Students: I Am Not Your Audience

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

178742843Several years ago, I went in search of an audience for my students, although at the time I didn’t know that was what I was up to. I’d seen enough student writing to know I wasn’t doing something right in my instruction. My students were smart, interesting and capable of all manner of argument, but their writing didn’t reflect that. However, they were willing to risk suspension by breaking through the district’s internet firewall to reach sites like Myspace and Facebook where they wrote (Wrote!) about things they cared about in ways that reflected their personalities. This was what I was looking for. So I started a website where my students and I could build on the conversations we were having in class, and they could write in the same way they wrote on social media sites. I envisioned a free flowing forum of ideas and enthusiasm, a place for authentic voices like I’d seen on Facebook and Myspace, like I’d heard in my classroom. Yeah, I was wrong.

Our website quickly became a place where my ideas went to die, or where students would respond to my prompts as if they were short answer questions, writing in a dull, mechanical, and predictable way.  I asked for modern examples of  Holden Caulfield thinking I’d inspire students to write about alienation but got lists of “bad boy” actors and links to a band called “Holden Caulfield.” In my students’ defense, that’s how I wrote the prompts. They were prescriptive and came from my ideas about what the students should find engaging. Every now and then we’d spark a little discussion–but not really. The site was more of a bulletin board than a forum. Still, I was determined to use this new internet realm for something.

181407018This all happened at the turn of the century, but the idea of 21st century literacy wasn’t on my radar. I wasn’t thinking about how drastically teaching reading and writing was going to be impacted by the World Wide Web. I just wanted to be in on what was happening.  Though my first failures did send me in a new direction. My students were using platforms like MySpace to say things about themselves, to give their opinions, and to challenge each others’ ideas. It was entirely social, but what they were doing was writing, sometimes with letters and words, sometimes with images. But it’s all text, and that’s what drew me in. So I tried again.

Dipping  my educational toe into social media in a few places didn’t bring  much success. Individual blogs I had my students set up felt isolated and formal. I gave them assignments to be completed on the blog, which they treated like electronic paper. The writing didn’t change much, but they were more careful and deliberate with their work. Discussion boards or chat rooms were too fast and too informal. They were conversational in nature and didn’t leave my students time for a carefully considered response. They had to get ideas out quickly or be left behind. Still, I had little glimpses of what I was after: a sustained and thoughtful conversation in writing and images. But when this occurred, I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how to recreate it.

What was the difference between what I was doing and what I wanted? The answer is audience. I hadn’t been aware of just how much weight audience carries. When I was the audience, even the perceived audience, it changed 128930844the way my students wrote. Their voices faded. Those few times I did manage to spark something good–thoughtful, honest writing with authentic voices about a text we were looking at–then their writing became self supporting. Students abandoned me as audience and wrote for each other, fed off each other and it had very little–actually nothing–to do with me. In fact, I was very careful not to enter into the conversation because as soon as I said anything, their writing changed course and was directed at replicating the thing I’d praised. The writing even changed when students knew that I was lurking but not writing anything.  Many of them would lose the nerve to be the writers they really were. It didn’t matter that I told them that their audience was each other; my mere virtual presence changed how they wrote. When I became their audience, they tried to write like students. But when their audience was other students, they wrote like writers. They had more confidence, took risks, and tried to engage the each other. In short, they did what writers do.

Encouraged but still confused, I went looking for a platform that allows the immediacy of a conversation but encouraged more thoughtful and deliberate writing. A couple of years ago I came upon  At the time, it was a kind of hybrid hipster blog with lots of art and music. There was plenty of careless writing, but there were also blogs with very good, clearly professional writing. I started by following blogs on Tumblr that both interested me and fit with what I wanted the students to see like Blake Gopnik On Art,  The Paris Review , The Nearsighted Monkey. These blogs are all clearly written for a specific audience–Tumblr users–and decidedly too cool for most of my students and their teacher. That’s was part of what I was looking for. I wanted to connect my students to a fairly sophisticated audience in hopes that they might adopt the characteristics of that audience. (I was wrong about that but not for the reason I thought. That’s grist for another post.) Tumblr looked promising enough to try, so I set my first class loose.

Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 10.00.16 PM

11th grade post on “what is art?” Click to read.

I traditionally assigned some kind of evaluative essay where the students had to make a case for including something in the curriculum or extolling the virtues of a new technology. It was an okay assignment. It let us look at different ways to advance an argument, what counts as evidence, warrants–all of the things I wanted my students to learn. The essays were fine but lacked passion and voice because they weren’t writing about anything they really cared about, and they weren’t writing to anyone they cared about. It was an exercise to them, nothing more. Why work hard when they didn’t care about the subject or the audience?

With this question in mind, I asked student to find examples of and talk about what they thought was art (hanna art, animation). And I turned them loose in the Tumblr world. They followed, promoted and wrote about things they liked. Things they were interested in. As I watched voices emerged, I learned what my students were interested in and why they liked what they liked. I saw arguments. I saw rhetoric in action. I saw some real writing and I heard authentic student voices.

Screen shot 2014-10-26 at 11.01.13 AM

11th grade post on “what is art?” Click to read.

Why did Tumblr work?  The audience had changed. Students were writing for themselves and trying to write in ways that would attract attention from other writers and readers in that world. This was three years ago, and I was just starting to think about how the ways that students will read and write is fundamentally different than how I read and write thanks to the new media world. That first year I took what my students did on their Tumblr blogs and kind of wedged it into an existing curricular format. It wasn’t a great fit and moving from the blogs to an essay cost them some voice, or the tone was too casual for the classroom. I didn’t do a good job of explaining how a change in audience or situation, let alone both, required some serious rethinking of rhetorical strategies. It’s an ongoing conversation I have with my students. We talk about…

  • What are the characteristics of the platform and how do we adapt our writing to fit its conventions?
  • Is the platform the same as the audience?
  • What counts as evidence in a setting that seems to demand visual arguments?
  • How do we warrant and cite a picture? A video? A gif?
  • How can I make my writing stand out?
  • How do I grab the audience’s attention and then hold it long enough to engage them in my writing?
  • What kinds of arguments hold sway with this audience?

These are all very good, important questions that deserve serious consideration. I can’t answer them now. I usually turn the questions back at my students. They are the experts, the digital natives whose interest drew me into this world in first place. I have 20th century knowledge. They have 21st century experience.

I have only just begun to really consider what students writing in the 21st century might require  of me as a teacher. It is exciting and a hot mess. How do I manage all of this? Evaluate it? Channel it?  The Tumblr experiment continues into it’s third year. I’m a little more sure of what I’m doing–a little. In my next posts, I’ll share more about what’s going on–successes, failures and everything I learn.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Classroom Campfire, Coffeehouses & Caves

Notes from the Classroom

The kids’ names are memorized, the first stack of papers is graded, and the first cold has passed through.  I’m deep in the trenches of a new school year, but my battle plan actually began over the summer.  With enough time to reflect, plan, and dream big during those warm months, I typically bite off more than I can chew and choke a bit on the sustainability of my early choices.  This year, I took a big bite out of my classroom arrangement.

It has been years since I’ve reconsidered the layout of my classroom: partially because in trench warfare you don’t get a lot of time to reconfigure, and partially because I like my set-up and it’s working for me.

The Classroom Campfire

The Classroom Campfire

But in August, we are overly-ambitious. In August, we are readers of too many articles.  So in August, I read this article and was inspired to make my classroom a more flexible learning space.  In the piece, David Thornburg presents three “archetypal learning environments” that summarize the primary ways we learn: on our own, with a group, and from an expert.  The author then correlates these learning styles with physical spaces:  “caves,” “water-coolers,” and “campfires,” respectively.  I found this concept fascinating, especially in conjunction with current research on differentiated instruction and Universal Design.   I wondered if simply providing all three learning environments in my classroom would help me to engage all learners on all levels at all times. I felt challenged to consider whether or not I could provide high quality instruction without relying on the campfire (with me as the expert) as the primary form of delivery.

One of 4 Coffeehouses

One of 4 Coffeehouses

So I set out to rearrange my room, providing Thornburg’s environments to my students with greater purpose, frequency and variety. First,  I minimized the “campfire” to 10 students total and located it near the projection space in my room.  I wanted to make the teacher’s desk more accessible to the campfire concept, so I removed my personal belongings in an effort to make the “teacher desk” simply the expert desk. I also rotated the desk to open into the classroom, instead of dividing the expert from the campfire.  Tables that were once joined in a linear fashion I grouped into “coffeehouses,” which I consider the more teenager-friendly version of a “watercooler.”  Here, I knew I would make use of my lessons that involved small group discussion and project based learning.  Finally, I recruited some free standing desks to tuck into the corners of the room and serve as “caves.”

One of 5 Caves

One of 5 Caves

Rearranging the physical space was the easy part of this commitment.  Adapting lessons that regularly enabled all three learning styles, however, was far more challenging. I knew that over the course of a term, I certainly made use of these three learning environments, but my challenge here was doing so with greater purpose, frequency, and variety.  So I rewrote my first unit to include a daily choice– students were presented daily with a “Poetry Face Off” and then elected whether to annotate that poem with me in the campfire, with peers in the coffeehouses, or independently in caves.  It was an uncomfortable risk to let go of whole group instruction, but I’m starting to like that level of discomfort in my classroom.

Even more bothersome than lesson planning was wondering how often I should allow students to dictate their own learning space/style, and how often I should require them to try other styles?  By simply rearranging the desks, I had called into question the fundamentals of my practice:  

  • How much did I trust my students to drive their own learning?
  • How heavily did I weigh my own expertise as the “deliverer” of content and “director” of learning?
  • How much naivete would I communicate with my students as I navigated something new?
  • How would I communicate expectations and hold them accountable when they weren’t in my direct view?
  • Would it be possible to build classroom culture and community without direct guidance?

As with all great risks, I couldn’t plot out the potential outcomes.  I simply had to, in the words of Edgar Allen Poe, “ride, boldly ride” in the direction of Eldorado.  There are things that I would change for next year, of course, but on the whole, this experiment has given me the opportunity to learn about my students in a different way.  Instead of collecting early assignments to try and get to know them individually, I’ve had a chance to observe them as individuals in my classroom and interact with them in a more authentic way.

I’ve got a much smaller campfire, allowing me to make individual connections earlier in the year.  For example, it would have taken me a month to pull out Heather’s comments in a large group, but in the first week, I was able to give her a non-threatening space in which to contribute.  I was able to read my students’ abilities in a quick, formative way by having small group discussion from day one.  I was also able to just connect with them less as an authority figure and more as a coach.  It might sound silly, but in my campfire I can sit in a chair and speak in a lower voice, and I think that has given me the chance to come across more as a coach and less as a dictator.

164170012The students are also independently establishing an important aspect of my classroom culture: collaboration. While I was unable to doctor the groups as much as I would have liked, the self selection told me which students could handle working with their friends and which couldn’t.  I was sure to assign them a weighty task, which forced them to consider whether they could risk spending the hour socializing.  It also told me where my classroom cliques were, which informed my seating choices on days when students didn’t self-select.

Because of a simple change in physical space, my students have also differentiated their own learning from the first day of class.  The kids who needed to be challenged began by electing to work alone, assuming that they would want to work at a quicker pace. I watched as they slowly gravitated into other spaces, learning from me and from their peers with far less resistance.  The students who were anxious about underachieving began in the campfire, and when they trusted themselves, began to work with peers.  From their choices in physical space, I was able to deduce students’ needs and guide them on a more individualized learning path.


Holly Zimmerman is an English and Speech teacher at Groves High School in Birmingham.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in English education from Western Michigan University, and a master’s degree in educational policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education.  This post was likely co-authored by her frolicking four-year-old or her giggly baby, who make teaching far more challenging and remarkably more worthwhile.


The Day the Lights Turn On

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

I had that moment this week.

You know the moment.

179114536This moment is different from the beginning of school, when everyone is excited to be back. This moment happens after my sixth grade students start to remember that:

➢ They really have to do homework and,
➢ There are going to be lessons that are difficult and,
➢ Dion likes Ann instead of Mayze or Mayze likes Dion instead of George.

And I:

➢ Actually have to listen to why Dion likes Ann instead of Mayze and explain (again) that they are in the sixth grade and are in my classroom to learn MATH.
➢ Remember that there is a time when the honeymoon is over.
➢ Sometimes, just sometimes, wonder why I was so excited to come back from summer vacation. So much so, in fact, there may have been days when I started to look forward to (and perhaps even count) the days until Christmas.
➢ See a light at the end of the tunnel and wonder if it is a train heading straight for me.

Just before that moment, I have produced progress reports and lesson plans and checked papers all weekend. I have assessed knowledge and disaggregated the data. I have had myriad conversations with colleagues and parents and students. I have revised lesson plans and searched for ways to re-teach and challenge students.

512753007Then it happens. It is like the compact florescent lamps (CFLs). You know, the energy efficient bulb that turns on and takes a minute to become its brightest self. The light coming toward me gets brighter… (As you read this, you may think one of two things is about to happen – I am going to be wonderfully surprised or run over by that train.) The light gets brighter and brighter and suddenly, guess what? The lights are bright all over the classroom! Even Mayze, Dion, Ann, and George are completely engaged and the air in the room shifts.

122412492I breathe a sigh of relief that it was not a train, but rather brains becoming adjusted to thinking and considering and probing and analyzing. The air becomes full of questions and hypotheses. Understanding and synthesizing information becomes the order of the day. New ideas, new connections. Oh my! Light bulbs start turning on all over the room. I breathe in this creative air and in my head I scream “Yes!”

Suddenly, I know why. Why what? Why I come back year after year. Why I keep pushing and cajoling and pressing and questioning even on the days it seems nothing is getting through to my students. Why I keep answering the same questions over and over again with different words in different ways. Why I fight to build the bridge that connects what is known to what is new.
I end up reminding myself:

  • If it has not happened yet, be patient.
  • Have confidence in myself and my students.
  • Keep building those bridges one nail and one board at a time.
  • Believe the lights WILL come on!

marciabondsMarcia Bonds is a 6th Grade Math and English Language Arts Teacher at Key School in the Oak Park School District.  She has been teaching for 17 years.  Marcia is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project and was a co-facilitator of the 2014 Oakland Writing Project Summer Institute. She has facilitated professional development on inquiry-based learning for the Oak Park School District.

Podcast #12: Dr. James Popham – Formative Assessment in Action


Most of Dr. Popham’s teaching career took place at UCLA where, for nearly 30 years, he taught courses in instructional methods for prospective teachers, as well as courses in evaluation and measurement for graduate students. At UCLA, he won several distinguished teaching awards. In January 2000, Dr. Popham was recognized by UCLA Today as one of UCLA’s top 20 professors of the 20th century. In 1992, he took early retirement from UCLA upon learning that emeritus professors received free parking.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Popham.

On Feb 6, 2015, Dr. Popham will present Formative Assessment in Action at Oakland Schools.

This presentation will focus on:

  • The what of why of formative assessment in the classroom.
  • The limitations of formative assessment 
  • New updates and insights about formative assessment 
  • Definitions of the four levels of formative assessment using concrete examples with opportunities for engagement (Teacher Instructional Engagement, Students Learning Adjustments, Classroom Climate Shift, and School Wide Implementation).

To register for presentation, click here: Formative Assessment in Action



Let’s Talk About Student Engagement

Consultants' Corner Oakland Writing Project

Last week, teacher blogger Marcia Bonds explored the idea of engaging her students through developing a learner identity, an identity that she too needs to have and models daily with her students. As I read Marcia’s blog, I couldn’t help recalling how many times over the past two months I’ve heard the topic of “engagement” raised.

493533923Engagement–what does it mean? How do we foster engagement in our classrooms? Like Marcia, I see learner identity as a key part of engaging learners. The idea of mindset playing a role in how a learner engages is well researched. But I’m also encountering more conversations about engagement via digital tools. The use of social media tools in the classroom, such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Instagram, or Vine, continues to be debated as a possible way to re-engage students. I can’t help but wonder: could there be a relationship between learner identity and digital tools in the classroom?

147662769Not long ago, I came across Staci Hurst’s blog post that addresses engagement. Hurst highlights work stemming from the Schlechty Center on Engagement. Not immediately familiar with Schlechty’s name, I did some further digging that led me to his 2010 keynote in which he defines engagement. He claims four types of students exist: academically inclined students, “nice” kids, nice but won’t do much, and finally, those who are going to drop out of school. The real kicker comes when he contends that all but the academically inclined students are doing nothing more than complying in the classroom. He shares four types of observable engagement:

Strategic compliance: student does the work for extrinsic goals (grades, class rank, college acceptance, parental approval)

Ritual compliance: work holds no meaning or connection to the student, leading to the student focusing on minimum exit requirement (what do I need to do to get this over with?)
Retreatism: student disengages for multiple reasons–task holds no relevancy, emotionally withdrawn, task seems too unobtainable
Rebellion: student actively engages in acting out and recruiting others to do the same

So how does Schlechty define engagement? Persistence. An engaged student perseveres in difficult tasks with a personal emphasis to reach “optimum performance.”

Researchers477569935 who have closely studied engagement have developed a multi-dimensional measure of student engagement by tying together both cognitive and emotional components: the theory of flow. More simply put, flow is that magic moment where the learner is so focused in a task that they continue to persevere as complexity increases, finding enjoyment in the struggle.

I’m seeing a common denominator here–task design. Put more specifically, task design that elicits student investment. What I’m not yet clear on is if digital tools are critical to helping bolster students to persevere–to live in the magical flow moment.

Take Aways

So what do I walk away with from this mini-inquiry? I think the most critical take away is the need for opening up conversation between colleagues about how each of us interprets the word “engagement” and what tells us students are engaged. And we need to talk about the context of high engagement. What was the topic? How were students engaging in the lesson? What was the task or tasks?

Possible Conversation Starters

1. Select a video of an instructional session and discuss with colleagues how you would describe task design and evidence of student engagement.

● This 5th grade Social Studies lesson could be a useful artifact to study even for those teaching secondary grade levels.
● This short clip from Minneapolis Roosevelt HS could inspire a useful conversation about task design that engages students.

2. View Phil Schlechty’s keynote and open up conversation inviting colleagues to weigh in: What do they agree with? What do they not? What new questions do they now have about engagement?

3. Have colleagues read the Framework for Post-Secondary Success and describe what ideas it confirms and how pushes their thinking. How does the framework impact ideas about engagement and task design?

There’s no denying the power and role engagement plays in the learning process. It’s a worthy topic to explore both individually and with colleagues. I invite you to extend and deepen the conversation about student engagement. Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Susan GolabSusan Wilson-Golab joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available.  More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project.

Podcast #11: A Conversation with Will Richardson


Will Richardson is a world renowned speaker, presenter, and educator who focuses on rethinking and transforming education. Will shares his thoughts on how to support students’ learning to maximize the opportunities that are available to students today.

To learn more about Will Richardson check out his website, which has many resources, books, and TED talks.

Modern Learners Website

Find Will on Twitter.



Student Voice & Choice in the Digital Writing Workshop

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

“Why do we have to write these stories about ourselves, Mr. Joseph? I mean, what’s the point?”

During class with my fifth graders, I found myself facing characteristic skepticism and a key question from my student, Tate, that speaks to the heart of the question of student voice–that of audience. What Tate really wanted to know was: Would anybody care about this story? Would anybody see his piece? Would it have any meaning beyond simply building a skill that he’s supposed to possess? 

153911435As teachers, we all have students who are compliant and willful, who will readily produce whatever output we ask or demand of them to please the teacher or earn a desired grade. There is no question that narrative and non-fiction writing are critical skills that must be taught explicitly at all levels every year. Increasingly, however, in an era of online publishing and digital content production on social media sites, students need to know that whatever they are asked to generate will have a meaningful audience and make a difference to someone. In 2014, kids have never known a world where they haven’t been able to reach out around the globe in seconds and make an impact with words, pictures, and video on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. The ability to publish at the click of a button has provided a liberating opportunity for students to receive swift feedback and effectively measure the impact their writing has on their intended audience.

Central, of course, to student voice is student choice. When I ask my students to write a small moment narrative each fall in writing workshop, I also give them the opportunity to not only write traditional text-based stories using words, but also to create a “performance piece” that involves a demonstration of the story through some digital medium. Some students choose to make digital stories, matching their own podcasted voice to images and create a movie. Others choose to learn the ancient art of storytelling and video record their performance. Some reenact their story as a movie and film the experience. Still others use animation techniques to tell their stories. Each year, the possibilities generated by the students and the products that they ultimately produce far exceed anything I could imagine.

83405387We all know that technology tools are constantly evolving and changing. What will remain immutable, however, is the architecture of story–problem, solution, characters, and setting. As long as we enable our students to make choices about the multi-modal output they would like to try, they will be motivated to learn the fundamental writing skills they need to grow and develop as writers. Students are empowered by both multi-media tools and the allure of a wider audience.  Their work will have meaning for the maximum number of people possible, as it should. Kids care about writing and creating when they know people pay attention to and care about their work, that their writerly voices will be heard.

The students in my workshop all have blogs, so they post both their stories and the digital counterparts online. They use first names only, are well-versed in safe digital citizenship and receive parental permission to use online tools. They are asked to send the link to at least three people in three different states or countries around the world and solicit feedback. In this way, the students see the exponential possibilities of global sharing, and how their work does, indeed, make an impact–however large or small–on the lives of people, often countless individuals beyond friends and family. Their voices are not only honored, but broadcast on the widest possible stage.


Hear Shin Be tell her story with passion and purpose.

Watch as Tate reenacts his paint ball battle in dramatic fashion:

See how Nicolae brings his story alive through Legos.


9.21 face shot JoeRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher of 5th and 6th grade students at Birmingham Covington School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He believes in the power of multi-age education to break down barriers in traditional school settings. Rick advocates for the meaningful use of digital tools on a daily basis to help create meaning and relevance for all learners.  He is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.


Blogging Bumps & Best Moments

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

So here we are…a month into 5th grade and four or five blog posts under our belts…depending on the student. I’ve learned a few things about blogging, and I’m hoping my students have as well. I can see that this will be a year of trial and error, of refining and redefining as we move through this process together.


I learned very quickly that I needed to give parents a thorough explanation of how I want to use the blog this year with their children. Specifically: This blog will be a digital archive of your child’s writing and will show their progress from the beginning of the year until the end. If I had said this upfront, perhaps I would not have had parents writing their child’s blog posts for them, or editing them to the point that I could hear adult voices and see complex sentence structures not evident anywhere in the student’s usual writing. This issue became a newsletter item that will now be part of my introductory conversation with parents next year.

Another lesson I learned was that I should’ve taken more time to show my students how to navigate the blog in terms of finding my blog (where their assignments are posted),  locating their own dashboard, and using the toolbar effectively. I’ve grown so used to most of my students being able to navigate technology effortlessly and intuitively that I left behind those kids without experience and technology skills. The good news is that I noticed this issue pretty quickly because blogging is a weekly exercise for us, but I felt badly for not paying attention to my former principal’s new school year mantra: go slow to go fast

Best Moments 

Click to read.

Click to read.

In spite of the above trials, there have been so many bright spots for me. Students are beginning to notice and wanting to correct spelling errors. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been tempted to comment about misspellings but continuing to look beyond the errors has forced me to continually ask myself, “What does this student do well as a writer and  how can I help them grow?” This kind of thinking is making me a better writing teacher and helping me deliver targeted instruction that meets the needs of my students where they are at the moment. When I hit the craft lessons or skills I see lacking, my students are able to practice and grow as writers.

We’re wrapping up our narrative unit and many students have been struggling with adding sensory details to their  stories. So this past week they had to blog about the experience of walking outside using as many sensory details as possible. The results were a perfect formative assessment: I know exactly who has got it and who needs small group or one on one work. The best teaching moments for me came through student writing, as always. There are always those students who you know will do a beautiful job, but then there are those unexpected gems that come shining through:

Click to read.

Click to read.

These students aren’t the most confident, the most skilled, or even children who profess to love writing. I don’t know if it was the assignment or the technology or a combination of both, but the results make my teacher’s heart happy and strengthen my resolve to continue blogging because for me, this is best practice. Will there be more bumps? I’m sure of it. But I’m just as sure there will be more bright spots than bumps…and I will learn from both.

I’d love to hear from other teachers who do regular blogging with their students. What bumps have you encountered along the way? Have you learned to anticipate them? Advice?


beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 


Text in the Middle: A Reading & Annotating Template

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

fallinginlovewithclosereadingWe’re about four weeks into a new school year, and although I ended the summer refreshed and excited for the coming year, I also feel like I never left. I spent this summer immersed in professional learning that came in many forms: presenting at conferences, attending workshops, and reading–nine books total, eight of them professional.  One of the books I read (on an airplane, en route to Florida) was Kate Roberts’ and Chris Lehman’s Falling in Love with Close Reading.  It was a fantastic, quick read and was filled with practical ideas to take back to my own classroom.

The authors shared a routine where kids first read with a specific lens in mind, annotating as they go.  After reading and annotating, students then look for patterns in what they noticed with that particular lens. After looking for patterns in their thinking, students write to develop and solidify a new understanding about the text.  I loved this idea of having a routine for reading and annotating that can be adapted for both fiction and nonfiction texts, and I knew I wanted to include this routine in my instruction.

In June, I presented at the MiELA Summer Institute and probably learned just as much as the participants in the room.  One of my takeaways was a way to infuse more nonfiction into my classroom through short weekly nonfiction articles, much like Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week.  When teacher participants talked about how they used the article of the week in their classrooms, I knew I wanted to try using this idea as well.

As the school year approached, I began thinking about how I might merge these two ideas into something that would work for me as a teacher and for my classroom.  Last year, I tried out a strategy that ended up having multiple names: Text in the Middle, Two Draft Read, Three Draft Read, etc.  The concept is the same, though.  Whatever text you want to use is in the middle of the page and to the right and left are spaces for specific annotating or thinking tasks.  I decided that this would be a great tool to combine the ideas from Falling in Love with Close Reading and Article of the Week.

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Click to read.

I chose one of the articles from Gallagher’s archive, “Why Being a Thinker Means Pocketing Your Smartphone/Have Smartphones Killed Boredom (and Is That Good)?” and formatted it to fit into the Text in the Middle template I had created. (image to the left) I then thought about the lens through which I wanted students to read.  Since this was a nonfiction piece that had a clear claim and because I wanted to get students thinking about claims and evidence from the get go, I decided to have students look for the author’s claim, reasons the author’s claim was true, evidence to support the claim and reasons, and a counterargument, if present.  I first modeled for them what it would look like for them to read and annotate in this way, then students had the choice to continue reading and annotating either independently or in a partnership.

I’d planned for students to get to the second part of the task the same day, but things usually take longer than I think they will, so the next day, students looked for patterns in what they had annotated the day before. Specifically, they were looking for ideas that were repeated or ideas that stood out as particularly interesting.  They made annotations to show these patterns in the right hand column.

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Click to read.

The last step in this process is for students to write a response to the text that shows how they developed a new understanding of it (see image to the right). In this case, they were writing about the validity and strength of the argument and chose a specific piece of the argument on which to focus, like the claim or the author’s use of evidence.

This routine took a bit of front loading, but I can see how once students get used to it, the process will become automatic, which will hopefully make analyzing texts a more familiar process for my students as well.


“Article of the Week.” Kelly Gallagher. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

Lehman, Christopher, and Kate Roberts. Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts and Life. New York: Heinemann, 2013.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor 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.


ALL Students Can Be Readers & Writers

Consultants' Corner

122495245Current research surrounding literacy for students with significant disabilities has demonstrated that, with appropriate support and instruction, all students can be readers and writers. Traditionally, the approach has been a readiness model stating that literacy should be learned in a pre-determined, sequential manner that requires certain skills to be in place before the student can advance to the next level. The rigidity of this model has created barriers that many of our students can not overcome. The current view on literacy learning, however, focuses on enhancing communication and language opportunities to help students make connections and learn to use print in a meaningful way.

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Karen Erickson            David Koppenhaver

This past August, educators attended the Emergent Literacy Academy at Oakland Schools for five days of intense learning. The presenters, Dr. Karen Erickson and Dr. David Koppenhaver,  demonstrated the effectiveness of implementing a balanced literacy approach for students with the most significant disabilities, resulting in a life-altering skill: to be literate.

Like all students, individuals with significant cognitive disabilities need ongoing, comprehensive instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening and language.

Each day, students at an emerging level of literacy learning need to be instructed in the following areas:

  • Shared reading experiences to increase engagement and interaction
  • Predictable chart writing to build concepts about print, word identification and communication skills
  • Alphabet and Phonological Awareness to teach letter-shape/writing recognition, letter-name knowledge, and letter-sound knowledge
  • Independent writing opportunities to help students make the connection that writing is purposeful
  • Independent reading opportunities to allow students to explore text they are interested in reading

This document is currently the most comprehensive review of the research pertaining to literacy in students with significant disabilities.

Important conclusions of emergent literacy research include:

  • The process of learning to read and write is a continuum that begins at birth.
  • Children learn written language through active engagement with their world.
  • Emergent literacy behaviors are fleeting and variable depending on text, task, and environment.
  • The functions of print are as integral to literacy as the forms.

For more information and resources, go to The Center for Literacy Disabilities Studies , a website devoted to addressing the literacy learning needs of persons with disabilities of all ages. This website contains articles, white papers, Deaf/Blind resources, and core vocabulary information for students with complex communication needs.

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Colleen Meszler is a Special Education Consultant in the Professional Learning Unit of the Department of Special Education. She supports public school special educators in their work to close the achievement gap between students with and without IEPs.  Specifically, she facilitates the professional learning of special educators in the provision of emergent and conventional literacy instruction to students with moderate to significant cognitive disabilities.  The emphasis is on instructional practices for pre-K through post-high students who are educated to alternate achievement standards and assessed through the Alternate Assessment.