Four Essential Steps for Workshops

Formative Assessment Notes from the Classroom

We bought our daughter a new Strider bike for her upcoming birthday. These bikes have no pedals, and they teach kids how to balance and use their bodies to move the bike and steer. The “Learn to Ride Guide” sets out “four essential steps” to ensure your child will ride successfully:

  1. Adjusting the bike properly to fit the child.
  2. Being a cheerleader, not a coach.
  3. Letting the child set the pace.
  4. Supporting the child — NOT the bike!

As a reading and writing workshop teacher, I really fell in love with this guide, as these four essential steps could inform what we do in a workshop classroom.

Adjust the Teaching to Fit the Student

Conferring with kids is basically adjusting your teaching to meet the students where they are.

Using formative assessment tools, like a quick exit ticket, you can adjust your entire lesson. And after looking at class writing samples, you can decide if the majority of students actually need that mini-lesson on punctuation–or if you can move on to something else.

Know When to Cheer and When to Coach

As a literacy teacher, you are so many things at different times, and for different students.   

  • Sometimes you are a coach, honing in on specific skills that your students need and explicitly teaching them, while giving them drills that will help strengthen the skills.
  • Sometimes you are a cheerleader, praising what students are doing well, and lifting them up when they are being too hard on themselves or just not getting it–yet.
  • Sometimes you are a teammate, sharing in the discovery and laughter of the class.  
  • Sometimes you are a spectator, observing in the stands and letting the writing and reading play out.  
  • Sometimes you are the referee, making sure the rules of the workshop classroom are being followed.

Let the Students Set the Pace

There has to be some level of commitment on the part of the student with the work that you do in a classroom. I think this is where choice comes into play.  

Giving students choice about their writing topics, and in the titles or genres they read, allows students to set their own pace. Even giving them options in when assignments are due, or in how they can demonstrate their learning, can help students set their own timetable and be in control of their learning.

Support the Writer and Reader, Not the Writing and Book

Teachers teach children, not content. When you support the student, and the content comes second, you can really make a difference in the life of that student. This doesn’t just mean forming a relationship with each student; it means deciding what they need next in that conference or small group situation.

Each new skill our students and children learn has to be practiced. As teachers and parents we need to be there for our kids–but we also need to know when to take a step back, and let them go it alone. If we keep these four essential steps in mind, we can help kids become independent, skilled writers and readers on the road of life!

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.

What I Learned as a Coach

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_461317267I recently had the opportunity to work with a teacher on a unit of study. I went into the experience knowing that I was going to take on the role of an instructional coach, which means I would assist the teacher to improve instruction and outcomes.

Knowing that work needs to start with the development of a relationship, I began this experience with a few conversational prompts: What might you say are the biggest strengths in your teaching? What are you wondering about doing differently?

From that conversation, we planned to work on a unit that the teacher admitted had not felt successful in the past. The next step was to develop some goals.

As anyone who has studied coaching knows, the development of goals is crucial for the work that will be done. The goal we developed was to increase student engagement in workshop structures.

We also agreed that we would use a coaching model for this work. I would model the strategies in the first hour. She would imitate these in the second hour. In the third hour, a planning period, we would reflect.

Eventually, this would shift to co-planning and my observation of teaching the plan, after which the teacher would take on the role of planning – keeping in mind her learning from the modeling phase.

In reflection on the goals, I would say that they were accomplished. The teacher reflects that kids know and can exhibit more knowledge on the unit skills, goals, and standards than others had on this unit in the past. In a personal reflection, though, I’d like to share what I learned from this experience, and how I will use this learning to guide my work as an instructional coach in the future.

The Goal Should Not Be too Big

When I heard “workshop structures” as part of a goal, I knew my daily teaching model would have a clear teaching point, an example of relevant work, group or partner practice, and independent practice. But there was more.

shutterstock_257430889Many other things play into a strong workshop classroom: classroom culture, student-teacher relationships, grading, feedback, and exemplars, to name a few. In my coaching, I began to model a classroom that ran like my own workshop classroom, with all of these structures in place.

I dove in too deep, though. The specific goal of modeling workshop structures became clouded in seating charts and notebook expectations and conferring notes. I learned, then, to choose a small actionable goal for the coaching work that would follow.

Clarify Your Roles

I’ve read about coaching. I’ve been trained as a coach. And I have been lucky enough to engage in work with an instructional coach.

I felt I knew my role as a coach. As I thought about this role, though, I only considered my own actions—and how I could achieve the desired outcomes.

I didn’t think about the broader scope of my role and actions. A coach does not act in isolation. Instead, coaches have to consider administrations, individual school goals, the community of learning, and the teacher’s goals and current actions.

A culture of coaching, I learned, needs to be established before any relationship of coaching can be forged.

Ground Learning in Old Experiences

This is not to say that coaching is meant to perpetuate old paradigms. Still, I recommend observing the teacher’s practices in place, as part of the relationship development and goal setting.

Adult learners can respond in a productive way when they recognize their old practice, compare it to the new practice, and reflect on the impact that those practices have on student learning. I learned, too, that a common language of practice can enhance these conversations.

In the end, no one can learn without the opportunity to do so. So, a big “thank you” to all teachers who take a chance on coaching, and to those who grow from it.

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

Podcast #20: Teachers College Institute


Berkley TchrsBerkley School District sent a group of eight educators, administrators, and teachers to the Teachers College Small Group and Conferring Institute. In this podcast, five of these educators discuss what they learned, how they will use this information to improve student learning, and how they will share this with colleagues.

The five educators who discuss their learning on the podcast are:

Stacie Angel. Instructional Support Specialist. [email protected]
Scott Francis. Principal, Pattengill Elementary. [email protected]
Prima Dailey. 1st Grade Teacher. [email protected]
Lauren Wexler. 1st Grade Teacher. [email protected]
Jennifer Griffith. 3rd Grade Teacher. [email protected]

You can listen to the podcast in the player below, or you can find it on iTunes.


Student Voices Matter

Notes from the Classroom
InsideOut Literary Arts Project gives student voices power through presence and audience at Western

InsideOut Literary Arts Project empowers student voices through presence and audience

I was thrilled.

On a visit to Western International High School, a Detroit Public School close to the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, I had the opportunity to witness a poetry reading by students who had been part of the legendary InsideOut Literary Arts Project. As is clearly demonstrated on their Facebook page, InsideOut empowers students throughout Detroit by affording them a vehicle to express their thoughts and feelings in creative and unfettered ways. The work dispels despair and replaces it with hope.

Students read, recited, and performed their poetry in Western’s black box theatre. Poems spoke of the reality of growing up amidst the challenges of adolescence. Some poets spoke of the inequity and indignity faced by people of color, and the societal challenges we all must address in order to create a more just reality for everyone.

What struck me as most meaningful was the profound feeling of liberation that accompanied the opportunity to share. While students had no illusions that their situations would change quickly, what endures with me is the profound feeling of empowerment that was on display. Kids’ voices were heard. There is real power in providing a time and place for students to express themselves.

InsideOut enables students to live a writerly life. Kids understand the power that comes with self-expression, and leverage it to speak up and speak out. Messages of hope abound. Students’ voices are heard!

rick josephRick Joseph (@rjoseph852) is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

Learning from My Mistakes

Notes from the Classroom

One of the best parts of being a teacher is that I’m always learning. Every year, I learn more about pedagogy, reading, and writing, so I know with one hundred percent certainty that I am not the same teacher I was when I started. I love the learning process and I wouldn’t change it for a thing, but every once in a while I can’t help but think that if I could travel back in time, I’d love to share some much-needed guidance with myself as a first-year teacher.

1. Don’t Take Home So Much Grading

I’m surprised that that first year (and for many years afterward, actually), I didn’t drown in a sea of grading. I would usually grade the quick stuff first, and then I’d tackle the dreaded essays. And, oh, those essays. I would carefully read each one, correcting grammar and mechanics, and commenting on word choice, style, and content. Then, when I finally passed them back, I’d be so frustrated that my students barely looked at what I’d written. I tried different protocols for having students review their feedback and set goals, but ultimately it didn’t make much difference. So, the argument I’d make to myself back then: you should stop.

Now, stay with me here. I’m not advocating being lazy or leaving students’ work without feedback. Quite the opposite, actually. The students wouldn’t read my comments and feedback because it was too late. They’d already felt like they had finished the project and moved on to the next unit. All of that precious feedback just seemed like criticism. Now, I still give my students all of that good feedback, but I try to do more of it before they ever turn the final draft in.

This has been a huge shift in my mindset and my instructional planning. In the past, I would teach a series of lessons, which the students would practice through carefully crafted assignments (most of which I’d created). Once I felt they were ready, I would present them with the final project or essay. This model creates more problems than it solves, though. First, the lessons are disconnected from the ultimate goal, so it’s no surprise that the kids aren’t always very motivated. And second, I had double the grading: first the assignments for practice, then the essay that they completed at the end.

Now I try to frame our instruction around our end goal. We have plenty of time to work together in class, and the mini-lessons are grounded in doing that well. Students have the opportunity to apply these lessons and practice in class, which gives me a chance to read their work and give them feedback as they go. And the best part is that they’re actually using that feedback!

2. You Don’t Have to Be the Expert

Again, this sounds counterintuitive at first. You’re the teacher, and they’re the students.  Of course you’re going to be the “expert” in most regards, but as a Language Arts teacher, I took this to the extreme too often and, as a result, failed to use some great resources and opportunities.

I believe in writing with my students. I always have, and I probably always will. It’s important that my students see that I, too, am a writer and that we are all learning. I know the power of modeling the process, but in my first years as a teacher, I thought this meant that I always had to provide the models. Creating model writing for everyshutterstock_269516258 skill we learn? That’s exhausting – and unrealistic! If I want to enforce the idea that writers are always learning, why on Earth was I always expecting myself to write the “how-to” examples of “good” writing?

Now I know the value of mentor texts. I’m still writing alongside my students, and I still model the process, but now we pull our wisdom from great writers. When I need to teach a lesson on writing leads, instead of preparing a list of types of leads, then teaching them to my students one by one and modeling each one as we go, we study texts that we like. We pay attention to what hooks our attention and what doesn’t, and we use these texts as tools to teach us how to do it better.

So, if I could travel back in time, I’d never shortchange myself the opportunity to learn most things on my own, but I have to wonder where I’d be in my learning journey now if I had learned these two revelations a bit earlier.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant 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.

Mississippi: The Most Southern Place

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

This blog was written before the recent horrible events at Delta State University. My thoughts are with the community and its many warm and kind people. 

shutterstock_80645992A few years back I recognized that I was getting stale—not bad, just not good—and that I was becoming calcified in my self-assurance. I don’t remember an exact moment when I noticed it. In any case, I didn’t want to become the teacher who boasts 20 years of experience, when he really means two years of experience repeated 10 times. I looked around until I found a seminar given by Columbia University and Theater for a New Audience, on teaching Shakespeare. I applied and was lucky enough to get in.

That first experience took me apart. It changed everything about me and how I teach, and I’ve been addicted to seminars ever since. In the years since then, I’ve been all over the country, attending just about anything that’ll let me in. The results have varied from transformative to “at least I got a free poster.” I like it best when I come away changed, when I feel like the ground has shifted under my feet and I need to rebuild. For me, that’s the marker of effective professional development.

PD’s Broader Purpose

Sometimes, though, a seminar isn’t as much about learning a new approach or finding something to build into my own practice. It’s about the landscape and the people I meet. It’s about changing the way I think about myself, as a teacher, a student, and a human being.

I find that being around really good teachers—smart, inspired, creative, risk-taking teachers—is what changes me. I like being in the “learning chair”: the worst teacher in the room, the least informed person in the seminar. It means I’ll be learning.

IMG_0514This year found me at Delta State University in Mississippi, “the most Southern place on Earth.” There, among outstanding teachers from all over the country, I spent an exhausting week working through everything that the Delta has to offer.

The Delta is a place of conflicted history and rich culture. Teachers and caretakers there are charged with the task of tending a dying region, while parceling out the memory to everyone they meet. And so this seminar fell into the category of ground shaking and attitude changing. It forced us to think about places almost none of us had visited, from an old cemetery for Chinese immigrants, to an aging Jewish synagogue, to Po’ Monkey’s Juke Joint, perhaps the last “true” juke joint in the Delta, and a place where people dance with abandon as the night grows late.

Rediscovering Mockingbird, in the Courtroom

One afternoon, my classmates and I were able to participate in a panel discussion on the Emmett Till case. On the panel were the last people, other than his murderers, to see Till alive: his uncle and an FBI agent who reopened that case in 2004. The discussion took place in the actual courtroom where the original miscarriage of justice occurred.

Those of us in the language arts huddled afterward to talk about the connections to To Kill a Mockingbird. Being in the place makes the emotions of the novel more real. The ghosts are real and the voices seem to seep in from the gallery, and I feel closer to the truth of the books I’ve taught for years.

Keeping Traditions Alive in the Classroom

IMG_0649On our last day in the Delta, I made a mojo, a little pouch that contains bits and pieces of the places you visited, people you met, and sites you want to return to someday. You display it somewhere people will see it and ask about it, and every time you talk about it, the magic of the mojo gets stronger.

Like that mojo, Mississippi offered a strange mix for me. I didn’t walk away with a notebook full of new techniques—I did get some, though. But when I see a guest lecturer pick up a diddley bow—a guitar made out of a cigar box, broomstick, and a single string—and pull so much emotion out it while he teaches a class of rapt students about the history of the blues in the Delta, I understand how important passion is to teaching. I see how being able to demonstrate something, and let students try it themselves, makes learning so much richer.

Even though so much of what I saw showed me something that was slipping away, or already gone, I wasn’t sad. It’s another of those weird paradoxes of this place. All of the people I met have a sense of duty, to the past but also to the future. They tell stories to us, teachers from all over the United States, trusting that we will carry them back with us and teach them to our students, so that the sound of the blues, that heartbeat rhythm, won’t disappear.

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.


Google Classroom, Part 2: The Digital Writer’s Notebook

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Note: In “Google Classroom, Part 1: Going Paperless,” I wrote about the change to a (mostly) paperless classroom once my district went 1:1 with Chromebooks and I started using Google Classroom.  In this entry, I discuss how I am grappling with no longer using a traditional, paper writer’s notebook.

471520595The writer’s notebook is almost a sacred, mythical element of the writer’s workshop.  It is where students’ writing lives take shape and are documented over the course of a year.  In my classroom, the writer’s notebook held everything, and I mean EVERYTHING.  Any paper I handed out was immediately taped or glued into the notebook, even if it had to be turned on its side or folded over two times.  The writer’s notebook was our textbook. So when I heard each one of my students would be getting a Chromebook, I was excited about the possibilities and what that could mean for student writing.  But what nagged at me was the loss of the traditional, tangible writer’s notebook.

I spent the summer asking other ELA teachers how they planned to use Chromebooks in conjunction with their traditional notebooks and searching the web to see what other teachers of reading and writing were doing.  Nothing that I found was exactly what I was hoping to find.  I wanted to see or read about someone who fully transitioned their students to a digital writer’s notebook, but I just couldn’t find what I thought would suit my and my students’ needs.  I really didn’t want to start the year having kids split between the traditional notebook and their Chromebooks, but I wasn’t sure what else to do.

But we did start the year just like that: split between the two worlds.  I was afraid kids would feel really disorganized (maybe I was afraid I would be the one to feel disorganized!), but they seemed to take it in stride.  As I started using Google Classroom daily to assign work and give students copies of documents, I found myself thinking less and less about the traditional writer’s notebook, and not because I was actively trying to stop using it.  It was almost an unconscious decision to stop using the hard copy notebook.  I didn’t intentionally mean for it to happen; it just kind of did, and everything was OK.  Kids didn’t stop brainstorming or drafting or collaborating.  They were still doing those things, but in a different way, maybe a better way, and in a way that possibly felt more natural to them. 

164404249Instead of kids bringing their notebooks to one another and reluctantly allowing a partner to write on their prized draft, kids are sharing documents with one another and setting the editing level based on their comfort, with many choosing to only allow their partners to comment on a document.  They no longer have to worry that someone is going to “mess up” their paper.  They can simply focus on the comments, and especially relish hitting the “Resolve” button when they have revised something.  I think it’s more than just reading the comments and making changes, though; kids are having conversations via their comments about writing as well as having conversations about their writing out loud.  The conversations about writing are multilayered.  If you’ve ever seen a teen text and talk to someone at the same time, you know that holding multiple conversations on various platforms is a way of life.  And students also seem to be more responsive to my suggestions because my comments don’t physically change their writing; they are seen as just that: comments and suggestions.  

We recently held a parent workshop about using the Chromebooks, and the parents commented about how writing and taking notes electronically felt unnatural to them, but to our students it feels natural because this is how they have grown up. Despite the successes we’ve had in moving much of our work to Google Classroom, I still worry sometimes if I will suddenly feel the loss of the traditional writer’s notebook in a way that I can’t fathom right now.  I wonder if there will be some intangible loss in not being able to turn the pages of a notebook and see the progression of a writer. I wonder if students’ thinking will become too discrete and disjointed because the flow from idea to idea and unit to unit is lost.

185432726I had toyed with the idea of having students use a single, running Google Doc to keep a notebook, but that doesn’t work as easily as a traditional notebook does, especially when using Google Classroom, because some of the documents would be in Classroom and some would be in the running Google Doc.  I thought toggling between the two would be difficult.  Obviously, no single platform seems to be perfect (it’s unlikely that anything will ever meet every need/want). Despite the misgivings I may have, my students do not seem to be having the same internal struggles that I am having.  Using their Chromebooks has quickly become second nature, with the biggest complaint being that the WiFi isn’t working quickly enough!

JScreenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMianna 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.  She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine Library Media Connection.

My Army of High School Readers Goes Into Battle

Notes from the Classroom

So about a month ago, I imagined my Army of Book Nerds.  I was going to train my tenth grade students to go out into the world as ferocious, voracious readers. I had a list of awesome things I was doing: shared Goodreads accounts, bulletin boards of suggested titles, a book room meticulously organized by subject and student interest.  Today, sitting at my desk listening to Patty Smyth belt out “The Warrior,”  this is what I’ve got:

smallbulletin board

I took the book recommendations down on October 1 to force myself to replace them with new ones.  It’s November 4. Guess I’ll shoot for new recommendations bi-monthly?


smallbook room

Welcome to my meticulously organized book room.
We’re not even going to talk about the disaster that was the Goodreads accounts.
School is messy. Teaching is overwhelming.  Some teachers manage to keep it all organized and keep all the balls in the air while they juggle grading and planning and new initiatives and parent phone calls. I’m not that teacher.

But, I’m not calling my army defeated  just yet.

Last night I received the following email from one of my reluctant readers who I had previously had no success with matching to a book.


I just have to say that I’m about 92 pages into “Little Brother,” and this is the best book I have ever read! Thank you for assigning me to this book.



smallsign out

My book room may be messy, but check out how many of my books are being read!




And look how engrossed they are in their books!




Slowly but surely, I am beginning to establish a community of readers in my room.  We read every single day with no exceptions. It’s only ten minutes, but I refuse to compromise that time.


And, I think it’s important that kids know that I love to read.  These are all the books I’ve read since school started.

smallmy books

Ten minutes at the beginning of every class, every day means I’ve been able to power through quite a few books in two months. I talk about them as I’m reading; some of the books have since been read by students.

 After a quick survey of my classes, I learned:

  • 71% of my students identify themselves as readers–people who genuinely enjoy reading.
  • 16% of students identified themselves as new readers! They’ve never thought of themselves as readers before this year, but they’re starting to enjoy it. That’s huge. One wrote a note on the bottom of the survey:  “Keep introducing new material without taking no as an answer (p.s. thank you for that).”

But that leaves 29% of my kids who still do not enjoy reading. Of those, two thirds said they can’t find good books that interest them. The other third simply said “no time.”  I need to target those kids and help them find the right books. And, I need to continue building time into my class for independent reading.  What’s the point of soldiering on through a complicated whole class text if student are not willing to read on their own? What I’ve learned: Slow down. Find the right books. Give students time to read those books.

Because the students all need time. 55% of my “readers” say they never have time to read anymore. If they aren’t given time in class, they simply don’t do it–even though they love it! I asked for suggestions and they gave comments on their surveys like:

  • “Create more hours in the day.”
  • “No homework–just reading!”
  • “Tell my swim coach I need time to read.”

They’re busy. I’m busy. That’s why most of my plans fell by the wayside.  But reading doesn’t need to be a complicated set of plans and initiatives. We will keep marching along, and hopefully I’ll keep picking up new readers along the way.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fourteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, English 10, Debate, and Practical Public Speaking.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.


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.