implementation of the PD skills and concept with taking 3-5 minutes to have learners create a basic Action Plan.
  • Cycle back to using the applications previously used in the PD.
  • Suggest the learners use their graphic organizer to summarize what they learned and to indicate 2-3 Action Steps.
  • Use breakout rooms for sharing.
  • Use the chat box to summarize and state Action Steps
  • Use multimedia approach by the learners to demonstrate their new knowledge and what Action Steps will be taken such as responding in their seats or by standing up within camera view.

Professional development is meant to improve our skills as educators so that we may assist our students of any age to become life-long learners. Keep in mind the tools you choose to provide the PD are ways to model to your learners how to make virtual learning effectively and a positive experience.  Being consistent with your tools and structure if providing a series of PD sessions or when teaching students, will be helpful in keeping your learners feeling a sense of comfort, predictability and proficiency with the format of the instruction so that they may increase their focus on  learning about your topic without worrying about the tools being used.

By following the tips and allowing yourself to explore and try out a variety of methods to facilitate learning in a virtual environment in an engaging manner, the intended objectives will be met.  Taking time to think about the objectives, the variability of the learners and the means by which you will facilitate the PD session will pay off in the long run.

References from Sharon Bowman

Sharon Bowman:

Website: Training from the Back of the Room

Book:  Training from the Back of the Room: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn (2008)

Two Free Options of Many Available for Creating QR Codes :

QR Stuff

Add-in Extension from Chrome

Finding a Foundation in Inquiry By Janice Ewing

            Many educators are hearing words like “unprecedented” and “pivot” so often that they’re starting to lose their meaning.  Teachers are inundated with new tools, resources, and strategies to manage time and organization in virtual spaces. Part of the challenge of planning for this school year has been the process of sifting through, evaluating, and quickly becoming familiar with what can be an overwhelming array of options.

            In talking with teachers as they prepare for this school year, I’ve noticed that the urgency of adapting to new modes of teaching and learning sometimes leads to searching for answers before having a clear idea of what the questions are, beyond “How can I make this work?” I think that it’s helpful to hone in on our questions first, to create a foundation from which to navigate the search for answers. Of course, there are specific questions about requirements, schedules, and technology that might require immediate answers, but there are also deeper questions that need reflection and processing, in spite of the urgency that this school opening brings. Forming and pursuing these questions as teacher inquiries can provide a valuable framework for moving forward.

            For example, a teacher I’m informally mentoring learned that her school was preparing for a socially-distanced, in-class model. She wanted to encourage the theme and practice of caring for each other within a community, and she was concerned about finding ways to facilitate group projects among her first graders. Our collaborative reflection led her to the question:  How can I encourage collaboration and group projects within my class while still maintaining physical distance? Shortly after this conversation, the teacher was informed that her school had “pivoted” to virtual instruction. Her new question became: How can I encourage collaboration and group projects within my class in a virtual setting? The teacher’s goals for her students remain the same, although the logistics have changed, and very well might change again. Her inquiry question helps to keep her steady in her focus on what is important for her and her students. It is also a question that she will bring to “the table” in planning sessions with colleagues and it will guide her to seek out teachers in broader professional networks with similar questions.

            A reading specialist who works with students in grades 1-5 also shared her concerns with me about starting the year online.  Student assessment and collaboration with classroom teachers are essential components of her role. Fortunately, there is another reading specialist in her school with whom she has a close collegial relationship. Together, they will explore the question: What adaptations will be advantageous in assessing our students virtually and how can we best share our information with classroom teachers?

            A secondary special education teacher shared that she is worried about meeting her students’ needs for feelings of safety and emotional regulation without the flexibility of face-to-face interactions. Her question: What will happen if my students and I co-create a system of visual signs and symbols to enable them to indicate when they need an individual check-in or a break?

            An education professor at a local university explained that her classes are being held via Zoom. Her face-to-face classes were very interactive, as her students experienced the strategies they were learning about. Her question: How can I most effectively and authentically model instructional practices for my preservice education students using Zoom?

            Each of these teachers has deep concerns as this new school year begins. The identification of an inquiry question helps to shape more focused collaboration with colleagues, who might be exploring similar or related questions. As often occurs during inquiry, the questions will change along the way, as various types of data and ongoing analysis and reflection with colleagues inform the process. When teachers reach out and share their inquiries with other educators beyond their own learning communities, teaching and learning become generative and intertwined. As we face this “unprecedented” beginning of the school year, the inquiry process can build a foundation from which to reflect and act on your deepest and most authentic questions. You’re welcome to share your ongoing inquiry questions in the comments below.

Janice Ewing has been a reading specialist and literacy coach, and an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University. She is 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).