It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading (#IMWAYR): Takeaways from Colleen Cruz’s “The Unstoppable Writing Teacher”


For my first PD book of the summer, I turned to Colleen Cruz because (having been in several of her sessions at TC over the years) I think I needed to hear her voice: calm, knowledgeable, reassuring, and full of delightful humor.  And, having come through a year of many stops in my writing teacher life, I loved the title of her book.  I, too, would like to be an unstoppable writing teacher.  Here are some of my takeaways, notes to myself that I will follow through with in the new school year.

From Chapter 1: A Teaching Mindset

Colleen uses the metaphor of the sand mandala (created after much study and thought by Buddhist monks, only to be swept away once created) to get at an essential truth about teaching: its impermanence.  Here’s what she has to say:

I encourage you to consider, just for this moment, your teaching as crafting a sand mandala.  You go through your year, a year that took many years and months to prepare for.  You create something beautiful and intricate and exquisite to admire.  Then, you sweep it away.  You drop it in the river of teaching time as a blessing for your future teaching self, for other teachers, and more importantly, all the children who have not yet been taught.

This is such a liberating way to look at each teaching year – you gave it your all, based on all you’ve learned and all you know, but when it ends, it’s time to look to the future and, in a sense, begin again.  This is why I throw away my lesson plan books at the end of each year; I don’t want last year to be a template for this new year, when I will have new knowledge and new kids. Each new school year should be a sand mandala of its own, well designed and carefully crafted, but when it ends…it ends.

From Chapter 2: I don’t know what to teach this student.  He’s a much better writer than I am:

I would have to say, this is my favorite chapter; it is so filled with meaty ideas about addressing the writing needs of our gifted students, and it answered so many of the questions I have had about how to teach these kids in a meaningful, lasting way.

When someone is a good writer…they are used to compliments.  They know they are good at what they do…Those general pieces of praise do nothing to move the writer to new heights.  What can help is to see, really see, and to describe what is being seen to the writer…you will notice the things that you are not saying much about, or finding yourself sort of looking for things that you expect to be there that might not be as honed as you might have expected.  You might also be able to best see what the student is gesturing toward but hasn’t quite mastered.

I see this kind of re-seeing as part and parcel of what Colleen asks us to do with our gifted students – to reconsider our stance. When a student like this sits next to me for a conference, I have most likely just met with students who are struggling to find ways to say what they want to say.  These students are not gesturing towards sophisticated craft moves or thematic stances, they are still discovering what these moves look like and sound like.  The inclination to compliment and move on is so natural, and I always feel as though I am in some way letting this student down – both in terms of what I have to offer, as well as in the amount of time I allow for what little I have to say.  This chapter was full of ideas about how to nudge gifted writers forward:

  • building better tool boxes with more sophisticated mentor texts
  • sharpening the “upper reaches” of our own writing knowledge
  • reaching for common go-to teaching points that even sophisticated writers need specific guidance in

Finally, I loved the idea of creating a plan for acceleration for these writers – this would be so motivational; it would ensure that these writers will remain engaged and challenged all year.

From Chapter 5: “I’m finding some student writing repetitive and boring”:

When I read this line, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders: “It’s one of the dirty little secrets of teaching writing. Sometimes it can feel boring.”  Umm…yes!  This is really my writing teacher life!  It does get trying, at times, to maintain a certain freshness in terms of response when you are reading about that amazing roller coaster ride and a secret part of yourself is going: this is the 1,250th. time that I’ve read about a roller coaster ride in my teaching life…sigh.

Colleen asks us to do two important things which can shift our stance: invite risk taking and believe in the writer’s intent.  In the case of the latter, I loved this:

The last suggestion I would make is probably the toughest, most risky , and also the most rewarding…It requires a leap of faith.  It’s something I learned directly from Lucy Calkins, which is that we need to believe that students do have something important to say and they need us to help them get at it.  When we read the sort of dull generic story…we need to act bowled over.  We should say, “Wow! Look at this writing. It feels so big to me.” And it’s in the act of believing in the author’s intent and prodding the writer to talk more about his intent, always leaving room for the young writer to draw her own conclusions about significance, that many writer’s find their way to their own truth – a truth they sometimes felt but didn’t know.  We need to do this even if we have some doubts and aren’t entirely convinced there is something more meaningful there.

That act of believing is one of those deliberate teacher stances that is vital to our kids, but something we really have to will ourselves to do.  The act of truly believing in the author’s intent allows us to prod her into something more than just another story about a roller coaster ride.  This is something to remember and live by every teaching day.

The second part of this equation is to create and maintain an environment that encourages risk taking.  So much of real learning takes place when we allow our kids to step outside our lesson plan box and figure out something for them selves. Letting kids know that taking risks is something to be celebrated in our classrooms invites creativity and authentic learning.  As Colleen writes: “When we make a child famous for doing something, or getting close to doing something we want the rest of the class to try, we go a long way toward making this option more enticing to others.”  A classroom full of famous kids – that’s what I want.

Chapter 9: “I teach grammar but my kids don’t learn it”.

I grew up in a time when grammar was taught like math, and was all about being called up to the board to diagram sentences and be able to identify obscure grammar rules in long-winded sentences.  It wasn’t much fun, which is why I think I tend to try to infuse my grammar lessons with so many games – fun, but not necessarily the way to teach grammar so that it makes sense, sticks, and shows up consistently in my kids’ writing.

I loved the way Colleen explained grammar as inquiry work, where students can study mentor texts and note “what they were seeing, not seeing, and saying about what they saw.” Collaboration and conversations built around such inquiry work and carried through the year would be a rich way to expose our students to grammar in a way that would stick.  Colleen also points out that schools should develop a grammar scope and sequence so that there is a clear and consistent progression of grammar knowledge and skills for students to build upon.  This was a chapter full of concrete ideas I can teach, as well as “big picture”planning guides which I can use.

Chapter 12: “I want kids to write about what they care about, but so much of what they care about feels brainless and superficial to me.”

No surprise, but my eleven and twelve year old kiddos could care less about most of the issues I feel most passionately about.  And, of course, the reverse is also true.  So, reading what Colleen has to say about this was so interesting and it, too, has shifted my thinking and planning for next year:

Pop culture can be used as a carrot to get students in the door to learn about the things we wish they would learn about.  We can use the things we know our students are most passionate about to teach them the things we know they most need to know.  All of a sudden, pop culture is my favorite thing on the planet.

Student interest questionnaires, and specific ways of using pop culture references to teach structure, craft, or meaning, and examples of ongoing classroom work were really helpful in terms of offering me a “how to do this”.

Chapter 13: “Name your monster”:

This chapter connected to the work I’ve been doing with Dr. Mary Howard’s Good to Great Teaching.  It’s a given that problems arise in teaching, and it’s also a given that there are some issues that remain a teaching challenge no matter what we try or where we turn.  Rather than sweeping these under a rug in some far away attic, Colleen and Mary offer a way for us to evaluate these stumbling blocks, and begin to craft ways of growing our teaching practices out of quagmires into and into productive solutions that work for us…and our kids.                                                                                                                           Colleen encourages us to name these monsters, list them and then:

…try to use what patterns you saw when looking across your list.  What does this pattern say about you? What does it say about your situation? See if you can rename your monster as a challenge that you can overcome…We are all more likely to vanquish more of our monsters  if we not only envision our plan and the monsters demise, but also if we anticipate the obstacles we will face and make a plan for overcoming those as well.

This is work we can accomplish as individuals, but also as teams and departments.  I can see this as an excellent alternative to dry and meaningless faculty meetings – how much more meaningful would it be to sit down with our colleagues and help each other name problems we see and work through plans of action together?

The Unstoppable Writing Teacher  was a wonderful gateway back into thinking about writing workshop for the new school year with excitement and anticipation.  Bring it on, sixth graders!

10 thoughts on “It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading (#IMWAYR): Takeaways from Colleen Cruz’s “The Unstoppable Writing Teacher”

  1. I’ve read this book and didn’t take the time to map out my take-aways as well as you did. I read it in vacation mode, so it was quick. I should go back and mark and learn again. Thanks for the reminders and the push.

  2. What an inspirational-sounding book! I’ve never heard of Cruz before (possibly because I’m a secondary-level teacher–does she have an elementary slant?) but I always need some encouragement and practical applications before (and during) the school year. I’m always searching for ways to keep my instruction fresh and unpredictable (so my students don’t get bored). Thanks for such a wonderful review!

  3. I’ve seen this book, & wonder if I want to get it. I’m not sure since I’m not returning, but I loved all the ways you shared here Tara. You gave me insight into the book, & I loved your intentions and goals for yourself this coming year, too. Because I had students two or three years I never could plan the same things, always a different approach, always new experiences. It kept me learning too of course. Thanks for this wonderful post!

  4. I love the way you organized this post!
    I got this book at nerdcamp, I’m looking forward to it. I don’t teach writing, but I’ve been heading more in that direction lately, so it’s so good to stay up on current practices!

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful post and book review. I have been wanting to read this book since I saw it and now you have inspired me to start reading it TODAY! I connected most with the comments about what to say to the good writer and that compliments aren’t helping them move forward. Thanks again, Tara. I really enjoy all your posts but this one was particularly good!

  6. I’m afraid I read this book like Margaret did–too quickly in vacation mode! And I didn’t really like it. But your review convinces me that there is much to value and much I need to pay more attention to.Will be revisiting more slowly! I did love the sand mandala metaphor–one I’ll be sharing with my pre-service teachers this fall. I also appreciate the way you organized this post. I struggle to manage professional development book reviews and often end up putting them off til I don’t want to write them at all anymore. I’m going to borrow your format of sharing a few key takeaways and see if that helps me write. Thanks, Tara!

  7. Tara, your review of this book is so valuable. You gave me enough information that I really felt like I could make a decent decision about whether or not to purchase my own copy (I will). Teaching writing is still the hardest thing in teaching for me. I know it has a lot to do with the fact that I have my own insecurities about writing, and also that teaching writing is so MESSY. It is so not a neat and tidy thing to teach. I think this book may be very helpful to me. Thanks! 🙂

  8. Pingback: Your Heinemann Link Round-Up for the Week of July 26–August 1 - Heinemann

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