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    The Benefits of Writing Into the Day for a Whole Year

    By Den'ja Pommarane
     | Sep 20, 2018

    Healing Through WritingDon't get me wrong. I value the importance of writing in my classroom. The work we do with students to prepare them for the next step (college or career) is paramount. We teach students to write the persuasive, the expository, the narrative. We support students with word choice, syntax, organization, ideas, and conventions. We help students patch the bleeding words, sometimes playing the role of the Civil War surgeon, lopping off paragraphs like limbs destroyed by bayonets. To me, high school writing is a high stakes game with little time for “playing” out of bounds.

    With Writing Into the Day, I felt like I was in a battle with time. Just 185 days to take my students to the next level, essential learnings and short cycles, assisting them to reach their highest potential. If I found a cool quote in a book or a moral issue that related to the lesson, then we would spend some time free writing. Otherwise, Writing Into the Day was benched; fated to ride the pine with the other third-string activities and practices that had flowed through the threshold of my mind. The notion of writing for writing’s sake, to let go and see where the mind and pen takes you, appealed to me, but I didn't know how I was going to let go of the precious and limited time I had with these students to ensure the curriculum was covered and the students met the proficiency levels of the standards.

    It wasn't until after spending the summer of 2017 with the Wyoming Writing Project that I resolved to include Writing Into the Day as a part of my classroom's daily routine. I decided I would spend the 2017–2018 school year committed to this practice with my ninth-grade English and American literature classes. Today, as I reflect on the school year, I can't deny the positive impact Writing Into the Day had on my classes.

    Writing Into the Day is an activity where students spend a slice of time (usually seven to 10 minutes) writing at the beginning of the period. Writing topics sometimes differ from the lessons and goals of the day’s curriculum. At first, I worried it was going to be a waste of time or that the students would view it as an opportunity to mess around on their phones and chat with each other. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

    In the beginning, prompts were informational and low risk. For example, a prompt might ask students to write about their favorite season or their least favorite food. I found that starting with these more accessible prompts helped students build the confidence to eventually share their writing. I never mandated that students had to read aloud their work every day or that they had to adhere to the prompt. Sometimes, the prompts weren’t meaningful to them or they had something more pressing on their mind—maybe they had failed a math test the period before English or had a fight with their parents the previous night and needed time and space to process. Their Writing Into the Day might have taken a whole different direction, perhaps for the better. At times, this practice became a form of catharsis. It allowed students to explore their feelings in a safe, constructive manner.

    By the end of the year, students wrote about their personal thoughts and feelings. As the students learned more about each other and made meaningful connections, we created a classroom environment that embodied empathy, compassion, and understanding. 

    I recall many times when Writing Into the Day sparked an interest in writing outside of the classroom, but two incidents stand out in my mind. The first occurrence happened in mid-October. A student raised his hand and said he had not been writing to the prompt that day, but rather was continuing his work on a short story he started over the weekend. He asked if he could share an excerpt with the class. As he started reading aloud the murder scene, complete with blood spatter, shell casings, and red and blue lights, I watched my students slide forward and lean in on their seats. He had hooked them. Upon finishing the excerpt, the class asked for more. He refused, saying it was still a work in progress. His eyes lit up and a smile stretched across his face as his classmates groaned in disappointment. During that moment, Writing Into the Day provided an audience for my students and acted as a bellows to intensify their burning desire to write.              

    Another time, a student chose to write a poem about finals week and the end of the school year. The prompt asked students to discuss strategies they had in place to study and how to end the school year strong. She didn't share that day, but two days later, she handed me a poem. It described her brain as oatmeal and her knowledge running through her fingers like sand through a sieve. Being a freshman, she had encapsulated her feelings about finals and ending the school year in a poem that was not required for the class.

    I feel that Writing Into the Day built my credibility as a teacher, writer, and friend of my students. Too often as teachers, we compartmentalize ourselves. Students see teachers as a source of knowledge, a sort of gatekeeper to our content and a “giver” of grades and little else. Through my experience last year, I found Writing Into the Day became the great equalizer. The practice gave me an opportunity to write side-by-side with my students. When I modeled my own writing process (including the mistakes, struggles, and insecurities) and demonstrated vulnerability, I found that my students did too.

    By no means was Writing Into the Day a "magic bullet." It took practice and patience to achieve the classroom culture both students and I wanted and deserved. Reflecting on the 2017–18 school year makes me place it on the shelf with some of the greatest years I've had as an educator. I believe that Writing Into the Day played an integral part in this success.

    Den'ja Pommarane is an ELA teacher at Laramie High School in Wyoming. 

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    Who’s Doing the Work?: Letting Students Guide the Process in a Writing Workshop

    By Jennifer Bekel
     | Sep 12, 2018

    student-guided-writing-workshopWriting workshops are a common daily feature in many classrooms, including my own. However, the work used to feel robotic. Writing time was not enjoyable, students did not see themselves as authors, and their craft was not improving. The workshop was not working.

    To reinvigorate our writing workshop, I studied Katie Wood Ray’s text, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (National Council for Teachers of English). After simple adjustments and a willingness to let students lead and guide learning, our writing workshop began to work for all involved.

    Immersion in examples

    Modeling, allowing students to observe the writing process, is an important component of writing workshop. Although I modeled and cowrote with them, the students were not trying new techniques or growing in their writing. Ray is a proponent of mentor texts— quality examples of writing that spark students’ ideas about the craft and technique used to create the texts. Moving from only teacher modeling to the inclusion of great mentor texts was one of the first essential adjustments I made to my writing workshop.

    During writing time, we studied rich mentor texts and discussed the authors’ choices. Leveled texts were also shared with students to allow them to make more decisions about their writing. The availability of independent-level texts after the minilesson allowed students to study text structure and gain ideas based on personal interest and choice during independent work. Additionally, we examined samples of past student work so students could further understand quality writing at their grade level.

    After being surrounded by texts, the students were quicker to engage during writing workshop time. There were fewer conversations that began with “I don’t know what to write about,” and students explored new techniques in their writing.

    Writers don’t always write

    Recognizing not all instructional time in writing workshop needs to be spent writing is another essential adjustment to teaching. Rather than walking students through an artificial writing process, they should be given the freedom to decide what work needs to be accomplished in their writing.

    Ray describes how students learn what authors do and how to use their time accordingly. My students know during writing workshop they can look at mentor texts for ideas, finish a draft, or start something new. This empowerment improves student productivity due to the motivation students gain from making their own choices. Time on task is maximized because students need not wait for others to finish to advance to the next step.

    The students realize the value of their time during writing; although they may not be doing the same task as their peers, they all recognize they are working as authors.

    Let’s customize it

    One day during a writing conference, a student who was struggling with the mechanics of writing noticed yet another letter written incorrectly. I encouraged him to fix it. His hopeful response was, “Can’t we customize it?” This led me to another insight and adjustment to writing workshop: allowing students and their work as authors to determine the sequence of lessons and conferences.

    Instead of assigning topics or tasks for the week and following scripted lesson plans, writing instruction is designed on the basis of students' previous weekly work and where they can be guided as writers. At the end of each week, students are asked to choose and submit their best writing sample. These pieces are graded using a district-created rubric. Recognizing the need to customize, I look for trends across the writing samples. Significant areas of need, such as adding details or using transition words, become the focus of whole-group minilessons. With every lesson based on student needs, the immediate relevancy increases engagement.

    After noting where whole group instruction needs to occur, I make piles with all the papers, using the rubric to decide who needs support in areas such as word choice, conventions, organization, and so forth. Armed with a conference plan for the following week, I can meet with each student and provide targeted instruction and customized learning.

    Using this adjustment has yielded improved student rubric scores, indicating quantitatively improved writing. Further, students are more engaged during writing because the instruction is relevant to their current interests and work.

    Students are the experts

    A final adjustment in writing workshop is letting students be the experts in the room by providing sharing time and guiding questions to elicit partner feedback. In this way, students ask and answer questions about the elements of their work. The authenticity of these questions gives students ideas and inspires potential revisions.

    Further, students frequently take the role of expert writers throughout the workshop. One student, trying to think through an idea, began asking me a question. Before I could offer any suggestions, another student who was diligently illustrating her book said, “I can help with that!” Empowered to coach each other during writing time, students’ workshop productivity increases because of the immediate availability of help from their peers.

    Take action

    Implementing these adjustments in the classroom and moving to authentic, student-driven writing has improved student engagement and quality of work. As we began making these changes, one student was explaining the book series she was creating. After explaining her action plan and how she might make changes based on feedback, she said, “Then they’ll go into the world!”

    Her comment epitomizes the climate this approach to writing workshop has created. The students no longer think of writing as the completion of projects assigned by the teacher; they are invested in their work and believe in themselves as authors. Students are doing the writing work.

    Jennifer Bekel, an ILA member since 2009, has a master’s degree in education and interdisciplinary studies and a master’s in reading. She is currently a third-grade classroom teacher and EL coordinator for the North Scott Community School District in Iowa. The writing practices described in this article were originally implemented in her first-grade classroom.

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    Honoring Diversity: Resources for Your Classroom

    By Anna Osborn and Tricia Ebarvia
     | Sep 10, 2018

    honoring-diversityThe following list of resources is a supplement to “Honoring Diversity,” an article in the September/October 2018 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
    It is provided by the article’s authors, Anna Osborn and Tricia Ebarvia.

    Recommended middle and high school titles for your classroom

    • Inside Out and Back Again and Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại (HarperCollins)
    • Blackbird Fly and Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow)
    • Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette (Heyday)
    • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (Macmillan)
    • Flying Lessons & Other Stories by Ellen Oh (Crown)
    • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (Simon & Schuster)
    • When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon (Simon Pulse)
    • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (Anchor)
    • You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
    • Warcross by Marie Lu (Penguin)

    Additional resources

    Tricia Ebarvia, a Heinemann Fellow, teaches English at Conestoga High School outside Philadelphia, PA. She is also a codirector for the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project and an Educator Collaborative literacy consultant.

    Anna Osborn, an ILA member since 2008, is a reading specialist and National Board Certified teacher in Columbia, MO. As a member of her district’s equity team, certified by NCCJ-St. Louis as an equity facilitrainer, Osborn leads educators in difficult conversations about identity, systemic oppression, and strategies to achieve liberation. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in literacy at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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    Literacy Centers for All Learners

    By Margaret Esquibel
     | Aug 28, 2018

    Student literacy centers for all learners? How? Why? Where do I begin?

    As defined by Debbie Diller in her 2003 book, Literacy Work Stations: Making Centers Work (Stenhouse), “A literacy center work station is an area within the classroom where students work alone or interact with one another, using instructional materials to explore and expand their literacy.” However, sometimes it is hard to fathom how our students will behave, collaborate, and engage in critical and higher order thinking without our affirmation and guided scaffolding. Nevertheless, sometimes change is positive, and students will thank us for the opportunity to engage in meaningful and student-centered work.

    In my personal experience, my students engaged in daily authentic collaborative discussions; however, I knew there was something missing. As I reflected on my teaching, I noticed I was having trouble balancing my small group while the rest of my students worked on one activity. Meanwhile, our lower grade house was being recognized for its effective student centers, which our administration wanted to implement throughout the elementary school. I sat with clammy hands and a doubtful mindset because this was now an expectation, and they would see to it that we followed through with the plan.

    I first sought out assistance to organize and plan out literacy centers with my academic coach. I planned. I set up. I was blown away as I watched as the students worked diligently. I was invisible, and the students relied on each other to accomplish their task at hand. I sat with my small group, targeting the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) they struggled with, and the students were able to rotate and work on a variety of mastery literacy skills, such as writing, vocabulary, technology, poetry, etc., that would have usually taken them a week to accomplish. More importantly, I was able to set up centers that targeted my students’ needs, and they were able to work independently and collaboratively with their peers.

    I quickly observed a positive engagement shift, student collaboration, discovery using available resources, and excitement of their learning being student-led, rather than direct teach. After witnessing the amazing results, I began to seek out research that describes literacy centers for upper elementary students, including what they look like in upper grade levels (considering centers are most common in lower primary grades). Unfortunately, there was not enough research that supported upper elementary literacy centers, therefore, I adapted existing ideas and evidence-based practices to fit my students’ needs.

    The implication of literacy centers helped my students become more independent, accountable, and responsible. All my students reported that they enjoyed the literacy centers and agreed that their favorite part was seeing their reading skills improve. More importantly, my findings showed positive improvement in their literacy skills, engagement, and sense of independence.

    Moving forward, I hope to make the literacy centers more engaging, effective, and efficient for the next school year, and I am content in knowing that my students will go into fifth grade with academic and social skills that will define a better future for them. I believe literacy centers helped drive my instruction more authentically, and my reflections helped me gain insight on how to differentiate my instruction so that all my students can assume responsibility in their learning.

    Literacy centers for all learners

    • Small group with teacher (TEKS mastery)
    • Writing center/writer’s workshop
    • Technology (inquiry/research, etc.)
    • Word work/vocabulary center
    • Comprehension skills (poetry, drama, expository, etc.)
    • Read to self/partner/independently

    Margaret Esquibel is a fourth-grade teacher at the Southwest Independent School District in Bexar County, Texas. 

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    The Magic of the Read-Aloud

    By Heather Miller
     | Aug 21, 2018

    The Magic of Read AloudThe picture book read-aloud is one of the hallmarks of the early childhood and elementary classroom. As children gather on the rug around their teacher, they experience one of the most basic pleasures of being human: the love of a good story. Of course, they profit in other ways; their vocabulary, understanding of syntax, and grasp of story structure all expand with every new picture book.

    Not every teacher loves reading aloud, however. In my work in schools, I often observe teachers reading to children with a lack of confidence and enthusiasm.

    Fortunately, teachers and parents who wish to improve as dramatic readers now have an unprecedented array of resources to support them. So, whether you’re a teacher interested in improving your read-aloud skills or a teacher wishing to connect your students’ parents with great resources to support literacy acquisition, web-based read-alouds and audiobooks have you covered.

    Mastering the art of dramatic reading

    The first step in reading aloud well is genuinely liking the material. Think back to your own favorite picture books from childhood and be sure to include them in your curriculum. Then, go on a reading tour at your local library or bookseller. Librarians are outstanding—and underused—resources for recommendations of great read-alouds.

    Once you have a bundle of picture books on your desk, read each one to yourself. Notice what delights you. If a picture book leaves you cold, set it aside. Align the picture books you like best with your curriculum. For example, the legendary picture book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak may be ideal for identifying character traits or for comparing and contrasting settings. Identifying the specific reading skills each picture book supports will allow you to match the best read-aloud to each unit of instruction.

    When it comes to mastering the art of reading aloud, learn from the best. Thanks to Storyline Online, you can watch first-rate comedic and dramatic actors read aloud picture books. The service is free and available on YouTube.

    The following read-alouds offer a great starting point. Each one lasts about five minutes.

    • Harry the Dirty Dog read by Betty White
    • Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch read by Héctor Elizondo
    • Rent Party Jazz by Viola Davis

    As you watch each read-aloud, notice the following characteristics of great dramatic readers:

    • Enthusiasm: The reader is brimming with enthusiasm for the story.
    • Wit and warmth: Just like a great conversationalist, a good dramatic reader is both friendly and fun.
    • Story knowledge: The reader knows the story so well that she can help her audience notice any aspect of it, whether it be humorous, touching, or painful. And yet, the reader seems to be enjoying the story for the first time.
    • Commitment: The actors on Storyline convince us that nothing is more important to them than the picture book in their hands.
    • Pacing: Notice how the actors do not rush through their reading. They let the natural pace of the story dictate the speed at which they read.

    When we mimic the enthusiasm, commitment, pacing, story knowledge, and wit and warmth displayed by these exemplary readers, we are on our way to learning how to delight young children with our own read-alouds. In doing so, we will enrich our entire ELA curriculum.

    Although audiobooks lack the visual component of Storyline’s read-alouds, they still have much to offer to the ELA classroom. The lack of visual context forces children to rely entirely on their language processing skills to make sense of the story. Some of the greatest actors in history have narrated audiobooks of classic children’s literature. From fairy tales to fables to chapter books, there are audiobook masterpieces to enjoy with your young students.

    Connecting parents to online resources

    Just as not every teacher is an enthusiastic dramatic reader, many parents are reluctant to read aloud to their children. Sometimes this is because they were not read to as children. Other times it is because they are English language learners who lack confidence in their reading or pronunciation skills. Either way, both Storyline’s videos and audiobooks can help fill this gap. Provide links to the Storyline videos and audiobooks that you use in class and recommend that parents play them at home.

    The best children’s literature only gets better with repeated listening, reading, and viewing. With each rereading, children benefit from increased exposures to diverse sentence structures, vocabularies, and plots. The best scenario is having parent and child actively watch or listen together and discuss afterward. However, when that is not possible, listening to an audiobook while drawing at the kitchen table or watching a Storyline video is a fantastic activity—and a more engaging alternative to TV or videogames. Over time, you’ll notice an improvement in your students’ love of stories and in their linguistic power to tell them.

    Heather Miller, a member of ILA since 2018, is the author of Prime Time Parenting: The Two-Hour-a-Day Secret to Raising Great Kids (Hachette USA/ September 2018) and the director of LePage-Miller, Inc., an education and professional development firm in New York City.

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