#Celebratelu: Celebrating collaboration

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

Looking back on my teaching life, something I am doing more and more of these days, I count myself lucky to have had the chance to fashion Room 202 into a sort of teaching lab for new ideas.  We took Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s ideas for the “3 Big Questions” and nonfiction signposts for a test run, and we tried out their Book-Head-Heart reading strategy as well; when Katherine Bomer wrote her brilliant book on essaying, my sixth graders dived right into their own journeys of thought; my reading workshop would not be what it is without Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse whose student-centered thinking keeps me honest, or Linda Reif whose practices anchor so much of our work.  In lieu of colleagues in my building to work with, it’s been these teaching greats who have been my virtual collaborators, the ones who’ve kept my teaching life intellectually interesting and rich.

So, I was thrilled when Karen Caine asked if she could try out some writing workshop ideas in Room 202.  Karen’s book on persuasive writing has been the foundation of our persuasive writing unit for many years, and I was excited to learn more about her idea for writing clubs.

Karen worked her magic with my eager kiddos, introducing the idea that we would be writing about our persuasive topic research in a different way; rather than going straight for the 5 paragraph format they’ve been used to writing since third grade, we would reach into our narrative writing toolkits and try to aim for emotion and personal investment.

It was such a pleasure to listen in on Karen’s mini-lesson and her back and forth with my kiddos.  They could not wait to get to work, and I could not wait to read what they were able to come up with.  A few days later, once drafts were completed, Karen returned to explain what writing clubs could be and how we could use them to improve our writing, which I tried to chart in the moment:

Table groups of students went to work right away, as we dashed about the room observing and taking notes.  The next day, I gathered my writers to discuss what the process had felt like, and what they had made of the task:
*they liked that they were able to:
– hear lots of different voices instead of just one (Mrs. Smith) which allowed for  lots of varied ideas about how to tweak their writing.
– have the chance to explain their thinking in more ways than just one allowed them to clarify their writer’s thinking 
-listen to others’ read their writing which gave them ideas 
-get affirmation for what was good writing  which was motivational and just felt good
*things we need to work on:
-too many suggestions were sometimes confusing, so we need to find a way to be more specific in asking for writing advice
-some people wanted to read their whole piece and that made it hard to remember where to give -suggestions, so we need to pick and choose one or two places in our writing 
-(my observation) students were resorting to writing cliches – “you needed more details” was the inevitable suggestion, even though students complain that teachers tell them to do this all the time and they don’t know WHICH details or HOW to provide these
-(my observation) we need to work on the language of writing asks and writing gives; there needed to be a consistent language for the club members so that club time is efficiently spent – i.e. that there is time left for students to return to their desks and write.
Writing clubs in the way Karen has imagined its orchestration and function feels so much more authentic and student driven than the partner peer editing I had tried for some time and abandoned.   I learned so much from our first try at this, and look forward to our next round as much as my kids do.  This, I believe, is know-how they can take into their writing work for years to come, whether in a formal setting as a class or as ad hoc groups they organize for themselves.  Fabulous!

#Digilit Sunday: Love, actually, is at the heart of conferring

# DigiLit Sunday is hosted today by Julieanne Harmatz @ To Read To Write To be


This week’s topic is conferring.

Here’s the truth: I work hard and try to get better at all of the things in my teaching tool box, but I never feel I can get to where I want to be in the practice of conferring.  Julieanne is right in saying this on her post today, conferring is “the part you always wish you could have done better”.

And yet, conferring drives where and how and and at what pace we make our way through reading and writing workshop.  Conferring gives me insight into my students, to what gets in the way of their reading and writing, to how they strategize on their own to move themselves along, to the way the strategies I’m teaching them helps in this process.

Conferring also helps me see my sixth graders for the funny, quirky, inventive, and sometimes scared young people they are: they want to do better, they hope that we can help them, they want us to be on their side in this journey through school.  Even though conferring is the best way I can assess where my students are in their learning continuum, I know that it is important for me to try to make our conferences stress free…something my kids look forward to, not dread.

Last Saturday, Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan shared their thoughts about the language we teachers use in assessment in their powerful Ed Collab session:


I’ve watched this several times over, and taken copious notes of the wisdom they so generously shared.  Their thinking leads me to want to rethink and reframe the way I approach conferring.  Here are some of my favorite jottings – their thoughts in blue, mine in black:

*We need to redefine our stance towards assessment and feedback, we need to make it a part of our every day life. My conferring notes need not be something restricted to just our one on one meeting times, they should reflect the other aspects of each student’s life – the rich tapestry composed of all I take note of during their learning days.

*The more we allow kids to see the way they crafted pathways to their own success, children come to understand that this is a part of the learning process.  We can help our kids keep track of and celebrate the steps they’ve taken to grow as readers and writers – we can make this more visible to them, a critical step in ensuring that our kids understand the arc of the learning process.

*Our kids need to know why we assess and that there is a range of ways in which we as teachers assess…kids have to see that they are part of the assessment process, that is not just something done TO them.  I listened to this over and over again to parse through its wisdom, and think about this range of assessment and how to harness what I learn from my kids for my kids.

*The big part of creating a mindset of looking at data in a positive light is that kids can own their learning and recognize that they have agency over their learning.  This is a powerful reminder that I must find ways to transfer what I learn through assessment to my students so that they have an understanding of their progress.  This understanding is really the key to  their sense of agency in their own learning.

*We need to remember that kids are  at the center of everything we’re doing and that nothing is more powerful in teaching than taking careful notice of our students as learners and as people.  Well, I teared up here, because, really, this is what it’s all about- it’s the essence of doing the work I love to do.  

Clare and Tammy have helped me redefine the purpose of conferring in this new school year…and for that, I am ever grateful.