The Writing Inclination

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_248057314A recent article in the School Library Journal addresses a commonly heard statement in education: “Kids hate to write.” The article suggests that kids do write, and that the Internet is offering more opportunities than ever before to do so. The article even suggests some online writing tools and apps to use with kids, many of which I use in my classroom.

Still, though, the author wrote, “How do we help our students harness the inclination–the cultural imperative to write–so that they can become better academic writers?”

Five Strategies to Use with Students

I want to share several beliefs and practices about how I entice kids to believe in writing and see themselves as writers.

  1. As the teacher, I write.
    I complete every assignment along with my students. Sometimes I prepare examples before class, while other times I write on-demand as we contribute to writing ideas together. As students see me as a writer, they gain confidence in their own writing.
  2. I let kids choose their own topics.
    I have standards that I have to cover and model curricula to use, but those resources never say that I have to have all of my students complete an essay on the same topic. Rather, these resources say that I have to give students opportunities to write in various genres over different lengths of time, so I give students opportunities to do that. A student’s writing is much better when she chooses a topic that interests her.
  3. I teach students to use reading as a guide for writing.shutterstock_332181653
    I have learned so much from using exemplars for writing–from sentence structures and the organization of an argument, to word variety and character creation. I offer student these same opportunities to explore their reading to use for writing. For many students, this practice gives them the structure they need to make a personally important topic shine.
  4. I offer consistent writing opportunities.
    We write every day. Sometimes it is genre-specific work, sometimes it is just a quick write, and sometime we just doodle. But we write every day. When students can have a consistent experiences with writing, they begin to look forward to writing.
  5. I give feedback on writing.
    The feedback a teacher gives writers should encourage growth. I use a very defined structure each day with students: a compliment related to a recent standard (I notice…); a question about the feelings of the writer; a suggestion, sometimes with an example (Can I offer a next step?); and an offer to revisit the writing when the writer has made a decision. Kids say that they enjoy feedback and want as much as possible.

Borrowing the idea from Ruth Ayres’ video, I have created a video to take a look at the notebook life in our middle school classroom. I hope that you can find use for it to encourage your classes to write every day.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Book Review: Reading Nonfiction

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

519O713jxML._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_A few months back, I wrote about how great Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s book Notice & Note was. As soon as I got wind that Beers and Probst would be releasing a nonfiction version, Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies, I quickly headed over to Amazon and pre-ordered my copy—and I have not been disappointed!

As much as I loved Notice & Note and made it an integral part of how I teach reading, I think I love Reading Nonfiction even more. As I read, I kept finding myself nodding and, in my head, yelling, “Yes! Why didn’t I think of that before?!”

The Importance of Critical Reading

One of the concepts that struck me the most, and I really couldn’t believe that I had not thought about it before, was the idea that many times, we teach nonfiction as being simply not fiction, which is much too simple a definition and one that can lead inexperienced readers down the wrong path. If we say that fiction texts are not true, then we’re also implying that nonfiction texts are true, which can be a dangerous assumption to make.  

Beers and Probst complicate this true/not true definition, but also bring it closer to helping students understand that readers of nonfiction need to be critical, informed readers and not just passive ones being taken in by a story. They define nonfiction as a “body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief” (21).

Clearly, the key word in this definition is purports, which signals to students that what they are about to read is always going to be someone’s version of what is real, and that we cannot always take what we read at face value, a necessary skill students need to develop as they are bombarded with information on a daily basis.

The Book’s Elements

Notice & Note was broken down into six signposts, elements that the authors claim are common to the majority of YA novels, and which help to focus students’ thinking. Reading Nonfiction is set up a bit differently; it is broken down like this:

Big Questions

  • What surprised you?
  • What did the author think you already knew?
  • What changed, challenged, or confirmed what you already knew?


  • Contrasts and Contradictions
  • Extreme or Absolute Language
  • Numbers and Stats
  • Quoted Words
  • Word Gaps

Fix-Up Strategies

  • Possible Sentences
  • KWL 2.0
  • Somebody Wanted But So
  • Syntax Surgery
  • Sketch to Stretch
  • Genre Reformulation
  • Poster
Anchor chart for the Big Question, What did the author think I already knew?

Anchor chart for the Big Question, What did the author think I already knew?

The Big Questions are the kinds of questions that experienced readers of nonfiction keep in mind as they read, and help students read closely rather than have their eyes skim words on a page. The Signposts help students read closely for features and concepts often found in nonfiction. The Fix-Up Strategies are designed to help when students’ understanding has broken down and can be used before, during, and after reading.

So far, I have begun using the Big Questions with my struggling 6th grade readers. My students are surprising me with how much they are marking and are able to talk about, because they developed this questioning stance before reading. After we tried out the Big Questions, I asked them if they thought this helped them read and understand in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise, and they insightfully indicated how reading with these questions in mind helped them focus on the article and think about it differently.

What is maybe most amazing about this book is that it’s not made just for ELA teachers. As I was reading, I could picture how these concepts could be applied to all content areas, and I wished that every teacher in my building would read this book. This just may have to be our staff’s next book study!

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 School Library Connection.

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.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 11.15.44 AM

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.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 11.16.37 AM

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.