Yes, and…

I am not a stand up comedian. I really wish I was because middle school kids love silly humor. But I do learn from improvisation, and one of the main rules of improv involves the idea of ‘Yes, and.’

NO stops an improvisational skit in its tracks. However, if you are acting with a group and respond to another actor with, ‘Yes, and..’ it keeps the momentum going and the creative juices flowing.

One of the biggest surprises of my school year so far is how fun it has been to say, “Yes, and..” frequently and enthusiastically to my students. This is a longer blog than usual, because I am reflecting on the different aspects of our Choice Unit, which introduced Writer’s Notebooks, Writing Workshop, the writing process (and our personal preferences while writing), and how to transform notebook writing into a finished piece of writing. This reflection will help me make it better next time.

A great deal has been written about how giving students choice in their reading lives can increase their reading stamina, but more importantly, it can increase their enjoyment for books. I will argue that writers need choice, too, and not just a little bit. They need room to roam in the big ol’ fields of their imaginations, their memories, what they know, what they don’t know, what they understand, what they wonder. Approaching any type of writing with a spirit of curiosity is a massive source of empowerment and a powerful tool that kids can own forever. This is why I began my school year with a unit focusing on teaching kids how to use their writer’s notebook as a useful tool (as opposed to ‘this crazy thing my crazy English teacher makes me do’) and how to transform that writing into a finished piece while offering them tons of supported choice.

Last summer, I diligently kept a Writer’s Notebook. I completed 100 entries. I am forever and eternally grateful to Moving Writers’ 100 Days of Summer Writing because the prompts and noticings pushed, stretched, and challenged my writing in many delightfully unexpected ways. And it was FUN. Now when I turn to writing, I remember how I wrote about why a squirrel might choose to stuff a car engine with 50 pounds of pine cones (it’s true!) or how I described a dystopian scene where kindness is punished dramatically. This way of writing stoked my writing fires, and it was fueled by play. It was summer, after all. No torturous writing of any kind, thank you very much!

I wanted my students to experience that same spirit of play. Even though it is definitely not summer, my main word to my students = “Yes.”

Can I write a fantasy scene with aliens? Yes.

Can I draw a scene for a graphic novel about dolphins? Yes.

Can I write a letter from the squirrel’s perspective? YES!

I am not judging their topics. I am trying to build excitement about writing, and if describing aliens gets kids writing, then so be it. I am betting that this lighthearted attitude I’m cultivating and nurturing will pay off down the road, when the writing tasks become more complex. Beginning our year with play, with yes, with try it, will be money in the bank for my writers and will gather interest all year long.

I began the year setting up the Writer’s Notebook. Students responded to different types of prompts: photographs, illustrations, data, quotations, poems. We imitated them, talked about what we noticed, brainstormed different genres or modes we could try (a dystopian poem! an advertisement!). We also practiced using strong verbs by acting them out in front of the class, playing Kahoot, and by choosing verbs from word banks and incorporating them into the writing by ourselves and with partners (which kids LOVE). We brainstormed with partners before writing and shared ideas with the whole class. We stopped and revised on the spot for a minute by changing a word, phrase, or sentence. We volunteered to share an entry with a partner or with the entire class. We shared a line at the end of class. My goal was to build writing community, to build confidence, and to build the sense that my kids do have important things to say, and it takes risk, experimenting, and resilience. After all, writing is built on a sea of talk. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing, and, yes, many of us need to talk about it, to see what other people are doing, to get ideas and inspiration from our neighbors, so that we realize we are not alone. We begin to see that we can do it.

Meanwhile, I kept introducing elements of the Writing Workshop. We begin every day with Book Love-10 minutes of independent reading. Then we quickwrite, in order to  build writing community, stamina, and awareness of individual preferences during the writing process. I kept telling kids our notebooks are like our second brains, a holding tank for thoughts and ideas that might come in handy tomorrow or in six months. After quickwrites, I teach a brief mini-lesson with a strategy or a focus for the Choice unit. Then, we move into Writing Workshop. Kids often asked me questions like this, and it was back to yes.

Can I draft in my notebook? Yes.

Can I draft on a Chromebook? Yes!

I don’t like my first draft. Can I change it? YES!

For the Choice Writing unit, students chose a quickwrite entry they had drafted during the first few weeks of school or created a new one. They could write in any genre or mode. We all had the same goal: use strong verbs. And, to help them cut to the bone (cut words, phrases, or sentences for clarity), their final piece of writing could only be 100 words! (This idea stemmed from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days).

Oh..that 100 word limitation drove kids berserk. It was the ONLY thing most kids did not like about the unit. However, I kept clapping my hands with glee. It taught my seventh graders to reread again and again and again, and CUT. Kids kept asking, “What were those ‘really bad words’ again?” and I directed them back to their list of words like very, extremely, or a lot. It forced them to adjust their sentences, and it resulted in more clarity and more urgency in their writing.

When we finished, kids recorded their strong verbs they used in their piece, and described how those verbs strengthened their writing. I only assessed their verbs and their editing. I also kept notes on kids who still struggled to employ strong verbs and need more practice. I’ll make sure to run a few group or individual conferences to help them move forward. I only noted strengths in my students’ writing, and this was the best part of all. Students who struggled with verbs still had other strengths I could easily name and describe to them, like a strong ending, using dialogue, trying some figurative language, or using powerful voice.

We ended the unit by sharing either two sentences or the entire piece with the whole class, and we nibbled on chocolate to celebrate. Many students thought differently about their writing after reading it out loud. Some noticed editing errors, while others mentioned how different their writing sounds when they read it. Many felt pretty darned good when their writing got a laugh or a smile from their audience.

I loved the Choice Writing unit. It was a breath of fresh, fun, rejuvenating air. For years, kids would say to me, “Could I try ….” and I’d regretfully say, “No, we’re working on THIS thing,” knowing full well how powerful it is to give young writers permission to excavate and explore.

Our play led to choice, which led to much higher student engagement. Some students were even empowered by their Choice Writing. Of course, some students struggled, but it is all part of the learning journey.

All writers struggle. And then we pick up the pen and keep on trucking. We keep finding our voices. We keep playing! Money in the bank. Gathering interest. Well worth four weeks of our time.

I will keeping saying, “Yes, and..”

Popcorn kernels, clouds, and ripples-why play is important

photo of blue sky
Photo by Elia Clerici on

Full disclosure. I love magazines. The New Yorker. Vanity Fair. Time. Real Simple. In Style. But I especially love People. I don’t  read it in tiny little bursts at my dentist’s office or while I’m waiting in the grocery store checkout line. That’s right…I am an actual annual subscriber! It comes to my mailbox every Saturday, and then my whole family fights over it.

I especially like stories about Brangelina. Don’t ask me why. The new royal couple is pretty gripping as well.

Sometimes people are surprised to hear this about me. But it’s part of my reading life. It’s part of my choice as a reader. While I love reading books that challenge my thinking, my vocabulary, and my beliefs, honestly, I don’t want to read them all the time. I need to loosen up and let my brain wander. I need me a little Brangelina sometimes.

While I am mentioning this in reference to reading, and many teachers and fellow readers would admit that they have ‘guilty pleasures,’ taking breathers with our writing are just as vital.

I need quick bursts in my writer’s notebook as well as more sustained implosions where I allow my thoughts to flow freely. It’s fun to shape quick thoughts I have on a run or a hike, explore them more in a blog, and see where they go. I enjoy crafting my young adult novel, and I also like the writing I do along with my students, especially during genre studies and writer’s notebook practice. So many parts of writing are challenging, and I need to feed the creative, curious, wondering parts of my thinking. It helps me push through the hard stuff-the blockages, the frustration, the self-doubt. Playful writing is restorative, it is rejuvenating, and it is important.

Choice also feeds my writing life. If I was writing ‘classics’ all the time, if I kept writing analytical persuasive essays or informational pieces, it might feel like too much. I might  not even feel like writing any more. But if I choose to write a science fiction poem, or respond to some data about a seven pound hamburger they sell at the Arizona Cardinals stadium (it’s true: I read about it in Time), or attempt to imitate a passage from a John Green novel, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like fun. And this playful approach often leads me to a topic I feel passionately about, whether it’s social justice, literacy, or Glacier National Park.

Sometimes my thoughts are like popcorn kernels exploding in the microwave, or like clouds dissipating into the sky, or like ripples in a pond. They are unruly, and I like it that way. It’s how I stretch and grow as a writer. I don’t ever want to lose them. I need to keep it loose. I need play. And so do my students.

water ripple
Photo by Johannes Plenio on

Tight, precise writing is important, too, but it’s not everything, and it can limit or even stifle our thinking if overdone. Writing is thinking, as stated by many, many teachers and writers. Allowing kids to follow some, and actually, I would argue, MOST, of their own whimsical, playful trains of thought helps them see all the threads and possibilities in their own lives. It helps them see patterns in their thinking and their writing. It helps them understand that their words do not all have to be perfect right away. And, it empowers them to keep seeking, to keep playing, to keep questioning and wondering and remaining curious. 

I began my school year with a choice writing unit. It has gone well, and it is setting exactly the groundwork I would like it to: my students are taking risks, experimenting, and then crafting their unruly thoughts into something a little different, a little more polished. We’re practicing how we take our thoughts from kernels or clouds or ripples to words that move someone else. We’re not there yet, but this is good stuff. Choice is powerful. So is play.

I want to capture my thinking on this choice writing unit in another blog and will write about how I approached it this past month. I loved it. It stretched my teaching, my thinking,and my writing.  My students adjusted their expectations, realigned their thinking, and tried. That’s all I can ask.

Now it’s time for a little Real Simple!

100 Days of Summer Writing

Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

Every year since I began teaching writing almost twenty years ago, the itchy, scratchy burr in my side has been Writer’s Notebooks. I’ve called them Freewrites, Quickwrites, Writing Pages, Writer’s Notebook, Rough Draft Pages, and a bunch of other names I can’t remember. Some years I give prompts every single day that I spent all sorts of time finding and trying to relate to whatever genre of writing we’re working on. Or I tell students to refer to their various lists of topics. Or we all write on the same prompt because it will hopefully generate thinking about other writing we’re working on. Or other methods I’m forgetting because it was ten years ago. Some years, kids had to produce 16 pages per quarter for an A. Last year, it was much more arbitrary-I collected them every 2-5 weeks and gave a plus, a star, or a check.

Every single year, no matter what I call Writer’s Notebooks, how I grade them, or whether I give them prompts or how engaging the prompts are, they feel like a drag to everybody, including me. I never feel like my students really ‘get’ why we are keeping them, even though I tell them all my compelling reasons. They grumble and grouse. It feels laborious and, to most of my students, purposeless. This is NOT what I’m going for. I could launch into why what I did wasn’t working-I could probably write an entire book-but instead of focusing on what didn’t work, I want to share what is working for me this summer, and how I plan to do it differently next year. This time, it’s going to be better. Mark my words.

First of all, from everything I’ve read, which is a lot, Writer’s Notebooks are meant to be a tool. Tools, by definition, are USEFUL. Yet I rarely see my kids using them as a tool, and I realized  it’s because I haven’t taught them how. And, I haven’t taught them how because I don’t know how. Duh!

So, right after the school year ended, during our rainy, cold June, I read Aimee Buckner’s super wise and helpful book called Notebook Know-How. While it’s geared towards elementary students, I can easily use many of the strategies with my seventh graders. I took notes and created (yet another) rubric, which I still need to rethink and revise before the school year starts. But I think her wisdom is partly so powerful because she knows how to teach kids to see their notebooks as tools to help them take risks, play, and grow.

Image result for notebook know how aimee buckner image

This book was all great and everything, but here’s what has helped me more than I ever thought possible. I decided I was going to keep a Writer’s Notebook of my own all summer.

I used to write all the time in sketchbooks and filled tons of them, especially in my turbulent and seeking twenties. Then, three of my own children came along, and so did better technology, and I found myself writing almost exclusively on computers.

In May,  I read about  100 Days of Summer Writing, which was launched by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. I follow their blog, Moving Writers, and I’ve read both of their books, Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing With Mentors. I was really ready to turn my brain completely off from teaching. But I thought, okay, I need to try a new approach to notebooks. I need some structure. I want someone else coming up with prompts for me that are maybe out of my comfort zone or just different. Most importantly, I need to learn to PLAY. 

Here’s how I began.

I bought a few composition notebooks. More importantly, I bought very beautiful and colorful Flair pens. 16 medium point Flair pens from Target. I highly recommend them for all pen connoisseurs. My eight year old also gave me some special stickers.IMG_8500Then, I set goals. I got them from another teacher on Twitter and adapted them a little bit.IMG_8495 I printed off the entire 100 Days of Summer Writing and stuck them in a bright green file folder. Then, I figured out that I really like having each prompt in my notebook, so every week, I spend a little time cutting out a bunch of prompts and scotch-taping them into my notebook. I try not to peek too much at the prompts ahead-it feels a little like peeking at Christmas presents! Okay, that pegs me as a total nerd…

I set my phone timer for ten minutes. I don’t always get there, but that’s okay. Sometimes, I miss a day or two, so I’ll try two or even three different prompts when I have a mellower day or if I’m up early in the morning. And, I told my kids (especially the eight year old), “Wait until I’m done writing if you need something, unless you are bleeding profusely!” At rainy baseball tournaments when games got cancelled, I’d sit and write in the hotel room or Starbucks. I would bring my notebook and trusty Flair pens in the car when I picked up kids from softball practice and had to wait twenty minutes. The work was getting done, but it didn’t feel like work.

This endeavor has been worth every minute and every penny, because I have written most days this summer. I am surprised by how joyful it has been for me. I have written about paintings, poems, and photographs,  graphs and guides. I have imitated master writers and put my own spin on it. I’ve tried out fiction, essays, memoir, poetry, reflections, and noticings. I’ve crafted details using interesting word choice and sentence structure, and often I am pleasantly surprised by the results.  I’ve gone back and revised with a different color pen for a minute or two after writing. I’ve written words I’ll never share, pieces I could revise, details I could use in my young adult novel I’m revising, ideas for my blog, and ideas I can share with my students. I’ve noted strategies that helped me get started and strategies when I get stuck. I’ve noted prompts I think my seventh graders will really respond to. And my writing has grown way more than I ever thought possible when I began this little endeavor.

Here’s a sample of what I’ve been trying.IMG_8497 Don’t get me wrong. It is not always easy. But after five or six days, I started missing it. They say it takes 21 days to make something a habit, and I’m on Day 56.

As writing teachers, we need to be writing. I am so much more comfortable leading my kids in playful notebook writing this year and helping them see that there IS a purpose. It is late July, and I have finished one notebook. I will probably come close to filling another one by the time school starts in late August, and our first task will be to learn how notebooks are tools for play. Instead of telling my students how important it is, I will show them the pages I wrote for them and for me over the summer, and then we will try, try, and keep trying.

My Writer’s Notebook doesn’t feel like work. It feels like play. Next year I can finally show my students how to play with their own ideas and writing and how to find inspiration all around us. I’m hopeful that this time they will understand why Writer’s Notebooks are such a valuable tool to help their writing and thinking grow. I’m glad I finally understand, too; it’s about time. 


You gotta have hope

This is Billy in May.


This was not Billy in September.

In September, when we all dropped everything and grabbed a book for ten minutes of Book Love (independent choice reading time), Billy had a whole lot of avoidance tactics. Here were some of his ploys. Asking me questions about my weekend or the ski conditions or “Can I go to the bathroom? Get a drink? Go to my locker?” Sharpening his pencil, even though we all know you don’t need a sharpened pencil to read a book. Stabbing the plastic on his binder with pens. Removing the plastic and cutting it into little hearts and diamonds. Dropping things-his pencil bag, his book, his extremely heavy, bullet-proof water bottle, which is NOT quiet when it falls off the table. Of course none of it goes unnoticed by my class of kids who are mostly, unlike Billy, reading. Actually reading rather than faking it or trying to distract other kids from reading.

I LOVE Billy. And I get it. In September, Billy did not love to read. He did all that he could to avoid it, and boy, that takes a lot of energy.

I don’t know if this was the right strategy for me to employ, but here it is.

I didn’t give up.

I didn’t force it.

I let Billy be kinda loud and avoid reading, and I didn’t punish him for it. Luckily, most of the kids, even in this already excitable and easily distracted class, ignored him and kept reading their books. Book Love had already hooked them in, you see. I still had hope that maybe it would hook Billy, too.

Most importantly, I was patient. And patience pays off.

Others conspired with me. Billy’s book whispering reading teacher used her own magic. At one point, she exclaimed, “Thank God for audiobooks and headphones!” So did our book whispering librarian. We all kept handing him books and saying, Try this one. Try that one. Oh, you don’t like that one either? No big deal. We’ll find you a new one.

I didn’t see the same resistance with writing at all. He can sit down and generate ideas, staying focused, trying new things. But books? That was a completely different ball game.

But there kept being glimmers.

In the fall, I handed Billy Paul Volpani’s sports novel Top Prospect, about an 8th grade boy who gets recruited by a college team to play football with them when he graduates from high school. He learns the hard way about the dark side of such deals. Billy read it and couldn’t stop talking about it. Before we came into class, he’d tell me what he read the day before. He’d try to pry spoilers out of me. I’m terrible with remembering details of books (I just remember how they made me FEEL!!!!), so I never cracked under the pressure!

Then, in the winter, when the sky was grey and the snow was still three feet deep, I handed Billy The Outsiders. I had forgotten about its superpowers. Now I have multiple copies on the shelf in my classroom library.

NOW the problem during Book Love (again, our quiet independent reading time) was that Billy couldn’t stop talking about the book. How Dally was his favorite character. Why certain characters had to die. How the book was SO MUCH BETTER than the movie.

Billy was hooked.

Okay, then he unhooked, stopped reading, and kept wasting time during Book Love for another extended period of time. I hid my annoyance and remained patient.

Then, Billy surprised me again. At the beginning of class this spring, he started looking through a pile of books sitting on my messy desk that I had pulled for other students. He had to be observant to pick them out out of my usually disastrous, bomb-exploded desk.

There was Sunny by Jason Reynolds-the third in his Ghost track series. Rebound and The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. He kept eying Sunny, which I had just read and found it a little harder to follow than the first two books. But then he saw The Crossover. I’d put it aside with another student in mind, but it was one of those moments. I handed it to him, and he started reading.

I told my friend Leslie, his literature teacher.  Leslie took the picture of Billy on page 110 and texted it to me the next day. It’s the picture at the top of this post. Then, I cried.

Earlier in the year, Billy wrote an essay about persistence. He talked about ski racing, which I was really familiar with-we’ve discussed his race season a lot this year. Billy knows he could kick my butt on the ski hill, so he’s very sweet, humble, and patient with me about it. But what interested me more was how he wrote about learning to ride a unicycle. He talked about how it took him THREE SUMMERS to learn it.

He’d fall.

Then he’d get back up and keep trying.

I’ve seen it this year with books. I’ve seen him fall down. I’ve seen him get back up. In between, when he’s driving us all crazy, we are also not giving up on him. And while it may look like he’s giving up, he’s not. He’s finding his way. Persistence looks different from different students in different situations. Billy reminded me that not everything happens in a straight line or on MY time line.

I’m not a huge believer in standardized test results, but when a kid raises his lexiles by 400 points, that’s no fluke. I don’t have his reading stats in front of me, but he told me he has read much more than usual this year.

I have always loved this line from an e.e. cummings’ poem. “Now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.” This year, Billy and his classmates have pushed me to open my ears, eyes, and heart every single day in class. My students are my greatest teachers when I stand back, pay attention, and really, really listen to them.

Since April, Billy has read The Crossover, Rebound, and he’s on to Both Of Us Die at the End. Never woulda guessed it, but it’s all about patience and perseverance and teamwork. We’re all in it together, and his triumph is ours, too. He will remind me to never ever give up hope on a kid. Even when he’s driving me to drink. Not really. But close…


This is Billy on his unicycle.

Another word for patience is hope.

Look what happens when we do both.






Let’s Spread More Book Love

pexels-photo-242261.jpegI have been blown away this year by the new bridges books have built in my classroom. Much of it is due to being inspired by other teachers in my building. We talk all the time about how to get more kids reading, and we celebrate kids’ successes regularly. This often consists of me seeing my colleagues in the hallway and jumping up and down excitedly when we see a mutual student take a leap and stretch as a reader in some way.

As a parent and a teacher, I cannot stress enough how important it is to give kids independent reading time EVERY SINGLE DAY, no matter what age. Reading books THEY choose, though we support those choices and also nudge them to push themselves, too. I’ve seen the difference reading time and choice makes. It’s taken a lot of work and deep breaths, and every single moment has been more than worth it. I’ll never go back to my old ways. I’ve seen so many bridges built between kids and books, kids and me, kids and each other, kids and other teachers, my colleagues and me. We’re going to keep building more bridges as well as strengthening the ones we’ve created this year.

Here are some of the tangible things I’ve done this year to change my classroom and build a reading culture.

-All three classes have a minimum of ten minutes of Book Love every class. Independent reading. They choose their books. Yes, every single day. My Language Arts kids get between 10 and 25 minutes since their literature and English is a combined class.

-I took on the forty book challenge. Read forty books in one school year. As of today, May 14, I’ve read over sixty books. Most of them are middle grade or young adult novels. Most of them are also in our classroom library. I hung images of all of the book covers on our classroom door. So did my job share partner. We ran out of room on one side and are on to the front part of the door. It’s the first thing our kids see when they walk in our door. BOOKS.

-Building my classroom library. This year alone, I have spent $600 on books for our classroom library. Currently, my job share partner and I have approximately 300 books in our classroom library, and we need more! What got me reading young adult and middle grade books with gusto was this. I focus on books I want to read. I try to read as many as I can before I put them on our shelf. If I’ve also read it, my conversations with kids are that much better, and it helps me recommend books more effectively and from the heart.  

-My job share partner has read many of the books in our classroom library. Many of her students use our classroom library. We’re both spreading the Book Love.

-I have spent at least twenty hours writing a grant for books for my classroom library through the Snapdragon Foundation. They fund books purely for classroom libraries. I asked for $3000. Why not ask for the moon? Even if I do not get the grant, it was a deeply reflective, powerful process for me. Even if I do not get the grant, I will keep finding ways to get books in my kids’ hands. I will find out in June. Keep your fingers crossed!

-I have recommended hundreds of books to my students. Many of them have told me the books I’ve recommended are some of their favorites they’ve read this year.

-I have seen dormant readers pick up and finish books. I have seen dormant readers ask me for suggestions. I have seen kids recommend books to their peers. I have watched kids connect with what they’ve read. I know it because we talk about it. I have seen avid readers grab books off my shelves and come back the next day claiming how much they loved it and couldn’t put it down. I cannot underestimate how much joy this brings me. Bridges everywhere.

-Two big leaps for me were book talks and conferring with readers. These may be my biggest areas of growth and where I’ve also seen kids grow most as readers.

Book talks. At first I was uncomfortable because I am not a salesperson! I feel like books come to me when I am ready. I don’t like to push anything on anyone. But then I just started talking to my Language Arts kids about books that moved me and why they moved me. From there, it got much easier. I kept referring books that I knew particular kids would like as well as books they may not have heard of. I keep an ongoing list in class of books I’ve booktalked. I get new releases like Kwame Alexander’s Rebound the day they come out. I show book trailers, and I read excerpts, backs of books, the inside covers of books. I just booktalked Jason Reynolds’ book, Sunny, and read his dedication at the beginning. “To the weirdos.” Because we’re all weirdos, right?! Sold.

Conferring with readers. I was also intimidated by conferring with kids because…honestly, I’m not sure why. Maybe because it felt new, and I wasn’t sure if I was “doing it right.” Now it is one of the best parts of my day! I am conferring with all three classes now, not just LA. I am following my instincts more. I am loving the thoughtful, funny, interesting mini-conversations I get to have with kids. Often, just asking, “How’s it going?” gets kids talking. Or “What will you read next?” Or “Do you relate to the main character at all? Why? Now I realize that conferring is FUN. It builds relationships. It connects us, and it is awesome. Once again, this is what I’ve done my whole life with my own three children who love books.

-I have read countless blogs about reading workshop. Mainly Pernille Ripp, Three Teachers Talk, and Moving Writers, which have tons of useful strategies and theories. I retweet them constantly, email articles to myself, and use their ideas almost daily in some way.

-Professional books: I have read The Book Whisperer by Donalynn Miller, Book Love by Penny Kittle and Disrupting Thinking by Robert Probst and Kylene Beers. I’ve also read Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.

-Writing my own blog. Writing keeps me grounded, connects me to my students’ needs and processes, and it helps me reflect on my practice.books-education-school-literature-48126.jpeg

Next steps for next year:

-Building more classroom community by having kids share MORE with each other in partners, with the whole class, and with our school. I just read about using Goodreads or Biblionasium-both look like great possibilities.

-Figuring out a systematic way to have kids record what books they read, what books they want to read, and how many hours they are reading on a weekly basis.

-Figuring out a better system for my classroom library checkout.

-Celebrations of reading.

-Locating great picture books, graphic novels, and nonfiction to include in my classroom library.

-Figuring out more explicit ways to teach strategies: how to read more like writers and write more like readers without strangling the Book Love we are cultivating. Too much analysis kills it. I am also going to use mentor texts more effectively next year and will have kids make more note of when they run across strong writing or focus in on a mini-lesson (i.e. figurative language or sensory details).  

-Further collaboration with my colleagues. My colleague Leslie and I talk almost every day about Book Love and Writing Love and how to maintain and sustain it. We talk about how to get more teachers seeing the benefits of offering daily independent reading as well as the incredible benefit of classroom libraries. We’ve seen the impact this year. We’ve got way more kids reading, ya’ll, as my southern friend Leslie would say. She’s been doing some serious book whispering this year, and I am trying, too.

It’s been a great year of building bridges with books. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and I also can’t wait to dive into more summer reading!pexels-photo.jpg


Plant Seeds. Now Watch Them Grow. Don’t Give Up.

pexels-photo-133082.jpegWhen I read The Book Whisperer, by Donalynn Miller, I had no idea it would impact me like it did. Something clicked. Actually, it was more like a bomb going off.

I realized crucial things. The way I’ve taught my own children (all avid, passionate readers) to love to read is not how I’m teaching my own students to love to read. The way I am teaching my students to interact with books is not what I need as a reader. The way I am teaching my students is potentially turning them off to reading. This is hard to see, and it’s doubly hard to admit, but it is the truth.

My reading instruction contradicted my treasured beliefs about books, that one of our most beautiful freedoms is being able to read whatever we want. Lexiles don’t matter. Topics don’t matter. Time matters. Choice matters. Passion matters.

Time and time again, I’ve watched my most book-loving students disengage from our assigned reading or our whole-class novel. I would watch and reflect. Maybe it’s just the activities we’re doing. Maybe I’m not asking the right questions or being engaging enough. Maybe it’s my teaching.

Now I see it. There are no maybes. Reading is incredibly personal. Choice is incredibly important. Supporting kids to choose what they want to read when they’re ready is what truly empowers kids and sustains the path towards becoming lifelong readers. And they need time to make it happen. Every teacher worth their salt wants students not only to love to read but to read for their entire lives. Every teacher wants students to pass their love of reading on to their own children. Otherwise, what is the point?

The bomb blew up. I realized I needed to change.

Luckily, I had support. There are some seriously dedicated book whisperers in my school who helped me think about reading differently. They were already whispering to our students, handing them books, talking to them about books, and most importantly, being patient. They were whispering to teachers, too. One of them offered a book study on The Book Whisperer to give us time to read, talk together, reflect, and hopefully even make some changes.

It takes time to plant seeds. It takes even more time for them to take root, to sprout, to survive adversity, to grow tall and strong.

I took deep breaths and made change happen.

After implementing as much as I possibly could handle this year, I am seeing our seeds grow. I have seen massive impact. To sum it up, I’m reading more, my students are reading more, and they are loving what they read. We are connecting on a whole new level together about books. We are building book love. I am super inspired.

If you work with kids and books, check out The Book Whisperer. It may just change your thinking, too.

Don’t be too afraid to change what you do. It is never too late.

Plant some seeds. Then, watch them grow. Keep this in mind. You can always plant more seeds. The supply of soil, water, and sunlight are at our fingertips, and we are persistent farmers who never give up on our crops.

Thank you, book whisperers. I am working on becoming one, too.field-meadow-flower-pink.jpg

Opening the doors

pexels-photo-792032.jpegSometimes, I am all too apt to close my classroom door and teach. It gets noisy out there in that pod, though truthfully, I think the noise is usually coming from my exuberant, easily excitable learners. My classes easily win the prize for Loudest Class Breaks, which I realize is on me!

However, sometimes, we all shut our doors and forget there are opportunities out there beyond our four walls. I’m guilty of that for sure. I get in my own little routine and my own little head space. I forget who’s out there and what they have to offer us. It’s all too easy to close off and tune out. 

Yesterday, I opened our doors and welcomed the visitors. It just kinda happened! It enhanced my classroom, and it was a heck of a fun way to end my teaching day, especially because the rest of my day was spent on the dreaded standardized SBAC testing.

My neighbor teacher, one of the funniest, big-hearted women I know (and it is not an exaggeration to say our kids ADORE her), asked if I was doing a Fishbowl discussion any time soon.She was interested in observing one and seeing different approaches to discussion.  I hadn’t planned on one, but then I thought, “Sure, why not?”

My Language Arts students were reading different examples of conclusions for critical reviews and commented on their ‘noticings’ in Google Classroom. I was going to have them briefly discuss it in class anyways, so it was an opportunity to push their thinking more.

Just for the record, if you want the smiliest, most supportive, enthusiastic teacher to watch you teach, get my teacher neighbor. And follow her lead if you ever go and watch another classroom. The whole time, she grinned, leaned forward, smiled at the kids, and listened hard. She was a warm, open, curious presence. Afterwards, she made some observations, praised the kids, and asked some questions. It all took maybe twenty minutes. And she told me afterwards, “Now I get it!” She is doing all sorts of totally engaging activities with her social studies and reading kids, and I want to pop in and watch her in action, too.

It also made us both think, “Why aren’t we all observing each other all of the time?”

I have been hearing about schools who use professional development days to observe other teachers in other schools. I read about another school who has teachers visit other subject areas on a regular basis so that science teachers can see what’s happening in math, or English teachers can watch band (I can testify to its benefits, having observed our band teacher). And I also read about a ‘Pineapple’ chart. Every day in a common area, teachers can post a strategy or technique that might be beneficial to another colleague. It is optional rather than required. During prep time, teachers can drop in and watch another teacher instruct for a few minutes. Often, it’s all we need to get something great we can use with our own students. 

It’s good to be reminded of how much we can learn from each other. There are hundreds of years of teaching experience in my building. Okay. THOUSANDS of years…we’re on the old side!

The next cool visit came from two delightful former eighth grade students. Often, before class begins, they joke with me about wanting to come into our Language Arts class again. Before class today, right before my neighbor teacher popped in, I half-jokingly invited them to visit towards the end of class when my students are peer-revising critical reviews.

Lo and behold, there they were! I told the girls to ask my seventh graders if they wanted a Bless, Address, or Press, which is a National Writing Project strategy for revision. Basically,  the writer requests specific praise, asks for suggestions or feedback on a specific concern or problem area, or asks, “What do I still need to do to be done?”

The two girls jumped right in like professional writing coaches! They circulated around the classroom, sitting with my seventh graders, asking questions, gently pointing out areas of the writing that were unclear or could be worded more persuasively or effectively. My students were nodding, smiling, and making changes on the spot.

Afterwards, I asked the two eighth graders how it went. One girl exclaimed, “It’s so much EASIER to work with kids who aren’t my age! I look at their writing differently, and I feel like I can help them more. It’s fun!” I practically leaped for joy. 

My students commented after the ‘big kids’ left, saying the older girls helped them see things in their writing that they were missing. A few mentioned that now they have a clearer direction to keep revising. This all just makes my day, those little rays of preteen sunshine.  

I am curious about different grade levels mentoring each other’s writing. I am going to think more about this. I also keep thinking how much we benefit from leaving our comfort zones. As I read recently, “Leaving your comfort zone is where the magic happens.” It’s not just for my students. It’s for me. It’s for my colleagues. It’s for my former students, my current students, and my future students..

Yesterday reminded me to stay curious and flexible, to leave my comfort zone, and to  keep our door open.

Teaching is so hard, and teaching is so rewarding. Class periods like this remind me why I love my job.

Here is a link to the article about teachers observing other teachers.




Some Thoughts on Book Love

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.

–Vera Nazarian

My thoughts are a little scattered here, but I would still like to share them. Even with my scatter, I am still laser-focused on how we cultivate readers. Not just any readers. Lifelong readers. Readers who will read to their children some day. Readers who know themselves, who stretch, who grow, who change as a result of the books they read.

If you haven’t checked out middle grade or young adult literature recently, just know that we are in a Golden Age. Witness my classroom door, full of books I have read all year long. There are SO MANY GREAT books out there. So many stories I learn from as an adult. So many stories that help my students feel like they have a place in this big, complicated world.IMG-7648.JPG

This year, I am giving my English students Book Love, a minimum of ten minutes per day of independent reading time every single day. Our focus is writing, but strong readers make strong writers. We all know this. I want my kids soaking in words. I want my kids reading how good stories are told. I want them to see themselves in what they read, and I want them to see other people’s experiences, too. I have heard Language Arts described as Empathy Class, and when we read with open hearts, our hearts grow, too.

Book Love is sacred. Nothing gets in its way, and it’s such a beautiful way to begin class. I love looking around at kids curled up on our half-full beanbags or nestled in a corner. I love the soft hush of pages turning. I love whispering with kids about what they love about their current book, which characters they relate to, what surprises them, what they’ll read next, how they connect. It connects us, too.

Not all kids read. But most do. It is worth our weight in gold, regardless.

Every bit of research I have read, and I’ve read a lot this year, points me to the power of independent choice reading. This means giving kids time during school to read and allowing them to read what they want. It doesn’t mean just leaving them alone to read, though. We guide, support, ask questions, and, yes, challenge our kids to stretch themselves as readers.

Here’s a big idea.

“Results from the world’s largest annual study of K-12 student reading habits found that students who started the year as struggling readers but ended the year at or above benchmark each day read just six more minutes than struggling readers who did not meet the benchmark.”

Six minutes, people.

It’s even better when kids choose what they want to read. It’s even better when they start figuring out what they will read next. It’s pretty much awesome when I get to talk to my kids about these books. It is building new bridges between all of us.

Our seventh grade Language Arts department is giving students approximately sixty to eighty minutes of independent reading per week. The research I quoted above makes me feel like it should be way more.

Book Love-this independence, this choice- is all new to me. But I will say this. Back in high school, a long time ago, I faked my way through the vast majority of classics we were supposed to read. I could write a competent five-paragraph essay, and I felt prepared for rigorous college courses, but I did not become an English major even though I live and breathe books and love to write. I was so turned off by all of the analysis I had to do that I just couldn’t bear it in college. So many times in my teaching career, I have wished that I had majored in English so that I could teach high school and so that I had that grounding in literature. Now I listen as my daughter, my son, and my students, remind and warn me of the danger of too much analysis. I try to find that sweet spot between Book Love and realizing new things about what I read and why it matters to me. In reality, it’s all about the Book Love.

Let’s open the door. Let’s let some light in. Let’s read.

Fishbowl Learning

pexels-photo-942295.jpegLately I have felt dragged down by the weight of the world. Heavy news keeps on happening. It’s often bad as we’re all too acutely aware.

But my seventh graders continue to give me hope, and here’s why.

My mom was visiting for a long weekend from my faraway homeland of Minnesota, so I took a personal day. We’ve started writing critical reviews (reviews of books, TV shows, movies, video games, music, etc.) but also had to stop to write a district-wide Common Assessment. So, my substitute teacher showed them The Outsiders. It wasn’t fair to ask a sub to teach the next complicated steps for writing a review.  As students viewed the film, they filled out a T-Chart, jotting down what was strong or weak about the movie, how many stars they rated the movie out of 5, thoughts about the plot, characters, and conflicts as well as what hooked them or didn’t hook them. All of this would be used in a fishbowl discussion when I returned.

A fishbowl is otherwise known as a Socratic Seminar. I like to have four students in the inner fishbowl at one table. Then, the rest of the class forms a circle around them. Occasionally, depending on the topic, I’ll choose a few students to stand up front and write down “Big Ideas” on a big piece of butcher paper as the discussion progresses. Sometimes each student has a coach in the outer circle, while other kids keep track of how many times each inner fishbowl student speaks or how many times they use a collaborative sentence starter. There are many ways to do fishbowls, and the level of complexity often depends on the topic of discussion as well as time…isn’t it always about time?!

Movies and T-charts are not rock star lessons by any means, but it kept our ball rolling. It gave my students more practice with evaluating and analyzing different elements of a text and expressing their opinions clearly with supporting evidence  It wasn’t ideal timing for the pacing of the unit. However, teachers all know life happens, and I only see my mom a few times a year.

But it all worked out even better than I had anticipated. I love it when that happens.

On my return, after a lovely day with my mom, my substitute noted that kids didn’t seem super engaged with the movie or with taking notes. During my prep period, after reviewing kids’ T-charts, I thought, “Uh oh. This fishbowl could be a you-know-what-show.” I thought about blowing off the fishbowl. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Part of the power of the fishbowl is that kids know my role is to listen to their voices. I do not ever step in and comment during a fishbowl  unless an unkind comment is made, which rarely happens. If kids sit there staring at each other, they remember those awkward silences, and they’ll do it differently next time. Often, they start to use the collaborative sentence starters more, they think about how to progress the discussion, and they figure out how to invite new voices into the conversation.

I drew name cards on the spot so that kids could see the groups were random. We let there be a ‘rollie chair’ option, where kids from the outer circle could roll into the fishbowl to ask questions to move the discussion forward or in a different direction. I also modelled how you move from the outer to the inner circle by waiting for a natural pause in the conversation rather than jumping in and interrupting. It’s important to set the tone right away.

I grade fishbowls, though I don’t grade whether a student talks or not. Some kids are extreme introverts. Some kids have conflicts with other kids in the room. Some kids have had a really, really, really bad day, week, or month. It just doesn’t seem fair to ask them to push through some of these vulnerabilities. But I do encourage them on the side and give other opportunities to give it a go again. By the end of the year, with practice, kids all end up participating. Students receive full credit for listening/participating, lose points for blurting once, and lose all points for blurting twice. This also rarely happens. They like to hear each other!

To my utter delight, both of my classes carried on great conversations. The outer circle listened respectfully to each other. And, surprise, surprise, they voiced lively, varied opinions. For example, some kids thought the old 50s music detracted from the movie, while one of my musician kiddos argued eloquently that the music made sense and even enhanced the movie. One of my hardest kiddos gave me plenty of reasons to praise him when I saw him later in the day. He was insistent about how the BOOK WAS SO MUCH BETTER than the movie and could back up his opinion with clear, persuasive examples. I tried not to jump up and down with glee!

I will note. This is the group  I heard about all last year. How unkind they were to each other. How they constantly put each other down whenever they got the chance. They are still not easy. But they give me hope.

The next day I told them how proud I was. I told them that our country is currently in a critical state of “not listening.” I reflected what I heard: agreeing, disagreeing, listening, responding. Every student used a respectful tone. Some students even invited others who had remained quiet to speak. I told them that in past years, it often takes us many fishbowls to find our voices and find our ears.

Sometimes we discover student strengths in unexpected moments.

Sometimes we catch students exceeding our expectations.
In these moments, they give us hope for the future. For all of our futures.

Many of my best moments with my students are when I close my mouth and listen, just listen, and trust them.

Breaking Rules With a Mentor Text Blitz

pexels-photo-216630.jpegI’m in search of reading great writing. Writing that shines, soars, and inspires.

Not five paragraph essays.

You will note that I just broke a number of writing rules. It’s pretty darned liberating. I’ve always followed the premise (or is it dogma?)  that I want my students to learn the rules of writing first. Then, break the rules. Yeah, maybe they’ll get to do that in high school? Til then, we’re following the rules, right?

But I want my seventh grade students crafting shining, soaring, inspiring writing right now. I don’t want to wait. Maybe I’m selfish, but I want them to try it while I am their teacher. What if we are truly trying to imitate those beautifully crafted novels, poems, memoirs, reviews, articles, and essays we’re reading every day? Would our writing sound stronger, more crafted, more powerful?

I’m guessing yes.

Writers often use intentional fragments. They begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and, but, or so. To pack a punch, they use a one-sentence paragraph. If they’re making a complex point using complicated evidence, examples, and evidence, sometimes it takes more than one paragraph, and sometimes those paragraphs don’t need a topic sentence. Sometimes, the thesis appears at the end. Sometimes, it’s the title of the article.

If we truly want our writers to emulate and learn from other writers, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin breaking rules sooner. After all, middle school kids thrive on testing rules, limits, and boundaries.

Consequently, instead of teaching a more traditional five-paragraph persuasive essay, I decided to experiment with critical reviews. Critical reviews are an ideal way to mess with structure, think hard about what we love or hate and why, and express our ideas clearly. Reviews analyze and evaluate, and they also break some of these dogmatic writing rules in applicable, powerful ways.

We’re going for it, even though it’s overwhelming me at the moment. It’s my fourth new genre study of the year, and my brain is scrambled. But it’s worth it.

I spent hours searching for the perfect mentor texts-strong reviews my students can emulate- and I felt like Goldilocks. “This one is too basic. This one is too confusing. This one is too long. This one uses such big vocabulary!” I can write my own review, which I will. I’ll continue searching for strong published writing that engages and pushes my writers. Next year (do you know how many times this year I’ve said, “Next year”) I’ll also have student samples to use.

As I planned the critical review unit, I was starting to panic. I kept wanting to find writing that would hook my kids right away and inspire them to write their own reviews. Well, like many best-laid plans, it didn’t work the way I thought it would, but it still worked. 

Initially, I wanted my students to have a buffet-style experience so that they could read a wide variety of possibilities to inspire them. I ended up using movie, music, and TV reviews written by Los Angeles teenagers on a now-defunct website called, a few reviews from Teen Ink, along with one more current piece about baseball slugger J.D. Martinez signing with the Red Sox (the Diamondbacks fans in my family were NOT happy and had plenty of lively analysis that morning).

I made multiple copies of each review, seven in all, and taped each onto a big piece of butcher paper along with some magic markers. I chose groups beforehand-either partners or trios. Each group read a review and recorded what they noticed on the butcher paper. I also posted criteria for strong writing on a wall chart as a reference for discussion. The language is based on criteria from Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle we’ve been using all year long. My students can use it clumsily and sometimes accurately at this point in the year.

The best conversations arose as I walked around and chatted with different groups. Was the review persuasive, even if you’re not into the topic? Was the writer passionate about the topic-could you tell? Did the writer know a lot about his or her topic? Did the writer stay focused? Did the examples support the main point?

We rotated around to three different stations. When the time was up, I put a chart on the document camera and called on kids randomly to describe a positive or negative quality of one review they read. The responses were pretty standard, but it led to my students discussing and  thinking, How can I make my review NOT boring?!

Students like stations. And, I liked how my students interacted with an unfamiliar genre of writing and with each other. I don’t always have rigid expectations guiding these types of discussions; instead, I like to offer enough structure and freedom to let conversations evolve in different and possibly unexpected directions. I can see using this strategy with stations but have students all read the same mentor text. Different groups can comment on different elements of the writing, like the hook, conclusion, evidence, sentence structure, and so on.

Meanwhile, kids did NOT like most of the reviews they read. In the past, I might have panicked or honestly become slightly passive aggressive, like, Do you know how long this took me to find mentor texts?! SIGH!  It’s partly why I’ve always depended heavily on using past students’ writing as mentor texts. They tend to hook my kids right away. In our small town where everyone is related, I’ll often hear, “Hey, my cousin/sister/uncle wrote that!”  

However, student writing sometimes has its limitations. Even though my kids weren’t totally hooked by the mentor texts I selected, they still served a purpose. The texts showed my students what a basic review looks like, some elements of a review, and some ways into the writing. All was not lost. I just had to jump in and try it out.

I seriously think my neural pathways are about to explode this year. In a good way. But you might find me at the lake every day next summer, staring at blue sky and drifting clouds while I let my brain sift through all that I’ve read and learned about how to be a better language arts teacher. My search for mentor texts and learning how to use them more effectively is yet another piece of the puzzle to help my students’ writing stretch and grow. All this thinking, reading, and experimenting is helping me stretch and grow right beside them.

And, it’s time to start breaking rules. It’s time to start crafting writing like real writers do. It’s time to shake up the dogma and learn differently. I’ll let you know what I discover.

As a first step, I’m looking for great reviews. Reviews that not only persuade us but help us see the world through a different lens. Reviews that connect us to each other because of their deep respect for artistry, craft, musicianship, athleticism, creativity, or risk. Reviews that help us understand a book, a movie, or a moment differently, with fresh eyes. No review is perfectly perfect. I realize that there is something new we can learn from absolutely anything. Everything can teach us.

Next year I’ll keep learning.

Resources: I’m currently reading both of these books by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Both texts are invaluable in guiding my thinking and teaching.

Beyond Literary Analysis

Writing With Mentors