Peek Inside…

Independence, choice, and strategic thinking are at the heart of our reading and writing workshops.  In my last post, I wrote about how meeting areas, materials, charts and bulletin boards can be strategically arranged to represent these values.

Over the last few weeks, I went on a treasure hunt around our school to gather snapshots of these values on display.

Please to view this slideshow of some of the incredible work of the teachers here at TAS!


The Third Teacher

When you walk into someone’s home for the first time, you can tell a lot about what they value.  Statues and paintings from around the world indicate a love of travel.  Photos of friends and family show a strong commitment to family.  Furniture choice and placement, lighting, and the books on the shelves speak loudly about the people living there.

The same is true when you walk into any classroom.  From what’s on the walls, to the way the furniture is arranged, the classroom communicates what is being taught, what is being celebrated and the shared values of the community.  At our school, our rooms are arranged intentionally to support high standards, differentiated instruction, shared responsibility, independence, and to celebrate learning.

Kristi Mraz and Chris Lehman, two staff developers from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, came to the lower school at the end of January.  In addition to providing professional development in reading content and methods, they provided insight into how we can further use the classroom environment as a way of making our instruction even more effective.

The Reggio Emilia approach to education dubs the environment as “the third teacher”.  Parents are the first teacher and teachers are the second.  The classroom environment then, is the third teacher.  We take this idea to heart, so after Kristi and Chris’ visit, we spent some time as a faculty thinking about classroom design and what the implications are in three areas:  the meeting area, the organization of materials, and the bulletin boards and charts.

Meeting Area

Gone are the days where students sat in neat rows and worked alone for the day.  Our classrooms are intentionally set-up to allow for differentiated groupings:  whole class, small group and individual work.  Each homeroom classroom in the lower school is arranged with an empty space in the front of the room.  This is the class meeting area- an important teaching space in the workshop model.  The meeting area is where students come together for whole class instruction.  Teachers demonstrate reading, writing, math, science and history strategies and concepts for all students and have them practice briefly before moving back to tables where students work individually or in small groups.

A grade 5 class debriefs at the end of writer's workshop.

Classroom Materials

The work of the class requires different tools and materials:  from pencils to scissors, glue, tape, computers, books and papers; lower school classrooms typically have a lot of ‘stuff’.  But how these items are arranged and accessed communicates the shared values of the room. In rooms where the materials are labeled and organized in a way that students can access them as needed without having to ask the teacher permission, it’s clear that students share the responsibility for their own learning with the teacher.

The clearest example of this idea is the classroom library which is at the heart of each room.  In every classroom, hundreds of books are carefully and purposefully organized to scaffold students into becoming independent and enthusiastic readers.  Students learn how to choose books at their level from this collection as they build important reading comprehension skills.  What they read is not dictated to them; rather, students are taught how to make appropriate choices with guidance from their teacher. The classroom library includes a variety of reading levels and genres and thus supports the needs of a range of readers in each room.

This Grade 3 library is organized so students can access the books easily.


Charts and Bulletin Boards

When you look at what is on the classroom walls, the charts and displays tell the story of the learning happening in the room.

Charts are more than just wall hangings; they are crafted by the teacher to help students work with independence.  Students use the charts to remind them what they are supposed to do, to see exemplary work to use as a model, or to remind them of the repertoire of strategies they can use to tackle a task.  Charts are created during lessons with students so they are familiar with the content and can use them as needed.

This chart tells writers how they can make their writing feel more realistic.

This chart can be used to remind partners how to make the most of their time together.

This chart lists ways readers can think about their characters and gives examples of what writing about that thinking would look like.

Bulletin boards in classrooms and hallways are created as a way to celebrate student work.   But more than that, they highlight of the work of the unit as well.  Teachers carefully teach editing and grammar skills appropriate to the developmental level of the child, and give the child every opportunity to make their work the best it can be before it goes on display.  However, the work on display is the product of work children authentically completed on their own, and so it won’t always be perfect.

Here are examples of bulletin boards that not only celebrate the work of the student, but teach the viewer what the main goals of the unit were:

Grade 2 Realistic Fiction stories.

Each child chose a specific writing strategy they tried in the story and reflected on it.

This board teaches the viewer what the important elements of a scene are (at the corners) and highlights student selected samples of their best scenes.

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz highlighted the lower school over at Chartchums here and here.  Their blog is a treasure trove of great charts and thought provoking explanations of the sound pedagogy they represent.

As a school, we continue to become more purposeful and intentional in all the ways we use our time with our students.  We want the walls and spaces to teach them, and all the people in our community what we value.


I had a lot of homework to catch up on this weekend.

I’ve been taking classes for a while to earn a certificate in Children’s Literature from Penn State University. It’s a much more demanding set of online classes than others I have taken, and even though I have cursed the workload many times over the course of the program, I do enjoy the readings and topics covered.

I had to laugh when I read one of the assignments I had to complete this week because it sounded exactly like what we are asking students to do in reading workshop.

In your testimonial, tell us what you liked about the book and what you disliked. Tell us about any puzzles or questions the book raised for you and note any patterns in the novel or connections. Good testimonials are more about telling us your response to the book and less about retelling the story.

My testimonial was on the book Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. I approached reading the book differently because I knew I would have to write about my ideas about the book, not, as the instructor said, just retell it. Because I was reading this way, I got so much out of the book, more than I would have if I had read it in the way I usually read. I tend to be a plot junkie, reading simply to find out what happens next. This time I had strategies (yes, those upper level reading workshop strategies) that helped me slow down and let the moments of the book that are supposed to hit hard hit me hard.

If you have not read this book, it should go to the top of your must read list if you like reworked fairy tales, fantasy, and well written coming-of-age stories. A great review, by my favorite children’s librarian (after Barb M., of course) can be found here.


What a great word! Not only is it fun to say, but it describes perfectly how I feel after having two weeks of back to back TCRWP events. I went to my fourth coaching institute one week, and the following week we had two staff developers, Kristi Mraz and Chris Lehman, work at TAS for the week.

Two weeks of TC in a row=a whole lot of new learning. At the coaching institute, I finally felt like I wasn’t drinking from a fire hose. Still, there was so much new to learn, but for the first time, I felt like I had a mental box to put my new learning. This was a small comfort as I furiously took notes on giving critical feedback, methods for using read alouds intentionally, what the common core is all about, how to use the units of study with teams more effectively, and what all the new thinking is on teaching non fiction (and there’s a LOT of new thinking).

The next week we had Chris and Kristi at our school. I cannot exaggerate how effective having them on campus was. I feel like our faculty came away with so much; much more than we can fully take in all at once. We had three days of lab sites in a row and I was once again reminded how powerful a staff development tool lab sites are. One day was reserved for individual coaching, where Kristi and Chris sprinted from room to room individually coaching homeroom teachers all day long. The last day of the week was a marathon session ranging across topics that were of particular importance to our staff including: understanding the big ideas represented in the cool little ideas (the doodads, as we now call them), unpacking bands of text difficulty from A-Z, revising a current reading unit, the whys and hows of charting, vocabulary development across the day, and writing about reading. And they did it all without Powerpoint (amen!). These two were an absolutely amazing duo, and we can’t wait to host them again next year.

And after I learn new things, I feel a little jumbled up. My thinking is challenged. Practices I had never considered before now stare me in the face at every turn (What DOES this bulletin board say about what we value? How do I really feel about writing homework? Do second graders really need to keep reading logs?).

I don’t mind feeling jumbled for a while, because I know in the end I’ll be a better teacher and coach when the dust settles. And, the dust always settles. And then it will be time to go back to TC again.

Visiting Author: Ralph Fletcher

At the end of last month, we had Ralph Fletcher visit for a week. It was the first time we have had a visiting author whose books were all over my shelves: novels, poetry, and professional development books- he writes them all!

He had a session with each classroom and held the attention of students from grades KA-5 with ease. Ralph shared with students some of his original writing in his notebook and talked about the process of moving ideas from the notebook into publication. He helped students see the connection between the events in his own life and how those events show up in his writing.

He also captivated an audience of over 100 parents and children on Family Night.

He shared tips for supporting young writers, including letting children write about what they feel is important, responding first to the idea and intention of the writing, and not correcting every last error we see.

One idea he offered that resonated is that as teachers and parents, we want to help children develop a sense of identity. We want them to say “I’m good at soccer” or “I love to draw”, not because someday they will be famous soccer players or artists. We want them to develop skills and confidence in these areas, and they are more likely to do so if they see themselves in that role.

For this reason, we want students to think of themselves as writers for as long as possible. The longer they hold on to the idea that they are an author, the more confident they will be at expressing themselves in writing, and the more willing they will be to develop their skills.

Cultivating this idea in children is one of the reasons I love to use the writer’s workshop model to teach writing. At its core, the workshop is promoting the idea that all children are writers. Ralph’s visit really reinforced this idea for children, parents and teachers throughout the week.

Above all that, Ralph was a delight to hang out with for the week. He was warm and funny, very approachable, and a lot of fun.

Ralph at the Shilin Night Market

Data, Friend or Foe?

This year I have kind of been geeking out on the numbers by trying to find ways to use our copious amounts of student achievement data to help make teachers jobs more efficient.  No, no.  Not standardized testing data.  We’ve been using our in-house, purpose built reading and writing assessments.  This year, we looked at our classroom based reading data (DRA2) to see if students made an acceptable amount of growth over the year.  We also looked at our writing assessment data to see what the average student growth was over the year.  We used this number as a way to benchmark the margin of growth all students hopefully made in a year’s time relative to their own starting point.  But the best part about these numbers was that they were derived from an assessment tool we created that matches our own benchmarks for student progress.

Using data in this way feels practical and takes some of the subjectivity out of looking at student progress.  Being objective isn’t the ultimate goal, mind you.  But when you don’t give tests that are black and white, when you are working with 6, 7 and 8 year olds, and you have a team of teachers working together, you want some meaningful measures that help you all evaluate children in the same way.

I think teachers have a love/hate relationship with data.  We find it useful, but also confronting.  When we first started looking at student achievement data in this way a few years ago, there were some tense silences at meetings.  Teachers tend to feel insecure when they look at ‘the numbers’.  This is understandable, because most teachers put their heart and soul into their work every day and they want to see each child reach their full potential.  When the numbers are good, we feel so validated.  When the numbers are not good, we can’t help but take it personally.

In this era of crazy high stakes testing, it’s easy to feel like data is evil.  But it’s not.  The best data measures what teachers feel is important.  It should be used to recognize student accomplishments and as a way for teachers to reflect on and improve their teaching.

That’s What It’s All About

It was a proud moment for me when I read this in my son’s spring portfolio. As a first grader who has enjoyed almost one year of writer’s workshop, he knows the satisfaction that comes from having an authentic audience and purpose for his writing.


Years ago, we bought a bread maker and it sat collecting dust. We never made bread in it. Ever. We live by this amazing bakery where we buy fresh, delicious bread every few days. Nothing I was going to make in that bread maker was going to take the place of that great bread! I didn’t see the purpose in having the bread maker. Then, one day my husband and I decided that we wanted to make pizza. But where to get the dough? Suddenly the bread maker became a purposeful tool in our lives. It turns out beautiful dough for us almost every Sunday afternoon.

How is this like teaching? Generally, people don’t want to use something they don’t see the purpose in or have a purpose for. Let’s take book boxes for example. Until you make it a priority to be able to easily research your readers, to scaffold them in choosing books that they can read with accuracy and fluency, to monitor the length of time they spend reading, to match them to books of various genres, book boxes might just be something cluttering up your room.

Reading logs are another example. Are they just a form of busy work you feel like you are making kids keep up? If so, it’s probably time to examine the purpose behind them. Reading logs are a way to help students understand themselves better as readers. They should not turn reading into drudgery. Nor should they be an onerous writing exercise. The reading log should be crafted so it gives you and the student information about their reading habits. The reading log will not be useful to a student unless they are taught how to use it, how to analyze the data, how to use what they find to make adjustments in their reading lives and to set goals for themselves.

When our school started thinking deeply about our Writing Workshops, I began by focusing our professional development efforts around the structure of the workshop. One year ago, I opened our first In House Institute with a talk called “A Little Structure Goes a Long Way”. You can imagine how it went: minilessons should have a connection, teaching point, active engagement, and send off. There should be independent work time. There should be a share.

People that already used this structure probably viewed this whole talk as both validating and boring. And for those people who had yet to embrace this structure, I can’t imagine I swayed their thinking because I didn’t make clear the purpose of each piece of the structure, especially the pieces of the mini lesson.

So when we organized our In House Institute this time, I really wanted the focus to be purpose, purpose, purpose. Each of the essential agreements we have outlined as a Language Arts committee serves a purpose. Everything from the structure of the minilesson to the kind of paper we give students to write on, to the way we organize our classroom libraries and the way we organize the charts on our wall-each thing serves a specific purpose that contributes to the big goals of workshop teaching: critical thinking and independence in readers and writers. I want all our conversations to be focused on student learning and the purposeful teaching strategies we use to help students become passionate readers and writers.

Writer’s Revise- A LOT Part 3

“There are no mistakes.  It’s all useful in some way.”

Follow this link to read about Eric Carle’s ‘mistakes’.  There are lessons here for all of us, not just for students.

My other posts on writer’s revising can be found here and here.


Sharing our Practice

Last week our school had its second annual In House Institute during our professional development days.  The theme was “Sharing our Practice” and it was organized for language arts teachers in the lower school over a day and a half. Teachers presented to other teachers in small groups on various reading and writing workshop related practices they were amazing again!  I feel so lucky to be working with such a dedicated group of teachers.

The large group focus was on taking walk through observations into each other’s classrooms.  Since this was the first time our staff had done this kind of thing, I asked for volunteers to open their classrooms to both their team, and to the grade level above and below them.  We had 2 one hour sessions of walk through observations with debriefing afterwards.  So, for example, Grade 1 walked through three grade 1 classrooms and three grade 2 classrooms in an hour.  The next day grade 1 walked through the same grade 1 classrooms and three kindergarten classrooms.

There was a specific protocol for the walk through and a guide sheet that served as a way to focus our attention on key practices in reading and writing workshops.  To be clear, there were no kids in the building.  We were just looking at what was present in each room.  We focused “The Big 5” in reading and writing, which is something that AJ and CM heard talked about at Teachers College at the coaching institute.   For reading, the 5 things we focused on were:  structures and management for independence, matching books to kids, stamina and volume of reading, charting, and collaboration/partnership work.  For writing:  structures and management for independence, examples, charting, stamina and volume, and feedback.

The purpose of these observations was for teachers to get an idea of the bigger picture of where their instruction fits in with the grades before and after them.  Also, as a staff, we were able to have a focused discussion about the key practices we have identified as critical in workshop teaching and to begin to think about the purpose of each of these key practices (more on that in my next post).

When the walk throughs started, I was really nervous, even though I was not opening up a classroom (as a full-time literacy coach, I don’t have a class of my own).  I wanted everyone to have a really positive experience and feel good about their rooms/teaching.  However, and this was/is the tricky part, I also wanted everyone to see new possibilities for their own teaching without feeling overwhelmed or bad about what they already had going on.  So there we were, pawing through each others student notebooks, scrutinizing each others charts, and digging through student book boxes.  When we started in the first room, the air was a little tense (and the protocol called for silence)… but by the second room, the tension began to dissipate.  I am so grateful to the brave colleagues who opened up their rooms (1/2 of each grade level) for this great experiment.

In the end, it seemed like people had a generally good experience, though you can never be entirely sure.  A couple of take-aways that seemed to span grade levels:

  • Consistency between rooms, structures, and grade levels was celebrated. People really understand how much easier it will be for students because we are using a common approach to the teaching of reading and writing.  This represents a change from several years ago when people were afraid of being ‘too consistent’ and therefore somehow losing their individual voice as teachers.  I think as a school we are at a place now where people understand that you can be consistent and unique at the same time.
  • Teachers recognized that what students are doing in the grade below is more rigorous than they originally thought. This realization will help them lift the level of their teaching from the get-go next year.  Students know more and need to be held accountable for what they know.
  • Collegiality is high. Teams have always shared at our school.  But now the sharing is going vertical, and this can only mean good things for students. People are sharing structures, tools, formats, and ideas with people from other grades.

There’s more to say, but this is probably enough for now.  I am making a reflection tool for our teachers so they can walk through their own classroom looking for some of the things we saw across grades on our walk throughs.  The tool also includes questions for consideration, so no matter where teachers are at in terms of developing their practice, there are ideas to help them continue to refine their teaching practices.  If you are interested in this document, email me and I will send it to you.