#MACUL17: Creativity and Play

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

Photos from the conference. Click the image to enlarge it.

My head is still reeling after attending the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) conference, which took place in mid-March in Detroit. The conference, for those who haven’t attended, is “one of the Midwest’s largest educational technology conferences with 5000+ educators from across Michigan, the region, and Canada,” according to the conference website.

While there, I witnessed two days of inspiring technology ideas, three amazing keynote speeches, and 10 thought-provoking sessions.

Not to mention all of the students and teachers demonstrating some really cool technology. I attended sessions on creating a Makerspace, using technology in a reading workshop, and looking at YouTube videos as a genre of storytelling.

For those who weren’t able to make it, here are some of the major takeaways.

#MACUL17 Keynote Takeaways

#1: Ken Robinson. Sir Ken Robinson, an author and expert on creativity, reminded us that children are inherently creative. Schools should be cultivating creativity through personalization. At the same time, teachers need to connect with and customize learning for each student.

#2: Jane McGonigal. McGonigal, a game designer and the author of Reality is Broken, argued the importance of gaming techniques. Being playful and employing gaming techniques in education, she said, creates super empowered, hopeful individuals.

#3: Jennie Magiera. Magiera is, among other roles, the Chief Technology Officer of Des Plaines School District 62, in Illinois. Taking risks in education, she said, is one of the most important things teachers can do for their students.

The Maker Movement and AARI

I’m new to the maker movement, but after attending my first session, I knew that I wanted to start implementing a maker-mentality in all of my classrooms, and especially with my struggling readers in AARI, the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative.

AARI teachers want our students to:

  • Take risks in reading and thinking
  • Find patterns in text structure
  • Be creative in their representations of text
  • See themselves as readers
  • Feel like they’re a part of a community
  • Approach new texts with a critical stance

In AARI, we also believe that it’s the process that matters–over the end results and even content.

Everything I’ve heard and read about the maker movement, so far, tells me that I’ve got to start including this kind of playful tinkering in my AARI classes. Maker education, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, uses “a wide variety of hands-on activities (such as building, computer programming, and sewing) to support academic learning and the development of a mindset that values playfulness and experimentation, growth and iteration, and collaboration and community,” according to a blog on Education Week.


Materials set up for building a car to race on a track at MACUL.

Maker education benefits students’ creativity, problem-solving abilities, and personal identities. One white paper concluded that “the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.”

That really resonated with me. It sounded just like that which AARI strives to do for struggling readers, with any informational text that comes across their desk or device.

There’s a lot to consider when starting up a Makerspace. Here are a few of the things I’m thinking about right now:

  • How can I learn more about Makerspaces and how to integrate them into my classroom?
  • How will I fund materials and technology/equipment?
  • How will I organize and set up my materials and classroom to truly embrace the “openness” of a Makerspace?
  • How can I best connect this to my curriculum?
  • How will I protect my Makerspace, once created?

There are those that scoff at the maker movement, calling it just another fad and no better than art classes or drama clubs. And there are those of us that scoff at those people that would dismiss anything so creative and fun and enjoyable.

But if I took away anything from the MACUL keynotes, it was that being playful and creative is super important to children’s ability to learn, adapt, and grow as human beings.

So, in the spirit of taking a risk, let’s start making! If you have any ideas or suggestions for my Makerspace journey, please post on social media or in the comments below.


My first attempt at tinkering with Strawbees building kits.

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.


Research & Data

Find an overview of the AARI intervention framework, elements for successful implementation, and professional learning supports HERE.
The AARI framework is built on a strong foundation of literacy and classroom culture research. Access the AARI 2.0 bibliography HERE.

AARI 2017-18 Data Report

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When to Pull Back Writing Support

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_426591961James was spread out on one of the counters, with all his papers and materials circling his laptop. He smiled as I approached.

“So I heard you are starting over,” I said.

“Yeah. I found stronger evidence for this prompt,” James said. (The student’s name has been changed for the sake of this post.)

“That’s really thoughtful of you. Great writing move!”

We talked through his planning ideas and how he was going to use his evidence, and he shared with me some specific examples of how in his bioethics essay he would defend the use of GMOs.

After we were ready to wrap up our conference, I remarked, “You know, I don’t think you really are going to need our support much this semester.”

Moving Beyond Support

As an MTSS interventionist, it can be challenging to know when a writer is ready to move past support. This year, I was hired by my district to coordinate academic interventions for students whose data reveal that they have a skills deficit. In particular, I work closely with Tier Two and Tier Three students to develop content literacy skills. I began working with James a month into the school year, coordinating support in his U.S. History class, then his Biology class.

With James, I observed his growing independence when he showed me that he was thinking carefully about his writing. When writers are given opportunity to talk about their writing, it allows for us to assess what they need most to move forward. And since I only see my students periodically for support in and out of their classes, it’s these conversations that drive everything I do to support a developing writer.

So what do I look for most in a writer when I am deciding to pull back support? Intentional thought and active engagement. Does it mean that students won’t need an occasional conference to lead them to clearer drafts or prompt them to consider new ideas? Absolutely not. But when writers can explain their process, explain their thinking, and explain why their choices matter, it’s time to let go. The best writing lessons are born out of risk, and students won’t take those risks if they are waiting for our stamp of approval.

Letting go can be scary, but it need not be abrupt. Building an instructional practice around dialogue allows for gradual reduction of support. Conversation is vital because it helps teachers to identify what kind of support an underperforming writer still needs. Moreover, conversation sniffs out a mismatch between perception and skill, leading the way to targeted feedback and more.

Intentional Positioning

When I told him he didn’t need me, James looked surprised.


A big smile stretched across his face, followed by his quickly agreeing. James knew he was ready too, but he needed an affirmation.

Years ago when I first began working with resistant and underperforming writers, I came across a theory on positioning. Positioning theory supports the idea that social interactions create identities, and these identities are fluid. As a result, educators have the power to reposition a student’s identity in negative or positive ways.

When I sat down with James to conference about his biology paper, I saw how his posture changed the moment I remarked that he wouldn’t be needing my support much longer. Our conversation revealed to James that there was a mismatch between how he felt as a writer and his actual skill level. Changing a student’s perception about himself alone can raise achievement in an underperforming student, and intentional positioning is the final and arguably most important phase of the intervention process. Students have to accept the good we see in them.

The final proof that James was ready to move beyond my support occurred when James’ English teacher told me how she watched him independently and proficiently compose a response to Fahrenheit 451. When I told James that his teacher had positive feedback on his writing, he proceeded to tell me his thoughts on Fahrenheit 451, his assigned novel for English 9. We had a brief but rich conversation about Montag’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, and just how timely the classic dystopian novel is for 2017. Here, giving his voice value positioned James to fully take on the behaviors of a strong reader and writer.

Without prompting, James was independently making meaning and composing on his own. He knew enough to quit an essay that didn’t yield compelling evidence. His genuine responses about a complex text reflected his growth and development as a reader and writer.

And our conversation made clear that it was time for me to let go. So I did.

laurenLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters from Eastern Michigan University in English Education. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  

4 Ways to Energize Your PD

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

hub-course-searchThe best professional development has to inspire me, engage me, and challenge me to try something new. Some of my favorite conferences have been MACUL and NCTEI always leave feeling exhausted from attending so many amazing sessions, overwhelmed with all of the great resources I’ve been introduced to, and excited to try something new with students the next day, back in my classroom.  

But I can’t always attend the conferences, due to location or funding. So I’ve had to get creative with ways to provide comparable experiences in my professional life. Here are four virtual professional development ideas that have energized my teaching.

  1. Use Twitter Hashtags.
    I hope you are on Twitter.  If you find the right hashtags, you can learn a lot about the things that matter to you as an educator.  Want to learn more about using technology in your classroom?  Search #CEL16 or #4TDW and
    get lost in the conversations, links, images, and resources.  Teach English? Search #NCTE16 or #EngChat.  Once you start searching, you can find people that you might want to follow, based on their tweets.  If you are attending a conference, you might start tweeting with a hashtag and follow likeminded colleagues from different places.  And if you can’t attend a conference (like the recent NCTE conference), you can still benefit from the learning and thinking that took place because of hashtags.

  2. Attend a Webinar.
    This past October, I was a moderator for the 4TDW conference on digital writing.  As my partner and I were creating his session on using collaborative digital writing, I learned a lot about what goes into creating an effective, engaging webinar.  Much thought is put into creating a virtual space that fosters participation, focuses your learning in a short time, and pushes your thinking (many times you are able to gain SCECHs too).  Even if you can’t attend a live webinar, usually you can watch the recorded webinar on your own timetable.  Oakland Schools has a great series on vocabulary, word study, and grammar that you can still register for.  Best of all, these types of professional learning are usually FREE!

  3. Sign up for an Online Course in miPLACE.
    One of my new job responsibilities has been to help create engaging, online professional development for teachers who support struggling readers.  There are a ton of great modules created by teachers and
    teacher consultants in Oakland School’s virtual community, MiPlace.  If you haven’t been there to check them out yet, now is the time!  Once you create an account or log in, you can browse or search the Course Catalogue under the Hub tab.

  4. aari-hangoutCome Hangout!
    If you teach AARI, you can
    attend our next “Come Hangout!” on December 7th.  We use Adobe Connect to talk about relevant topics virtually, and from the comfort of your own home, you can have an experience like an after-school meeting. We had a great discussion about student engagement in September and created a resource document around our thinking.  Still, you don’t need a special platform like Adobe Connect to meet up virtually with colleagues.  You can create a Google Hangout or shared Google Doc with a group of colleagues from your building or beyond (maybe someone you follow on Twitter?!) around a topic you are interested in discussing.  It is rejuvenating and validating to talk with other teachers around shared topics to help each other, push each other, celebrate, and learn.

When you take control of your virtual professional learning, and make use of technology to fit it into your life, you can really enhance your teaching practice to benefit you and your students.

file-sep-29-8-45-18-pmCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

Book Review: Notice & Note

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

51rafqDiIDL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Over the summer, I learned I would be teaching a class of struggling 6th grade readers. They would have me for regular ELA, but they would also travel together to a reading support class right after mine. I did not have experience teaching a class solely of struggling learners, so I reached out to a colleague on the west side of the state, Megan Perrault (@megankperreault), and asked her for recommendations about how I might approach this challenge.  

Megan is an amazing reading teacher, and she recommended Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst’s Notice & Note: Strategies of Close Reading. This book had been on my “to read” list and was quickly moved up in the queue based on Megan’s recommendation.

Notice & Note initially impressed me with the thoroughness with which Beers and Probst researched and tracked common elements within young adult novels. I also appreciated how they piloted and revised their work based on the experiences of real teachers in real classrooms.  

The premise of Notice & Note is this: the majority of YA novels have six common elements, which Beers and Probst call “signposts.” If students can notice and think about why these signposts are showing up, they are doing the work of close reading and are understanding the text better. Each signpost has one question that readers can ask themselves, to help them think deeply about why that particular signpost is showing up. This really helps to focus students’ thinking.  

The Signposts

In a nutshell, the signposts are as follows:

  • Contrasts & Contradictions—When the character does something out of character
  • Words of the Wiser—When an older, wiser character gives serious advice
  • Again & Again—Something that keeps showing up
  • Aha Moment—When the character suddenly realizes something
  • Memory Moment—When the story is interrupted to tell the reader a memory
  • Tough Questions—When the character asks himself/herself really difficult questions

I was originally planning to only introduce the signposts to my 6th grade class, but once I saw the power they held, I also began using them with my 8th grade readers. Both grade levels are engaged with the signposts and are thinking deeply about the texts they are reading. Maybe the best testament to the power of noticing the signposts is when students get that look of discovery on their face and call me over because they have noticed a signpost on their own.

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

After I had read Notice & Note, Megan and I were at professional development together, and she mentioned the Notice & Note Facebook group. Now, if you know me, you know I’m all about Twitter when it comes to anything related to teaching.

But this Facebook community is amazing! The group has a very active 8,600+ members, and I navigate the page often. As someone who is teaching the signposts for the first time, the resources on this page have been invaluable. Members have shared tons of files and their experiences with the signposts. And for each signpost, I have found either a picture book or video clip to help introduce the concept. These have been a big hit with students and have helped them understand the concepts prior to working with them in their novels.

Just this past fall, Beers and Probst published Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. Stay tuned for a review!

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is an ELA and Title 1 teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.  She is a member of the AVID Site Team and Continuous School Improvement Team at her school, among other things.  She is also a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team.  Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.  She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine Library Media Connection.

Making Reading Interventions Relevant

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163383446As a teacher who works with struggling readers, my favorite time of year is the end of the semester. It’s then that I assess students’ progress. When I give them their results, some can’t believe it. Some want to call their parents to share the good news. And some even cry. They all beam with pride.

What’s not to love?

The time of year that is a close second, though, is the just-past-halfway-point. Yes, I know that this is when students and teachers tend to count down toward the next break, with nothing but survival on their minds. But in the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, things are starting to get exciting.

AARI is a program that quickly brings struggling students up to grade level, using a variety of research-supported techniques. During the first few weeks of AARI, we learn a lot about an author’s purpose. We also learn how authors achieve their purposes through the organization of their texts. We focus heavily on text structures and “mapping” a text’s organization, which shows the relationships between facts and information.

It’s at this point in the year, this just-past-halfway-point, when my students start to recognize text structures in their books—on their own. I love this because it shows me that they’re ready for more. They’re ready to start transitioning to grade-level texts.

The Real-World Connection

There are other signs that they’re ready. Sometimes a student will burst into the room at the beginning of the period and exclaim, “You’ll never believe what we’re doing in Chemistry! The teacher gave us a chart, and he didn’t even realize it was a matrix!”

Seeing kids make these connections to their learning is what makes my work so vital. It’s why even as I’m launching the first weeks of the class, my focus is always on my endpoint: helping students use their intervention in relevant, real-world applications.Sequence Word Bank

This real-world focus starts early. Toward the beginning of the semester, we start talking about our text structures in the “real world.” I start this discussion by asking students what clues readers have in other, more difficult texts.

Together, we make anchor charts of “clue” words and phrases that writers use to signal that they are using a particular text structure to organize their thoughts. We post these in the room and add to them as we encounter more. Having these word banks arms students with tools to start recognizing text structures when the texts aren’t so easy.

Starting Small

Once students have these tools in their tool belt, I start introducing higher-level texts. They’re gaining proficiency, but they are still struggling readers, and they’re not ready for the full independence of working with long texts on their own.

So I start to give them a little taste: an appetizer, if you will. To do this and to make the reading relevant to them, I get my texts snippets from their content area textbooks.

I bring these “appetizers” in to class and “serve” them at the beginning of class as our warm-up. To scaffold their reading, I give them a focused purpose. They may have to answer a question about the author’s purpose, or they may have to identify a text structure. It helps them to see that their practice work with the easier texts is helping them to approach the more daunting texts they see in their classes all the time.

Lessons for ELA Classrooms

Finding this balance is crucial not only in intervention classes like AARI, but in all reading. We know our students have some pretty high expectations set by the Common Core State Standards and assessments like the redesigned SAT. Teachers want students to be able to access their texts, but they also know the value of exposing them to more challenging options. To help achieve this balance, I’ve found that these steps are key:

  • Arm students with tools to help them bridge the gap between accessible and challenging texts. Word banks are a great start.
  • Introduce more difficult texts slowly and in small chunks.
  • Gradually build to a combination of high-level, high-skill texts that require more stamina.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

Routines, Goals, and Risks for Struggling Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

AARI LogoNow that I’ve covered the elements of a strong learning community, I want to delve deeper into some of the practical strategies you might use when building a community in AARI, the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, which brings students quickly to grade level. The students you have in your class might start out afraid and guarded. And so it’s appropriate to look closer at routines, protocols, goal setting, and risk taking.

Use Routines and Protocols to Promote Community

Consider teaching your students ways in which to talk to each other. I learned the 7 Norms of Collaborative Work from an Oakland Schools consultant (Jen Davidson), and I have used them with teachers and students alike. You could start small, with just the first three, and challenge your students to pause, paraphrase, and pose questions. You will probably have to adjust the language for students and use a “sounds like”/ “looks like” approach to show students how to carry these out.

Use thinking routines. Consider using some of these routines to check in with students each month, or at the start or end of your books.

Set Goals and Share them to Encourage Community

Try posing some questions for students. What has been a struggle for you in reading? What do you hope to get out of this class?

Develop shared goals. These include improving nonfiction reading through inferential questions and text mapping.

Don’t forget to revisit these goals throughout the year. Also, post them in a place that students will look at every day (like their work folder or a bulletin board). If your students are tech savvy, you could have them tweet their goals or use some other platform to share the goals and be held accountable.

Take Risks as Readers and Be a Vulnerable Teacher

Draw on your previous struggles. Youshutterstock_117860992 (2) are probably not a struggling reader. But you probably have struggled with learning something new or tackling something difficult. You could try something new, or bring in your graduate school work and explain what is difficult for you–anything to show that improvement takes time, practice, and strategies to succeed.

Give students an initial success. In order for students to take risks in reading, they have to feel comfortable. For this reason, I often started my teaching in AARI with a much lower-level book, so students can experience some initial success in the class and become experts at the texts’ structures.

Try a new book, one you’ve never taught before. (You can always borrow a set of AARI books from the Oakland Schools Library.) If you are new to AARI, don’t be afraid to tell students the areas in which you are struggling. Being vulnerable goes a long way with struggling readers.

All of these areas, when used to help students soften and open up, lead to strong communities. You are setting up your students for success when they have a group they can turn to for support and growth.

Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.

Shared Experiences for Struggling Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_183163214Even if your group of struggling readers is blossoming, it’s important to consider how your community can continue to grow and thrive. That’s especially true for classrooms organized around the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, which brings students quickly to grade level.

Several steps can help build a set of shared experiences, which in turn can enhance your classroom’s community:

Promote a book-club atmosphere. First and foremost, remember that by reading a book together, you have shared an experience together. When you question and ultimately critique the author with your students, you are empowering your students within a book-club community.

Use extension activities to excite students. Challenge students to find YouTube videos that relate to your book’s topic, and that you can watch in the last few minutes of class. Nothing builds community like watching documentary science videos of scary eight-legged creatures if you are reading A Look at Spiders. Just remember not to get carried away, and always bring students back to the text.

Take to the open road with a field trip. Field trips can be expensive, and if you have a small group of students, they may not be realistic. But don’t rule them out! Maybe your district has access to a ropes course. You could head off to a local bookstore. Or maybe you could go to the local retirement community or elementary school, in order to read aloud the books you have gone through. Anything that builds bonds and positions students for success can be beneficial.

Institute a game day. Sometimes being silly together is just the experience needed to solidify a community. Here are some of my favorite board games to play with students. And remember to actually play with your students!

shutterstock_184237007Break bread together. One Friday a month, my classes would have what came to be known as “Food Fridays.” It usually started with my bringing in some snacks (think Costco/Sam’s Club granola bars or crackers). Some years, it took on a life of its own. Students would initiate elaborate sign-up sheets, and they would bake brownies and frost cupcakes. Other years, the kids were just happy to have a little something to eat while we worked.

Consider sports. Maybe instead of food, bond over sports. One year, we had a monthly “Fun Friday,” in which I would take students to the auxiliary gym for the last 20 minutes of class, and we would shoot hoops.

Check out some community-building websites. There are a bunch listed on the AARI Moodle. But if you don’t think the activity is fun, don’t do it! Building community is about building authentic relationships with students—so if you aren’t willing to participate, pick something else.

Repeat and revisit fun times together. Try returning to favorite activities or games throughout the year. This maintains your bonds and steps away from the hard academic work you will be accomplishing together.

You, the teacher, are the reason a community is created! Don’t forget this. Know that it takes work to maintain a community. Know that you have to become a part of that community. Some days you might plan to do an activity unrelated to AARI; other days, your community building will be embedded in your questions or text mapping.

Regardless, community building is not something to do only once in the fall, only to check it off a to-do list. It is an ongoing, ever-evolving process that needs adequate attention in your daily lesson planning throughout the year.


Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.