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Where Do Writers Go to Learn About Writing? Here’s a Place!

The Write Whisperer


Epiphany. According to Flannery O’Connor, an epiphany is not permanent. After spending a day with Wendy Welch at WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS, I have a new understanding of what O’Connor meant. Being an educator, I can come up with a hundred reasons a day to not make or take the time to write. For years, I have used it as an excuse to abandon essays, short stories, poems, and my first novel. No more!

Why? Because epiphanies are not permanent. Either you let them go or you do something so that whatever enlightening moment flashed before your eyes becomes intrinsically absorbed in what defines you. I am many things, especially a writer.

What did I learn from Wendy Welch and the others who attended? Well, excellent writing has strands of universal themes so that writers can connect to readers. We have to evaluate how words look to the reader—just in case our notions are a bit alien. Just get it down! Write the first draft without revision. Whether we start at the beginning or the middle, we have to write to the very end before we go back and restart. If a writer decides his memoir will hurt sensitive people, he has the option to move the material to fiction and embellish to his heart’s content to shield the innocent and the guilty, to avoid angry people and possible litigation. A first draft is not the final draft. Nobody is that good, not even a best-selling seasoned writer. After writing the first draft, evaluate the work and use devices to clarify the work. Add details to make the narrative and dialogue credible in the eyes of the reader. In other words, ask if my imagination transfers to the page so the reader sees the same movie I saw. Being aware of the narrative arc and anticipating how to string a story along so that characters grow has released me from the big writer’s pit that equipped me with excuses not to finish my novel.

I can now write straight dialogue without any narrative (and visa versa) and communicate to a reader. I used to flounder on strong narrative and ruin dialogue or write dialogue at the expense of the narrative. Until today, I am not sure I had a handle on blending the two. If I am to move my novel along and not write myself into a corner, I have to create the proper mix! Writing is unforgiving. So are readers. I came to the table with all kinds of reasons and excuses for not committing. When I left at the end of the day, I was an empowered writer.

If inspiration gleaned from attending WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS were bit-coin currency, I would be the richest person on the planet right now. And since epiphany is not permanent, I’m going to spend my time cashing in on all that inspiration so it counts.

Inquiry to Make Connections: Longwood University’s Summer Literacy Institute

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Day One – July 17, 2014

Longwood University, located in Farmville, Virginia, hosts the best literacy conferences anywhere, and the people who attend are truly devoted to their work. This is evidenced by the fact that the Summer Literacy Institute takes place when most people think teachers just sit around at home with nothing to do or go on vacation for two months. Whether attendees are authors, guests, or participants, everyone comes together to share what they know about literacy. For the third year in a row, I was there. Moreover, for the third year in a row, I was incredibly pleased with what I came away with.

Doug Buehl was the Thursday morning workshop guest. Hearing this literacy expert in person has been on my teacher conference bucket list for about five years, and I have to say that while reading two of his books has been enlightening, having him walk me and everyone else through the steps was certainly very helpful. Somehow, what I knew before sank deeper into my thinking about lessons, largely because he modeled the process of interacting with complex text. He pointed out the twofold rigor of reading, the specialized Tier III vocabulary in a content course like science and the Tier II vocabulary used to communicate precisely and economically. I was thrilled when he pointed out that students need the opportunity to talk in pairs before whole group discussion of a reading assignment takes place. I have been doing this for years, and it was nice to feel validated. When students read pieces that are above their grade level, they struggle over the missing pieces. Teachers need to be good a modeling how to mediate through the gaps in scheme, often by skipping over words, to try to make meaning. Text structures are complicated, and when you add the nuances of tone and voice, any unfamiliar vocabulary (not to mention lack of background knowledge) certainly will halt learning. Complex text is written in the language of the content area; science people have specialized vocabulary that is used in written and oral communication; that language is most likely not the everyday language of the student who has to read the text.

Close reading requires “working the text” so that there is comprehension focus between the author and the reader or readers. When students work in pairs, it is often easier to work out understanding with the author. Teachers need to mentor students so they opt for using reading as opposed to doing reading. Teachers may start out reading everything to students, but it is highly advised that they scaffold to help students read by themselves and gradually remove some or all of the scaffolding over time.

Students, through modeling by their teacher, learn to question the author. This is especially important today because we need to spend time on understanding—not on test preparation! Spending ten minutes on complex text from a specific discipline is important. Questioning to Learn is NOT completing worksheets, not is it assessment. The method introduced by Buehl makes it necessary for all students to read, not skim, as they go through the steps of making meaning. By taking a leveled article and placing eight to ten asterisks (*) throughout, students are provided stopping points for the purpose of completing a Question the Author graphic organizer. With these stops, students think critically, share with a partner, and ultimately help formulate a class-wide understanding of what is read. Ultimately, students gain experience with the upper levels of Bloom’s when they build schema and make discoveries on their own (with guidance from an educator at critical times).

As usual, I was very impressed by Doug Buehl’s entire presentation. It makes sense. It is doable. And it will fill in the gaps my students possess as we all transition from forty-five minute classes to eighty. There will finally be time to infuse reading fiction and nonfiction and writing on a daily basis, and I will take a confident stab at facilitating all of it because I was at this summer institute learning how to do a better job from Doug Buehl. I have two books for reference—Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning (ISBN 978-0-87207-002-8) and Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines (ISBN 977-0-87207-845-1) whenever I need to dig deeper or assess how things are going. There are best practices models and reproducibles so that I can help students bridge their learning gaps.

It is always hard to choose which breakout sessions to attend after lunch. (By the way, the registration fee covers breakfasts, lunches, and the banquet when you register early.) My Session I choice was called “The Exceptional School: Adapting Lessons to Meet Your Students’ Needs”—led by two librarians who go so far as to adapt their lessons for students who cannot talk. It was incredibly interesting to see how they adjust instruction for the most challenged students enrolled in school. What a reality check!
Session II, “Creating Avenues of Instruction”—led by Scott Cassell was enlightening as well. Differentiation of macro and micro skills was stressed, and I realize that these must be explicitly taught to middle school students. Cassell shared some activity folders that had book pockets inside; students learn research principles using his system, and I immediately came up with a way to adapt his example.
I will use his model to reinforce vocabulary as well as aspects of fiction, nonfiction, and research. The presenter reminded everyone that the worst thing an educator can do is to teach a skill out of its real-life context. In summary, I will pay more attention to micro skills than I have in the past.

Author/illustrator Henry Cole was the keynote at the Thursday evening banquet. What can I say? I checked my notes, and all I wrote down was the titles of three books he read as a child—The Wonderful Electric Elephant (written in 1903 by Frances T. Montgomery), Our National Calamity of Fire, Flood and Tornado (written in 1913 by Logan Marshall), and Slovenly Peter (published in 1918 by Heinrich Hoffmann). Henry Cole is a masterful storyteller, and I dared not blink or laugh so hard I could not hear his next line. He is imagery. The underlayments of how he sees when he illustrates were revealed in layers as he shared his ideas and processes for creating pictures for books. I especially liked his drawings for A Nest for Celeste and Unspoken. Why? Because I know that getting things just right when you do not use color and rely on the very basic pencils and shading, you are challenged to create a nuance that pulls on heartstrings or captures the imagination (which adds color subliminally). There was a slide of Cole peeking through a space where all the books he had written and/or illustrated. It astounded me because I have struggled with making time to finish my first serious book. I love the titles of the books, my eyes tracking his many styles. There was Clara Caterpillar, Dinorella, Jack’s Garden, and Some Smug Slug that tried earnestly to blend in with all the others, but they popped for me. I use the dinosaur fairy tale in my classroom—turned it into a reader’s theater piece! How I wish I could revisit the evening so I could laugh and think about the message he brought to us.

Day Two—July 18, 2014

Have you ever felt like you had met someone before? Perhaps sat with that person on a plane or noticed them in crowded hotel lobby? Well, when I saw L. M. Elliott, I felt as though I had met her before. I cannot place it. Such an interesting speaker! She made me think seriously about primary documents that spawn writing responses from my students. I knew this before, but seeing what she has done with such documents prompts me to create files for students to peruse. I could create dossiers complete with photographs, articles, and letters; students could use those to create storyboards and then write a fictional piece based on the materials provided. As students matured in their thinking and writing, I could provide links so they can do their own primary source searches to create more stories. Exciting stuff! It pleased me greatly to share with the author that her book, Under a War-Torn Sky (ISBN-10: 0786817534), is the number one “stolen” book from my school lending library. I had her sign the ninth copy I have bought. No doubt I will be buying more copies so that my reluctant readers—mostly boys—will have something great to read. They love reading about World War II, so two sets of Elliott’s trilogy will be on the shelves before the end of September. Listening to this author has inspired me to take a closer look at all my bits of loose string (life experiences, thoughts, ideas, little trivial things of life) to find my next story!

The second author, Meg Medina, does character first. She considers a problem to be external (superficial) and internal (authentic). This makes the problem a 3-D puzzle for the reader to solve. This struck hard because when teaching characterization, many educators make it seem two-dimensional because they do not see deeply. The best characters are layers of complexity, and now I know to teach this explicitly. Where I know about internal and external conflict, it is obvious my students think it is one or the other…internal or external, not a fluid, viscous coexistence of both. Medina also spends time considering which settings deserve airtime. As she sketches characters in her mind, she thinks about what kind of book she will create. I have Tia Isa Wants a Car (ISBN-10: 0763641561) in my classroom because I feel many of my students would identify with the characters. Mine is a rural school, and without transportation, students and their families become more disconnected from the mobility as the community goes global.

A.B. Westrick began with a startlingly good book trailer for her first book, Brotherhood (ISBN-10: 0670014397). I knew when I saw the book cover and read the first reviews on Kirkus, Horn Book, and Good Reads that I would have to buy this book for my classroom. There are so many reluctant readers that a few copies are needed. Westrick shared that her family history and its clash with the history lessons at school pressed her to ask difficult questions. Secrets and painful family history prompted her to dig in the past, and her first novel stems from what she learned and how it blended with what life must have been like in Richmond during Reconstruction. I connected with her reference to strange answers about her family’s past because I have been asking questions about my grandfather. All the ambiguity made me start looking, and I found out the person who abandoned his family had to relocate because of what he did in the war. He had to leave his family to keep them safe. I will put this puzzle together— even though others in the family do not want to know. Perhaps it is Westrick’s comment that “a place of emotional truth is a hard place to be” that prompts me to obtain the emotional strength that comes from finally discovering the truth.

Dynamic author and speaker Jason Wright was the final celebrated author to speak to the audience of educators. Such humor, so quick. We found out that he was an early writer, and he shared Molly and Polly plays with us! Such vocabulary from a third grade boy! Early encouragement from one teacher, then another sent Wright soaring to his present moment in a writer’s life. With several deeply moving novels to his credit, he has inspired people to think of others over self. Christmas Jars (ISBN-10: 1590384814) is a book I have shown my principal in hopes that we can start our own jars tradition. I am fortunate to live in a community that takes care of others. We pool our resources to help out, and this jar idea fits right in. Wright lives by what he says to do—practice for big moments by watching for little moments. The act of looking and then wordsmithing comes into play because he feels he is a flawed person who writes what he knows. He asks what he needs to fix and then sets about the task. Ultimately, Wright’s being a motivator who inspires others to do what they can to make the world a better place will keep me reading. His books will also go on the shelf for students to ponder.

There were plenty of choices in the breakout sessions, but since I was on the presenters schedule with colleague Valerie Leonard, I did not attend those. Instead, we shared some ideas to start the school year off with some hands-on activities for middle school language arts classes. We made trees out of paper bags and glued autumn leaves on them—our annual root words project. We talked about fiction, nonfiction, and vocabulary and how formative assessment of student hands-on activities made life better for everyone in the classroom. In the end, we think we gave everyone several things to run with at the start of the upcoming school year.

If you have not realized the Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute is for you, rethink! I have never been to this event and been disappointed—not even for five minutes. I want to return next year and present more ideas because the 2015 topic, Real Life Literacy, inspires me to contemplate the new school year. Save this date: July 23-24, 2015. You will be glad you did. If you want more information about the Summer Literacy Institute, contact Dr. Audrey Church. Her email address is You can also visit the institute website at for updates.

To Be a Writer

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When I look at the kinds of writing I have done this past year, I cannot help but notice that the “write for fun” and “exploration” have pretty much not stood a chance.  This is because nearly all my writing has been centered on creating lessons for my students.  By May I knew that my entire summer would be devoted to reading up on various topics (cognition of the brain, poverty in education, teaching writing, improving reading and writing skills of early adolescents, and executive function) with some great fiction thrown in (Charles Todd and several Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute authors).  Reading was to prompt my writing.  And it has.  Putting my thoughts out there has not gleaned much in the way of response.  I have no idea if people are reading my commentaries on what I have read.  So I will abandon that for a wee while and ramble on about how the Appalachian Writing Project (AWP) Summer Institute has impacted my lack of creative writing.

If you have never been in a writing group such as the AWP, you might not understand the importance of such an entity when you are in a writing drought or in a mode that turns out work which needs blessing and pressing—and oftentimes some serious critical review.  Writing groups are not about telling everybody who belongs that everything they write is profound, excellent, or transformational.  It is about taking a deep look at what a writer has put out there for consideration and conversation.  Why is or isn’t a writing sample working? What can make the piece sparkle so that it speaks to many? Is the piece worth revising and publishing? Let’s face some facts here.  Putting yourself out there like that takes a lot of courage.  When everyone in a group is a strong writer, there needs to be a badge of courage handed out.  It is hard to go out on the limb and take risks, but it is also the first step to finalizing work so that it is ready to make the rounds and possibly be published for a global market.

The AWP has afforded me the opportunity to do two things—write spontaneously and share first drafts of poems, reflections, and narratives.  Some dead-serious and heart-wrenching, some opaque some transparent, but all candid.  There have been chapters of my young adult manuscript passed around, and the suggestions for improvement have really inspired me to keep writing and see where the novel leads me.  It has eight chapters right now, and if feedback continues to inspire me, I think I just might finish things by Christmas.  This is exciting because I am the sort of writer that throws things on the back burner to simmer.  Only I turn off the stove! 

In the past, going back to the classroom each fall has meant not working on a novel or anything else creative.  Last year especially.  Perhaps that is part of why I wasn’t my happiest.  Maybe becoming deathly ill had something to do with my dried up writing outlet.  This year has to be different.  The entire summer (save ten days or so) has been spent with writers.  I’ve been submerged in the process of writing for many purposes, but all of them have made me stretch, made me grow, made me have hope that I can create lessons, blogs, stories, and a book that people might to read.  Will read.  Because there is something in the underlayment of the words that speaks to them deep inside, maybe even deep enough to respond in words and actions.

Ultimately, I say—unabashed, “I want to finish my first YA novel this year and send it out.”  I need the creative outlet that writing long fiction offers, and I want my writing to be top-notch, award-worthy.  My dream is to stand at the Longwood University podium and talk to people about the importance of writing.  For me, writing is the curly wisps of thought that whisper to my soul and add flourish to my life and the lives of the characters in my imagination.

Presentation is Important

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How something looks is important—especially when your name is on it.  That’s something educators tell students all the time.  Do we believe it when it’s our own work?  Let’s hope so.  I’ve spent the last eight weekdays and parts of a weekend creating two strong presentations for in-service or conference breakout sessions. Each venue had something specific they wanted me to bring along, and it was a tremendous amount of fun to sit in my kitchen (surrounded by four dogs and a cat) dreaming up ways to show what my students and I do in class.  I really must love it A LOT because I gave up the opportunity to move to a different grade level. Ultimately, I felt that I needed to stay still and enjoy creating material for seventh grade.  There is freedom there that high school credit courses would not afford due to the standardized test being by semester instead of the whole year.  It all boiled down to health and happiness.  I am still recovering from being ill, and another year to get my stride back and then pick up the pace to an outright sprint with my challenging, emotionally charged seventh-graders seemed the better deal.  I am blessed on three counts.  First, my younger daughter, a high school guidance counselor, helped me understand that I was happy in my present post.  She is a great listener and really studies all the nonverbal cues a person gives her while she listens.  Second, my principal offered me the position and then supported my decision to decline.  Third, I am really enjoying the synthesis and analysis that goes into taking old lessons, test data, student feedback, and the mandated color-coded Blooms Lesson Planner Page—and then CREATING a gourmet meal of metacognition based on brain-based research, psychology, executive function, and my favorite…GRIT!  So what has me so excited?  So excited that I choose to blog when most everybody else is celebrating the 4th of July with food, music, and fireworks? Those two presentations that are ready to roll.



     Two presentation folders and a make-and-take kit for teachers.

Presentation #1 helps teachers understand why writing in the formal register is so hard for rural children—especially those who live in poverty or in households where the adults also struggled in school and did not go beyond high school.  We increase the rigor on students and all too often forget that parents and grandparents might as well be looking at words from another planet.  We need to be mindful.  Just like Ruby Payne pointed out at the presentation she gave in Bristol at the end of June.  Intimidating caregivers should not be a side effect of increased rigor, right?

This presentation, based on my own research that has been ongoing since 2003, points out that we learn to walk by taking certain steps.  We roll, scoot, crawl, toddle, walk, and then run.  Likewise, before most of us can write, we have to hear people speaking so we know how to put words together to form sentences to create conversation.  Without lamenting about the lack of spoken words in households where Smart devices rule, the point of this presentation is to provide teachers some easy-to-implement, common sense approaches to help students recognize casual and formal language and when it is inappropriate to use one over the other.  Believe it or not, this is not a corrective presentation.  It is, in fact, a differentiation lesson.

My students watch video clips, learn about common local speech patterns, compare and contrast formal and casual speech patterns, and then become detectives in the field by listening to people in conversation.  This is a fun unit for those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas when students are with extended family, out shopping, or traveling away from home.  Even students who don’t do “anything special” can get this assignment done and compare speech patterns with their peers.  It’s a whole lot of fun, and I guess it is time for me to share something from the mad teacher scientist laboratory.

By the way, anyone who needs this presentation as professional development at their school or conference is welcome to invite me to visit.  If we can work out the detail, it would be fun to share what my students love about contrastive analysis research.


Folder for the Contrastive Analysis presentation.  Get a look at the stereotypical presentation of people from rural Central Appalachia!

Presentation #2 is designed especially for the Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute, which is held in Danville, Virginia, every July.  This year I am presenting with the other seventh grade English Language Arts 7 educator in my building.  She has been using my curriculum for two years now, and we pulled the lessons and activities our students really like.  There are seven basic categories in the presentation—from icebreakers for the first day of school to resources like a Cornell Notes template that works for beginning notetakers.  We have fiction and nonfiction activities to keep things fun for students and to simplify grading for teachers.  Vocabulary and figurative language ideas will be provided in such a way that teachers can choose which things on an interactive menu will work for their classrooms.  There’s going to be a whole lot of poaching going on while people are finishing their make-and-take projects.  (I love doing presentations where every teacher leaves with something they have made.  And it’s so middle school to have a kinesthetic/manipulatives activity to do while your teacher is trying to move you toward a happier future.

This is a brand new presentation, and I’m even going to do a podcast slide show and post it on my webpage so that other educators and administrators can decide if they need a make-and-take oriented motivational speaker to visit sometime.  This is supposed to be an hour-long presentation at Longwood, so much of the provided information will be touched on and not explored.  To that will take at least two hours, and in some settings it would exand nicely to an entire day with more than one make-and-take activity.



This presentation folder has the cutest cartoon on it.  Look at the bunny!

For me summer vacation is not about going to the beach and getting all that sand in your shoes and suitcase.  It’s not about being in the sun and baking myself like I’m some giant tater tot.  It’s about having the freedom to dream and create lessons and not have to grade papers  or spend hours documenting everything I do for my employee evaluation files at the same time!

(Final) Part Four of Because Writing Matters and Because Digital Writing Matters Side-by-Side Commentary

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The summer is past its halfway point on this July 4th holiday, so I have decided to sum up my impressions of these two National Writing Project volumes.  So that I have a break from them, I will write about something else next time.  It could be a book review or prattle about what I’m researching right now.  I’ve finished two very ambitious presentations and created all the materials for them in the last eight days. That’s a tremendous amount of work. It could be that’s the thing to write about—my obsession with creating whatever it takes to teach to the max—to kids and other educators. 

Because Writing Matters, “What Administrators Can Do to Create Effective Writing Programs” pg 87-104

A chapter that asks what administrators can do to create effective writing programs gives me pause.  I am fortunate because my principal sees why this is important.  A sense of dread does not tie me in knots because my principal guides us along and supports us whenever he announces that everyone in the building is going to (fill in the blank).  Writing would be no different.  He is more likely to press reading and writing across the curriculum so that everyone is on board with comingling all literacies in every class.  But not every teacher works in a building where that is the case, and I cringe for them.  Those descriptors and adjectives will not be in print here.  Negativity is not my aim.  So what is the positive here?

When an administrator decides to implement a writing program in a school, the shift moves in a positive direction for writing.  When teachers assign writing without teaching HOW to do that writing in a particular content area/setting, students do not learn as well.  There is a fantastic chart on pages 90-91 that I absolutely adore.  Even though it is a checklist for administrators, it is an affirmation for teachers who believe in the power of teaching writing.  And I’m not just talking about English teachers. 

The writing survey that starts on page 89 is something to look back on again after looking at the checklist.  I found that I had deeper, more meaningful answers to the questions the survey asks.  While my school is not doing a survey, I think I will devise a survey to send home so that parents can give some feedback about how they feel about writing.  (I know that some parents will relive some of their worst experiences, but that needs to be in the open so I will be able to encourage everyone.  Not being able to write well is not a birth defect.  To date nothing in the DNA strand shows that writing a powerful paragraph cannot happen!) 

What jumps off the page about administrators and the implementation of writing as a school-wise project?  Administrators in Maine stated that #1 was the flexibility of a writing program rather than “orthodoxy in curriculum” (p. 93).  Wonderful!  While all the other things on their list are important, I like the flexibility one the best.  Without flexibility, there is resentment and resistance; drama in the teacher work room every day would drive me crazy.  I love writing, and I don’t want to be trapped in a room with haters.

Another important key (apart from including the community in the process) is ongoing professional development.  Writing is not easy until you do it a lot.  If teachers are going to teach writing, they will need lots of practice and support.  A writing program cannot thrive with one professional development session and then nothing—except for accountability checkups.  Teachers will struggle, and some will fail.  There is nothing worse than failing in a hostile environment. 

If we take the neglected “R” and create an environment where writing is important to everyone, from the student to the principal, then writing across the curriculum will succeed.  Students and educators alike will become better writers in a supportive process that the National Writing Project has created through the marvelously creative educators and experts who take their premise to heart and live it.  Writing is a way of life.

Because Digital Writing Matters, “Revising the Writing Process:  Learning to Write in a Digital World” pg 41-60

It is exciting to see “Knowing how to create a digital text is not the same as knowing why, and it is this intentional focus that a good writer must have in order to create engaging texts in any environment” (p.43).  When I really think deeply about this important statement, I am happy because I am a writer who strives for that brass ring.  However, it makes me quake in my shoes as well because I have young writers in my classroom who can hardly assemble a sentence regardless of paper or computer screen.  This statement makes me very aware of the widening chasm. It doesn’t matter than I can only use a computer lab forty-five minutes a week.  It doesn’t matter that I can do 95 words a minute error-free when I have student who cannot find the letter B on the keyboard.  How do I bridge the gap when it is widening every day?  I cannot force my young charges to practice for hours at home.  I cannot pick and choose my students.  By welcoming every student of every ability, I do not have the quiescent luxury or pseudo-security of having honors, AP, or IBE students.  It doesn’t matter how much I know or how well I teach.  My students have to be ready to receive whatever instruction and guidance I offer.  My expertise in content and methods often fails me, and it is frustrating.  BUT I can prominently display this quote in my classroom so we can all have a discussion about what it means and how we can use it to self-motivate toward growth.  The idea that using wikis for collaborative writing tasks sure makes me smile.  I’d even like to try Google Docs for collaborative writing, but my seventh grade students are not allowed school email accounts.  This really limits us.  Mind it is not an excuse to try, and I certainly will incorporate more ways to use digital writing so that there is not a reliance on paper and pencil; there is the added incentive that the paper and pencil method has its limits!  

The romantic, nightmarish memories of typing writing assignments on a regular typewriter instead of a word processor came rushing back.  Oh, the good old days!  I used to make myself pretty much physically ill every time I had to sit down and type ERROR-FREE to get an assignment ready to hand in.  Once I had a very generous teacher who let us have three erasures per page.  That same teacher used to hold typed pages up to the light because she had the same rule about White-Out when it came into play.  How on earth did I survive the writing process as a teenager?  It’s a miracle I didn’t suffer at the hands of the red pen bearer.  I’ve not really thought much about the old days because, honestly, I started using computers in 2001 and haven’t looked back.  More production, more creativity. More. More. More time for writing, and more actual writing than ever before because the computer has changed my writing lifestyle.  Why have I never thought of the struggle before?  My students struggle, and because I’ve struggled with more than finding letters on the keyboard and putting sentences together to communicate with others with some degree of success, I tend to roll my eyes or put my hands on my hip and say, “I am older than your mama and your granny.  If I can do it, you can do it.”  But where is my love for writing in that admonition.  It’s not there.  My love for writing in a digital sense needs to be better communicated.  Maybe I need to bring in my old typer and let students see what I have evolved from. 

There are a few pages about the power of digital writing for ELL and emergent language learners, and I really like the suggestions and anecdotes that the authors offer readers.  Might I add that whatever is suggested here can also help special needs students who have 504s and IEPs? 

As you read along and reach pages 50-53, you will discover a marvelous annotated chart how digital tools enhance the writing process.  Steps and strategies appear here, and it strikes me that if I am to increase the rigor of my English Language Arts classes as we transition into blocks of eighty minutes, it would be wise to review these steps and strategies as vocabulary extensions.  Handouts, displays, discussions.  Perhaps I will model how to do one of these and then assign the rest to students so they can explore, discover, and share with the class.  Then it would be more than a bunch of words that prove to an adult that coverage is necessary.  Let students realize that coverage is not only necessary but desired.  If I were to merely guess which of the strategies on the chart would give teachers the most issue, I’d bet on the last two—“Multigenre and Multimodal Writing (because pushed by a pacing guide and standards, a teacher would not want to spend the time it would take to create an authentic writing experience in this manner) and Electronic Portfolio (because there is the supervision and maintenance of all those portfolios over time, deciding whether or not to allow students to revise writing samples, and culling out a student’s abilities on a collaborative, peer-reviewed piece is just new and time-demanding). What does that mean to me?  It means that if I model it and show my students are more successful thinkers and writers, I can get more teachers to give this a try.  It strikes me silly that as I write this on the Fourth of July, many of my co-workers are at the beach or at a state park or in their backyards eating picnic food and waiting for the skies to light up with fireworks at nightfall.  Me? I am blogging.  Normal for me.

And after reading a very well written page or two on copyright and fair use and how to motivate students to write about their informational research assignments, I finally come down to the crux.  How do we embrace the changes that are taking place right now?  Some schools bolt right into the thick of the digital frontier while other schools don’t have resources or have very tight control over which digital experiences students are exposed to.  Naivety is a mere whisper from ignorance.  And sometimes I think my magic carpet rides that very wind.  Students, when writing digitally to complete an assignment that has a finished product for others to view, learn technical and innovative writing skills.  Now, that’s hard to do with paper and pencil!

There are five suggested strategies that should help classrooms that want to transition into the digital realm of writing:

1.      Provide low-risk writing opportunities where students can get a feel for composing and working through the writing process as a collaborative experience.

2.      Build a curriculum that is rich is searches, critical reading, and other assignments so that students can talk about authenticity, validity, and credibility of whatever is read or written.

3.      Create opportunities for student to create as individuals; offer collaborative writing experiences as well so that there are open discussions about qualities that make for good writing.

4.      Reveal to students that both writing and technology are complex and that they have to understand many of the complexities in order to be and effective writer in today’s social and working environments.


Ultimately, keeping abreast of technological advances and their potential for use in the classroom will keep students interested as we try to get them interested in the computer as a writing power tool. 

When Dr. Ruby Payne and Executive Skills Inquiry Collide!

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On Thursday, June 26, I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation at Virginia High School in Bristol, Virginia.  It was a blessing to do that in favor of another conference that is near and dear to my heart.  The presentation on the Framework of Understanding Poverty spoke to me, right down to bottom of my soul, which is pretty darned deep.  After a semester of Assessment in Special Education class where I learned how to test students with special needs, suspected special needs, and how to serve them as well as the students who do not qualify or whose parents do not want them to qualify for services, I had two big questions that tumbled around in my mind while I finished out the last month of school and launched myself into a summer of ordered relaxation.  My version of relaxation? Inquiry.  What about those two questions… First, how can I use Response to Intervention (RTI) and lacking Executive Skills (function) to help my students achieve?  After all, I work harder every year, and the test scores and abilities of my students are not on the rise.  Why is that?  Is it me?  Because if it is, I will turn in my classroom key.  Is it something else?  That is the answer I’m hoping for (because I don’t want to find out that it’s me and that I need to quit teaching). Teaching, apart from my family and pets, is why I wake up happy every morning.  They are my lifeblood passion.

How experts feel about Dr. Ruby Payne or Dr. Peg Dawson is unbeknownst to me.  What I know is this.  I need something in my teacher toolbox that I have not yet acquired.  I’m not talking about excellent intuition that guided me to these two people when I started digging around to see what people outside my classroom know that I can successfully apply to my setting.  All strong educators have excellent intuition.  The best ones can also run stats or know how to use data to back their decision.  That is a teacher tool to keep getting results from students while you keep your teaching contract.  And I say that with a positive attitude.

I’m going to write about Dawson on another day because right now I have to synthesize what I learned from Dr. Payne and the presentation that was delivered in Bristol last week.  Know that I will be writing more in the future about understanding poverty after I have read her books and have practiced new teacher skills.  As I learn from successes, failures, and reattempts, I’ll report on them.  Maybe someone can learn a short cut as (s)he reads about my long journey.

Are you aware that there are hidden rules that people know instinctively—unspoken cues that clue you in as to whether or not you are liked?  Is it interesting to you that adults judge each other in just one meeting, that we do that with our students?  Is it interesting to you that a student can tell for body language and other cues if you have an instant like or dislike of them? Is it shocking to you that students who live in poverty are faster and better at judging than their peers are?  Students in poverty can tell faster if you dislike them.  I guess, since I was probably a child that lived in poverty, that this does not surprise me.  After all, I can tell almost right away if people will be receptive to me. 

Interesting Tidbits for Teachers

·         Female retina takes in 20% more light and details than a male retina.

·         Male ears hear 20% less than female ears.

·         Today’s knowledge-based economy REQUIRES schooling.

·         Intellectual Capital has to have a measure (might be why standardized testing owns us).

·         Children spend 1150 hours a year in school and 4700 hours a year outside of school; they bring their dominant home rules to school, where they may or may not work for them.

·         The body language of respect is judged 70-80% on student appearance. That includes teachers and students!

·         A child living in poverty will give you three chances to respect them, and then you strike out.

·         A child who lives in poverty lives in an environment where the three major adult concerns are survival, relationships (resources), and entertainment (escape). 

·         A child who lives in a middle class home lives in an environment where the three major adult concerns are work, achievement, and material possessions.

·         A child who lives in a wealthy household lives in an environment where the major adult concerns are social, political, and financial; in a nutshell, who do you know?

·         A person sends out 200+ nonverbal signals a minute, but we usually notice five; students who live in poverty can read more signals quickly because it is a survival technique.

·         A child in poverty may have a useful casual register (language mode), but they lack fluency in the formal register—the register that is used in class and in the workplace.

·         A child who lives in poverty tends to lack the ability to live in abstract and sensory realities. This is because they function on a nonverbal, sensory, and reactive level; when at school or work, these students are expected to function with strong verbal, abstract, and proactive skills.  Where can a teacher see this? Try taking abstractions and words to communicate in 3-D and put it in a 2-D format—a child who lives in poverty struggles with this!

The wealth of information kept on coming.   There was so much of it!  Dr. Payne stressed to the audience that a teacher has to be aware of the extent to which an individual does for himself without resources.  She asked us to realize that that students need to have a future plan; further, she asked us if our students have plans to overcome the barriers before them.  Students in poverty can overcome a lot if they have future selves on their minds.

Interventions cannot be based on resources a student does not have!  We send homework and notes home all the time, and the work or response is not forthcoming.  Could it be that a student does not have an adult at home? No adult who can help? No adult who can read that note?  Do we even ask ourselves these questions?

How boys and girls respond to events or situations is noteworthy.  Dr. Payne points out that in an emotional situation, a girl will have an emotional hit move across her entire brain in about two minutes, will cry and talk.  A boy, on the other hand, takes an emotional hit at the base of the skull; the emotional hit to total brain reaction takes about five hours to process!  And rather than cry and talk, a male prefers to shut down and be alone.  What can we do?  Well, how about a glass of water to decompress faster?  I’m thinking I should get one of those water coolers for my classroom!  Girls can look you in the eye after something happens, but a boy has a hard time doing that.  (Oh, how many times have I asked a child to look up at me so I can say something kind to them and make sure they understand that my frustration is temporary and that I truly care?) Standing beside an upset male and waiting for them to calm down helps.

We won’t go into how boys compartmentalize and have an escape box for when they need to do/think about absolutely nothing.  That’s because my brain is hot-wired and probably radiates more energy than should be possible.  So the next time you want to yell at a male student, don’t.  As soon as you raise your voice, that student will retreat to his escape compartment and jettison from whatever you are ranting about.  Interestingly, if I want to keep a boy’s respect, I should NEVER fuss at him in front of others because it is shaming.  Having discussions out of earshot is going to get better results.  As for girls, poverty makes girls tough.  You need a calming voice and build a mentoring relationship.  It’s about maintenance of mentorship over time to build trust and to stabilize the school environment so they can function successfully and achieve more.

Finally, Dr. Payne pointed out that I should empower students with a mantra that I adopt myself… “I cannot change your NOW, but I can give tools for you to change it when you can.”  Ultimately, teachers cultivate the means to respond to life.

Bear with me!  This is a lot to take into my nurturer-self so that I can do a better job facilitating executive skills.  While not all my students live in poverty, nearly all of them have low-functioning executive skills.  While I work those skills into my new block classes, I will keep the special needs of my astute survivalists in mind.  Maybe I can help close some of the gaps that keep kids who live in poverty from being more successful at school.  Maybe they will be better readers, writers, citizens.  Maybe they will be happier human beings who a brighter outlook and bigger visions of the future.  Maybe I can get more of them moving toward joy.

Part Three of Because Writing Matters Commentary

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Because Writing Matters, “Learning to Write” pp 19-42

This chapter starts off with a review of how writing was taught over forty years ago—creating finished products according to formulaic guidelines.  Grammar, mechanics, and diagramming sentences was thrown in for rigor.  I can remember the transition from perfection to explorations and discovery.  I guess I got the best of both worlds (and likely the worst, although I prefer to not dwell on those sorts of things).  It strikes me silly that standardized testing has brought formulaic writing back to the classroom, and it concerns me.  If you know that an upcoming standardized test is going to have a persuasive writing prompt, do you “waste” time by giving all the other writing styles/forms equal time?  Well, how important are your students’ scores? How important is your teacher rating? Your job?  These days, it is so easy to be on the defensive and become offensive in your viewpoint. 

“…it is a mistake to suppose that instruction in grammar transfers readily to the actual uses of language…experiments over the last fifty hears have shown negligible improvements in the quality of student writing as a result of grammar instruction” (p. 21).

“The writing process is anything a writer does from the time the idea came until the piece is completed or abandoned.  There is no particular order.  So it’s not effective to teach writing process in a lock-step, rigid manner.  This comes from Donald Graves, p. 22.  He goes on to tell us the importance of constant composition being important, and when I reflect on my own writing, I realize that this may be why everything in my life is like something else or is connected to something else.  I joke all the time that I exist in a world of simile and metaphor.  Maybe that’s how that happened.  It seems we start out with the “steps” we are taught and have modeled for us.  We practice.  We learn from the process and then take off when it is in our natures to do so. 

There is a good glossary for people who need to understand the writing process vocabulary; the glossary is great for beginning writing teachers, but it also clarifies things for an experienced writer.  This glossary would be a good thing to add to professional development, especially if a school encourages writing across the curriculum.

Technology has always been a tool for me.  I’ve never cared about games of videos like a lot of folks.  Maybe it was my fortune (or misfortune) to discover inquiry-based purposes for having a computer and other devices close by.  I used to have to rely on my head (thinking, remembering) and using an encyclopedia or snail mail for letter-writing.  Now I can google an answer to a question I have and investigate all the worthy links for what turns out to be a synthesized answer from various sources.  I have a universal assemblage of information with little bits of trivia (something that was mentioned on one site and not others, thus prompting more inquiry).  It’s like the never-ending encyclopedia out there.  So after I’ve looked around, I generally write down my newfound knowledge and then come up with other things to clarify or investigate.  Nobody trained me to do this.  I just do it.  (It would be an interesting inquiry to see why that is.  How much does reading and writing skills in the 60s and 70s have to do with it?  What about going back to college when I’m 40 and computerless…having to learn those skills as I inquire?)

Of course, the authors go on to explain this to me.  I wonder about this as I am about to get my answers (without googling!).  Reading. Reading a lot.  Seeing patterns, getting a useful sense of how to construct thought onto paper.  Deeper reading.  Deeper thinking.  They can transition a person into deeper writing.  But it has to be facilitated in a meaningful manner.  Authentic application is essential.  Somehow, I have taken what I’ve read, no matter the genre, and instinctively morphed it to my own writing style.  Frequent fluid writing has helped me develop a style, no doubt.  Because this is an important part of who I am and why I enjoy life so much, I hope that I give my students an essence of why reading and writing for learning and pleasure are so important.

Superficial Writing.  I think I will teach an explicit lesson to my seventh grade students next year.  I want them to understand what superficial writing is.  I want them to recognize the prompts when they see them.  By doing so, I think that I can better equip them to jump through hoops AND become fluent writers for their own sakes…at least until legislators and directors of education get the bright idea that it is possible for students to write meaningful pieces and assess whether or not they are “passing” writers.  Really.  My students know fake when they see it.  Maybe we can call it what it is and use that to do a better job teaching/writing to the prompt.  Get it done and then move to the fun stuff.  This is a sad reality, but teachers can take that and run with it.  It’s eat your spinach so you can have cheesecake.  It’s eat your salad so you can digest your hot fudge cake more efficiently.  Yes.

Skills + Critical Thinking + Creativity = Success as Writers and as Respected Individuals.  This needs to go on the wall.  Thanks, Carl Nagin, for stating it so simply.  We boast of 21st Century Skills.  We get PD telling us to put more critical thinking components into a lesson.  We do one and drop the other?  We get a buzz word and drop everything to jump through that hoop as teachers.  The hoop.  The hoops.  We carry what we can to make the leaps.  We leap so high we can fall and get hurt.  But we don’t have to.  Here is another place where we can collaborate as educators.  We can write across the curriculum and be creative in our group effort to move students toward their future selves.

I can write a book on casual language, formal language, and how people struggle with writing because of how they hear or say things.  I spend a couple of weeks on this a year and have done huge research on oral language patterns.  In my own part of Southwest Virginia, two dialect traits have almost disappeared in the last five years.  Why?  Some people will say it is because of all the economic development with “outsiders” coming in.  Some will say it is the impact of standardized, formal language of testing. Some will insist that it is media impact or technology. Me?  Well, it’s simple.  It has to do with oral language registers.  Older people who have the oldest speech patterns age out of children’s lives.  When they die, only bits of their oral register stay behind.  Parents spend so much time on their smart devices, their children don’t hear them actually talking, and that impacts oral language.  That impacts reading.  All that impacts writing.  No wonder teachers are at a loss?  How do we fix it when mamas and grannies are not talking to the children from the time they are babies?  It’s a good question.  And the answers are controversial and painful.  In the end, we have reality.  Teachers are going to figure this out the best they can and do all they can.  Bless them, really bless them for not giving up.

When I read the pages on ELL students (pp. 39-42), I realize there are some excellent pearls of wisdom.  When will I use them?  The answer is an emphatic often.  Why?  My seventh grade students will be all over the place in their oral, reading, and writing skills.  What this section on ELL has to offer me is opportunities to incorporate meaningful intervention practices for my students.  I’ve marked these pages so that I can refer to them when I want to tier instruction or activities.  I might be able to have mini-workshops on these essential precepts before or after school.  This might be a good place to work with parents if there is interest in mini-workshops so parents can help their children at home—or improve their own skills and outlooks.

Because Writing Matters, “Writing to Learn” pp 43-56

The chapter titled “Writing to Learn” starts out with a few interesting statistics for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a familiar test to many educators.  When I taught eighth grade, my students took the test.  It is interesting to refresh my memory about two important things the test identified about student success.  As you may know, the NAEP asks survey questions about subject areas and interests and then reports the data/scores in a context that is more meaningful that reporting of SOL scores by reporting category and population subgroups.  What did it discover?  Students who scored higher than most peers planned their writing, and they did more than one draft.  These findings are from what goes on in a classroom months and years before the test is taken.  In other words, when students are taught to plan their writing and are asked to do more than one draft on a frequent basis, said students tend to score better on a national test.  Practice.  That’s the key to mastery.  Even a basketball player practices.  Even the best players.  Meaningful presentation is important as well.  Discussions about writing and teaching students about presentation—how things look for a portfolio collection are also key.  This would be similar to that professional basketball player going to the playoffs and making the three-pointer that gets the championship for a team.  Writing is done on an individual and team format if a teacher demonstrates the power of individuals as writhers who ultimate share their ideas.

When I think about SOL tests (Virginia’s equivalent to the Common Core Tests), I dwell upon the multiple choice dominance of the process.  Then I think about the TEIs (Technology Enhanced Items) that give students the rigor of choosing more than one answer or giving a short response to explain who or how in a simplistic way.  Neither of those is a “long answer” to a question that the NAEP reports on—that stronger students can do better on long answer to questions than weaker students.  For anyone who argues that they should not have to teach writing across the curriculum because (s)he is not an English teacher, I say shame on you! Even if your students just write in a learning log, you provide authentic purpose for writing.  If you have six out of twenty students fail a test on plant and animal cells, and all you have is a test score and worksheets where the students copied from a book or notes, how do you know where they did not learn?  You could check their writing.  This is so valuable, and there have been years when I have relied more on journaling than others.  Because it is getting harder and harder to identify exactly where students’ learning is skewed, I am having to revisit the “long answer” to assessing student growth.  This can be especially important at the beginning of a unit.  I can see what memories I need to give students so they have a scaffold for the future.  I can determine what my focus should be for certain clusters of students.  I can ultimately assess growth when I look at the final journal entries.  And how would that become more meaningful? How about turning in those final thoughts as part of the test?  Students can write about what they didn’t’ know and what they learned. 

On page 47 there is a powerful statement in a set-off block of text.  “An effective writing assignment does more than ask students to write about what they have read or experienced.  It engages students in a series of cognitive processes, such as reflection, analysis, and synthesis, so that they are required to transform the information from the reading material in order to complete the writing assignment.” This used to be common sense.  Now it’s cutting edge.  We abandon one thing for another when we often need to incorporate, merge, and comingle.  It’s sort of like warp and weft coming together to create a sturdy cognitive fabric.  Empowering!

Writing Across the Curriculum is fast becoming a buzz word.  Perhaps that is the result of standardized testing failing so many students who pass the test and then lack the skills to be successful in higher education or the workplace.  Even the local lumber store needs employees who can put thoughts together in a synthesized, organized manner in order to communicate verbally and in a message or report to a client or supervisor.  The case study on pages 52-53 interest me greatly because I have something I can show to teachers who complain that writing will not help their students.  Even though the case study is for a biology class, I know from my own experience that I have classrooms where too many of my students don’t write unless I assign it or teach it.  To help my students be more successful, even I can facilitate more writing each day, each week.  My students write every day with a purpose, but if I itemize which writing modalities I want to see on a particular day, that will help them meet the mark.  They will see purpose in each kind of writing and be able to identify which ones are most helpful to them as learners.  I really like the idea of an essay test that does not have multiple choice as the dominant factor.  I like even better the idea that multiple choice could be completely absent.  When I ask student to write their responses to a particular question, I get very brief responses.  What if I ask students to tell me everything they know about (fill in the blank) in a logical, organized manner?  I know!  I can make that part of the preassessment on the first week of school.  Let’s see what I get.  I bet I will have students show growth by the time May and June roll around! 

In the end what we want is an environment where students automatically write as part of their learning process.  No prompting from a teacher.  No assignment for a grade.  Just writing because it a valuable to reflect and document what is learned and wondered about.

Part One of the Because Writing matters Side-by-Side Commentary

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For some reason my first installment of this mini-series has disappeared, so I am reposting my thoughts on Because Writing Matters and Because Digital Writing Matters.  Part of my summer inquiry is to analyze whether or not I am using the writing process adequately. My students have very limited access to computers and devices while at school, so paper and pencil oftentimes reigns supreme.  I train my students to be “bi-graphic” (write in two forms, by hand and by keyboard).  If you are interested in comparing the two books as a side-by-side, you might enjoy this set of posts.

Here are the first thoughts I had when I started the books.




Because Writing Matters Introduction


I’ve not seen a copy of this book since the first edition came out, and I’m thrilled to see that it has been updated/revised so that it holds its influential place in writing instruction and methodology. 

Background Information: I teach English Language Arts 7 (even though I am a literacy specialist with a passion for helping struggling teachers and students).  In the fall (start of August), my four cores model will transition (instantly) to three block classes of 85 minutes each.  We will be expected to teach vocab, reading, and writing to a higher standard.  A lot of teachers are wondering how this is going to work, but I am HYPER-EXCITED because this means I do not have to rush through some of the curriculum.  I will also have time to do intervention work.  With two inclusion classes, response to intervention, remediation, enrichment, and good old basics have to be covered.  Finally!  More time to get this done.  I also know that writing across the core is going to be mandatory.  Again, this excites me to no end.  I love to write, and it will be nice to spend more time on writing workshop!




Because Digital Writing Matters Introduction


There are three videos I love to show students (and teachers/administrators) when they don’t understand the importance of digital literacy and the importance of having the basics of writing down pat so that the digital takeoff is out of this world.  The first is the video “Did You Know?” (mentioned in the introduction), the Corning glass technology video, and the car ad video where a teenage girl makes fun of her parents because they only have a few Facebook friends.  In my lifetime, I have gone from pencil and paper writing, to manual typers, to electric typers before White-Out, electronic typers, and finally my first experience at a computer in 2001.  That first experience was at a community college when I took a Compass Test for placement in courses.  Understand that I am kind of old to only have had a teaching license since 2003!

Going digital does not mean you use a computer and a projector to teach a lesson.  Going digital happens when you change how you think about writing because we have technology at our fingertips.  It is interesting for me in the last few years because students do not have computers and Internet at home, but nearly everyone has a smartphone!  That alone has change a few things in my classroom over the last few months.  Digital is viscous.  I can slip and slide to disaster when I refuse or misuse the integration of digital methods in my classroom to make a lesson better. 

I like how it clearly states on page 7 that digital writing (for the purposes of this course) is defined as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet.”  Digital writing is not using a computer to type and print out a copy of your composition so a teacher can grade it!  The quote should probably be hung on the wall near my desk—as a reminder to myself and to my students.

The working definitions on pages 11-13 are going to be displayed on a new word wall in my classroom…the Digital Literacy Word Wall; I have to demonstrate that I am covering all the Media standards that are in the Grade 7 SOLs, and displaying these vocabulary words will help the entire class prosper digitally.

There are great questions posed on page 16.  The ones that pop off the page for me are:

  • What kind of professional development prepares teachers to teach, create, and distribute digital writing?
  • What are fair ways to assess digital writing?

Ultimately, I suppose that answering the first question will make the answer to the second one much simpler.  I sure do wish my seventh-graders could have school email accounts.  While email accounts are not a cornerstone to a digital writing workshop, they sure do make things easier to customize.

Part Two of the Because Writing Matters Side-by-Side Commentary

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Because Writing Matters, “Improving Student Writing:  Challenges and Expectations” pp 9-18

How wonderful!  Carl Nagin is now on my list of people to meet, so I hope I get to attend an NWP event where he is present. Why? Because in the first paragraph he authenticates the difficulties of writing and why many teachers have as hard a time teaching it as students do learning it!  I tell my kids all the time that writing is a lot like learning to speak or to walk.  You listen and watch and figure out (somehow) how it’s done—hopefully with good models provided, lots of support, and challenges to move beyond whatever benchmark was reached along the way to mastery.  I have never understood why people think there are born writers…or even worse—people who think anyone can look at a teacher guide and tell kids how to write so they can give a canned writing assignment that he/she or a computer software package will grade. 

Then there is the “to do” list for students, teachers, schools, and the public in general!  Well, I’d like to point out to the choir that his list does not single out an educator as being solely responsible for a student’s ability or inability to write (to please, to test, to grow).  When I started reading about what must be mastered, the definition of proficiency provided in the grey box on page 13 really screamed at me.  We have high expectations and rightly so.  The problem is, we do not set our kids up for success sometimes.  We expect them to figure it out, especially if we don’t know how to teach it or do not have time to teach it to the degree students need. 

Because educators are oftentimes at a loss as to how to teach writing, there has been an outcry for formulaic, scripted instruction.  Well, we have that in the state and national writing tests, and look how well that’s working.  We tell kids to write in meaningful, authentic ways.  We model it.  We drive it into them like they are tent stakes who hold up our canopy of documentation that we are doing everything we can to show student growth.  Then we get the generic writing prompt, and even if a kid knows how to cross all the ts, dot the is, and throw strong verbs and spellbinding adjectives into a written piece, the very prompt offends the young writer whose future relies on a test score (a score that is arrived at in under two minutes by someone who may or may not have a degree or been in a classroom!).  The heresy of it all is astounding!  I dread it when someone higher up announces that we are going to have professional development on something.  Usually I go and drink it all in, adapt it to suit my needs, and go with the flow.  What I like about AWP writing workshops and PD is the freedom to collaborate while learning from other expert teachers.  Some of the best experts in the room are the participants who come for new ideas.  This week I was blessed to work with some amazing teachers from all over the state. We ended up with a Swap-o-Rama session each day.  Why? Because we all recognized we were in an environment that was safe enough to be honest, to offer ideas to help others, and to encourage each other to grow in our writing—no matter where we were in the process of recognizing that we CAN write well.  One of the coolest things was watching the AgriScience teacher tell how he was going to steal writing ideas from everybody in the room and work them around to fit his unique classroom setting and content area!  And he did EVERY day.

The final straws in the tall glass that is writing are offered on page 18.  They are the chocolate ones that you save for last.  Everybody can learn to write.  With the help of an enthusiastic writing coach, a person can write, not just get a rough idea on the page.  But to go beyond that.  Learning to SAY what you THINK by WRITING it on the page or TYPING it onto a screen is a process, and with the baby steps, trials and errors, writers eventually learn to not only walk their talk—they learn to run.


Because Digital Writing Matters, “The Landscape of Digital Writing” pp 19-40

I like to ask my students on the first day of school, “Do you read every day? Do you write every day?”  Then I ask for a list of things they read and wrote yesterday.  I get a bunch of blank looks.  I leave my phone out on the tech desk at the front of the room, and I have made arrangements for someone I know to text me during the first part of class—over and over again so that I become distracted from my talk.  I pick up the phone and check my messages.  I stand where they can see the long chain of messages, watch me scroll, and even respond with a quick text.  They are stunned because it’s a rule that we not have phones in my classroom unless we are using them for an activity.  “Well, what was I saying?”  A student will remind me that I wanted to know what they had read and written yesterday.  After a quick look around the room at the empty lists, I ask more questions.  I ask if anybody got a text or read a road sign or looked at a church bulletin or read a recipe or assembled something that had directions.  Hands go up, and they start writing as fast as they can.  They write about what they read and about what they wrote.  It’s amazing how much time my students spend writing (thanks to social networks and smart technology).  And they like it because there is no teacher present, making threatening gestures with a red pen.  It’s authentic, and they care.  So how do we get that kind of reaction to writing back into the classroom?  Well, we could stick to paper and pencil, but then it’s the kind of writing that they define as writing—forced stuff you have to do at school.  What if we could cartwheel kids from digital networking to digital writing?  What if we let them collaborate more and make their work more public? What if the teacher was not the only one who had to read all those essays or stories or letters to the principal???  Exciting times for teachers of writing—and hopefully that’s across the curriculum.

I absolutely LOVE the formula for digital writing.  I’m going to put that up in my classroom as well.  Digital Writing = Writing + Reading + Listening + Collaborating!  This is excellent news for middle level educators because English Language Arts has claimed to fill all these needs already!  There’s not a whole lot of extra that ELA educators need to do in order to pull this off, and that excites me.  Maybe that is why going digital whenever possible AND sensible has been an easy transition for me to make.  One day my students will be allowed to have school email accounts so that I can take digital literacy even further.  It is frustrating to watch students struggle with keyboarding and layout using software.  More time is spent picking headers and fonts (learned in Computer Solutions class) than learning fluency on the keyboard so that computers become workhorses rather than modes of entertainment.  It annoys the heck out of me, and while it is tempting to not go to the lab and waste a day piddling, I have to do it.  I owe it to the kids who do not know where to find the B-key or how to create quotation marks using the shift key or how to set up double-spacing in the toolbar.  It grates on my nerves that I have to spend the time teaching this—hours and hours.  It’s not in my standards, for goodness sakes.  It’s not in my pacing guide.  Good grief, what is wrong with this picture?  I am having mini-strokes because the kid in the corner wants to look at the price of personalized Nike Airs while I’m giving pointers on how to intent a paragraph using Word 2003 or 2007 or 2010.  And let’s not get me started on the different ways to navigate the printer process!  Lordy!  Anyway, I love the formula for digital writing.  Posting it on the wall will help me remember the collaboration part…more teachers in the room than me when it comes to helping kids who don’t listen or who don’t have enough keyboarding experience to type their names with a beginning capital letter!

The nice thing about digital writing is its importance to my students.  It matters more when it’s seen online.  It is validating because a few peer reviewers and I are not the only audience a piece is blessed or pressed by. Another nice thing about going digital is the wait time for feedback.  If I have to take things home to grade them, a hundred essays on why my kids love America is going to take me some time (if I read every word and give each piece the attention it deserves); flipping things digital means others can read all those papers along with me.  By reading others’ work, writers can identify ways to improve their craft.  We can have really meaningful discussions about quality, quantity, word choice, audience, and whatever else is on the objectives list.  And it matters!  Finally, it matters as much to them as it does to me.  My big regret is that my students cannot use computers or smart devices in the classroom every day.  I look at the fifty-pound load of textbooks and notebooks that come to my classroom every day.  Regardless of the health reasons to ban this practice, there is the ridiculousness of it.  Books and notes can fit in a tablet or a laptop.  Paper and pencil can be furnished in my classroom when we need it.  And we do need it.  There are important aspects of physically writing and drawing that help information go to the long term memory.  Executive function relies on our ability to read and write manually and digitally.  We cannot ignore one or the other.  We are at the apex where both are needed for mastery.  It’s hard being a teacher right now.  We have to suck it up and get on with the task while those who do not understand the depths of the education abyss pass laws and present us with templates to standardize critical thinking!  Whew!

“All knowledge is a Google away” Isn’t that the truth?  All the content we throw at kids…and they don’t pass the standardized tests.  What does that say?  My students who fail fall into two categories—the “two or more years behind in their reading levels” kids AND the “I can’t dumb down to test mode” kids.  I have kids with a 4.0 average who can read and write at the post-secondary level fail the SOL test for Reading 7.  It makes me cry. And I cannot teach the Google away concept in my classroom as a test strategy.  Oh, well.  And this is not to complain.  It is what it is.  The advice in this chapter about writing tends to apply to education in general.

When we think about digital methods, maybe we need to do the Inquiry Hand…you know, ask the six questions of investigative reporting—who, what, where, when, why, and how. When we do this, we can close up the huge digital divide (exemplified best in the list of challenges on pages 33-34) that exists between my kids who have and those who do not have multiple modes of technology and digital communication at their fingertips.

Finally, when I look at the rigor that is expected of teachers, kids, and society as a whole, the vocabulary and metacognition could be overwhelming, were it not for the bullets on pages 39-40.  The authors of this text have amplified the most important aspects of turning our low expectations and bad experiences into lofty attainable goals and successes.  The reasons for transitions toward digital writing and digital literacy are compelling, and I realize that while I have been doing a good job preparing my students, I can do better.  I can facilitate ownership of the pedagogy by my students so that they do not rely on me to be omniscient and domineering as I move around the room to make sure they are on task and not looking at personalized Nike shoes.

What? Another Teacher Blog? Why Should I Read This One?

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If you are a workaholic like me, you will have sympathy when I tell you that I am having a hard time relaxing. Frankly, I stopped relaxing in 1986 when the firstborn arrived five weeks early. Since then, I have been going full tilt, never slowing and sometimes forgetting to sleep. Such is the life of a parent who decides to go to school with her daughters…especially after parents changes careers and becomes a teacher. When my daughters needed me to butt out of their adult lives, my new life was ready.

And now here I am on the first day of summer trying to relax. I’ve stared at my laptop most of the day because I cannot check the roll, complete the lunch count, and project the daily warm-up exercise onto the SmartBoard. There are no students’ voices in the room. Nobody is asking for a pencil. There are no lockers slamming because I am alone in my kitchen (except for the four dogs and the cat who hope I will feed them some of the cod that I cannot finish).

So why should you read another teacher blog when Pinterest does not require a whole lot of meditation because it’s visual media unless you click on something of interest? I thought about creating a Pinterest board for my blog so that no matter what you click on you would end up here. But that puts me in the same category as those pesky ads that tell you your laptop is too slow—even if it is straight out of the factory box. I don’t know why you would want to read my blog, but I hope that you will find some useful ideas and some pearls of wisdom if you tough it out to see if there is something here for you.

Since I love to read and write, I expect I will try to write about some of the things I read. I can provide links and quotes from text, share some ideas, and even post some pictures when I discover something significant from working with my students. When I left my building for summer vacation, my principal warned me to spend the remainder of June resting and enjoying my time away from students. Really? I need some unwind time. The day after I turned in all my paperwork and had my classroom all packed up, I went to Emory & Henry College for their one-day mentor teacher training. There will be a student teacher in my classroom this fall or upcoming spring. That will be nice…and I will try hard to not dictate and control every second of a lesson because I can learn much from a younger person, and what they bring to the classroom should outweigh my teacher evaluation and those dreaded test scores. I had a whole weekend off before I started teaching writing strategies to teachers who came from far and near to share ideas with each other while I facilitated research-based ideas that they could morph into their classroom settings. Great fun—and an excellent way to spiral into a slower pace.

And with that slower pace comes blogging. I am in the process of finishing four professional development books between now and July 20. Teach Like a Pirate, Because Writing Matters, Because Digital Writing Matters, The Elements of Teaching Writing, Teaching With Poverty in Mind, Achievement for All: Keys to Educating Middle Grades Students in Poverty, Smart But Scattered Teens (and the prequel Smart But Scattered), Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning, and Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines.

To put icing between the layers of my tall layer cake of professional development, I will sandwich all the Charles Todd novels that I’m reading, and also enjoy proofing Kathryn Erskine’s The Badger Knight (loved the copy of Seeing Red she had sent to me).

The Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute is a month away, and the fiction writers on the program all have books. (If you want to check it out, try going to sometime soon.) I will order books by Henry Cole, L. M. Elliott, Meg Medina, A.B. Westrick, and Jason Wright.You can read my reviews of at least one book by each author (in addition to Doug Buehl’s that are listed in the PD list above). There are also some great children’s picture books and wordless books I want to write about. And if this is relaxing, imagine how crazy it is when I’m actually working!

In the end, I hope you will enjoy what I have to say. Maybe you will even follow this blog and share it with others. If I don’t post for a few days in a row, it will be because I’m working on a novel, and when the characters insist I ignore the world, I do.