Monday, March 31, 2014

It's Monday! What are You Reading? Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohostIt's Monday! What are You Reading weekly on their blogs.   To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

During parent conference week, our school hosted our annual Scholastic Book Fair and one of my students brought this new book to my attention.  It was just published in March and is still available only in hardcover in the stores, but is available in paperback through Scholastic.  After reading the blurb, I immediately knew I needed to read this book and would love it so I was so lucky one of my former students bought it for me! Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz is a historical fiction book based on the true story of Jack Gruener.  I love books based on true stories! 

In this story, Yanek Gruener (Jack Gruener) lives in Poland in the late 1930's with his family when the Nazis invade and take over.  After not being allowed to go to school, having to hide with his family in cramped spaces, having curfews, seeing neighbors get shot on the street for no reason by the Nazis, Yanek never knew it could get worse…but it does. Yanek is separated from his family and sent to a concentration camp, but he never loses his determination to survive.  Over the next six years of his life, he has to endure pain and horror in ten different concentration camps! Throughout these ten concentration camps, you can feel his pain and agony as the reader and want so badly to reach out into the pages of the book to help him.  

At the end of the book, Alan Gratz includes an afterword that explains which scenes were taken directly from Jack Gruener's personal experiences during the Holocaust. Jack Gruener lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and he still bears the tattooed number he was given by the Nazi's. 

In fifth grade, we have a historical fiction book club unit in reading workshop and I will definitely be ordering more copies of this book so a book club can read it! 

Enjoy reading this week!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March Madness Book Edition 2014: Our Final Four

Last week, we voted and narrowed it down to our Final Four! This year, we have had many debates and re-votes because of ties.  There are so many great books in our March Madness Book Edition so it makes it very hard to vote and choose one over another! Below is our March Madness bracket that shows how we are narrowing it down each time.  

The books in our Final Four are: 


We will vote this week to see which two will be in our championship round! This is going to be another tough week for voting! 
Stay tuned! :)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Magic of Three in Student Writing

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at, but the ones that have to do with education are here.

One of the reasons that I have been wanting to revise some of our realistic fiction units is because of the number three. Many of our teachers discovered a formula that they could give students for story writing that would almost always meet standard on state narrative writing assessments. The main character has a problem. He/she tries once to solve it, tries a second time, and then success on the third try. Stop and think how many of your favorite narrative stories follow this formula. Hmmm. Not too many! When I think of my favorite stories, I don't go straight to fairy tales. Stop and think what realistic fiction books could serve as mentors for this formula. Hmmm. I don't have one.

As a non-proponent of three's in story structure, I am surprised that I fell for the magic of three in our work session with Christine Holley, one of our district's Staff Developers from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. (We are incredibly fortunate in our district to have several visits from Staff Developers during the school years and I wrote about this one already once before.) Christine and Mary Ehrenworth wrote From Scenes to Series, one of the books for first-grade in the Units of Study that Heinemann published last year. One of the sessions in this unit emphasizes the importance of patterns in fiction writing, and they point out Cynthia Rylant's use of 3's in Henry and Mudge- The First Book. When I analyzed this pattern closely using The First Book, I found that actually, Cynthia Rylant even uses patterns of 4--the pattern of three is especially strong in Henry and Mudge and the Happy Cat. That being said, think about the following lines from The First Book:

Then they looked at their street with no children. 
Then they looked at Henry’s face. 

Then they looked at each other.

He loved the 
dirty socks. He loved the stuffed bear. He 
loved the fish tank. But mostly he loved 

Henry's bed.

He couldn't smell 
Henry. He couldn't smell his front porch. He 

couldn't smell the street he lived on.

Now, think about challenging young writers to try out using patterns of repetition, emphasizing three. In a recent pre-assessment, one of our first-grade writers wrote:

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Emma and she liked to find things. One day she found a hat. It had a little heart on it. The next day, she found a girl playing hide and seek. Emma said can I play too, please. Yes, said the girl.

What if she had this lesson? What a great way to help her learn to stretch her writing, add some development, and really add voice. I could see her adding: 

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Emma and she liked to find things. One time she found a conch shell. One time she found a hat with a little heart on it. And one time she found a girl playing hide and seek.

In this case, yes, I have done the work, and I would not tell a student exactly what to do--I am just demonstrating how effectively this trick impacts writing and I think that this is an easy enough concept for young writers to try out.

Even though the work that we were doing was with first-graders in mind, I will also share that I have used a similar lesson with fourth-graders, as well, and it has been SO effective at helping them to write more creative informational books. For example, one fourth-grade writer strung together three "Imagine a person who..." in a row and she had a wonderful hook!

Happy Slicing!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Pre-assessing With Different Lenses

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at, but the ones that really have to do with education are here.

My personal one little word may be kindness, but my educational one little word for the 2013-2014 would have to be lenses. I love the concept of reading with different lenses, written about so beautifully by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts in Falling in Love With Close Reading. Yesterday, I wrote about some of the work that our first-grade team did with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Staff Developer Christine Holley here. Our work focused on the new unit of study for Realistic Fiction, From Scenes to Series, that Christine and Mary Ehrenworth wrote last year.

One of the emphases in all of TC's new writing units is on pre-assessment and on demand prompts. At the beginning of the unit, teachers are encouraged to have students write a piece of writing within the upcoming genre. To prepare for our work session, I "borrowed" a first-grade classroom and asked them to show off their narrative skills for me. I asked them to write a story for me, remembering whatever they could from their small moment unit. I made a quick chart for them, reminding them that stories have a beginning, a setting, a character, and an ending. When one of the students asked if he could make up a character, I said sure--they were welcome to use "I" or a made-up character. I just wanted to see how they were at writing a story.

Their teacher brought the pile of "stories" to our meeting and Christine helped us think about how to sort them, using the three different lenses of structure, development, and language/conventions.

I like to go to tournaments. I get trophies. You get to watch other people do their stuff. You could get a medal there, too. Some get first place. Some get last place. Some use weapons.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Emma and she liked to find things. One day she found a hat. It had a little heart on it. The next day, she found a girl playing hide and seek. Emma said can I play too, please. Yes, said the girl.

Looking at these two pieces, we sorted them with the different lenses of structure, organization, and language/conventions. Then, we continued to sort other pieces, using a similar process. The first child's name would go in the following chart under overall organization, since he had no structure of a story in place at all. However, the second child's name could go under elaboration, since she did already demonstrate understanding of story structure; her story had a clear beginning and sense of plot. Her name could also go under punctuation, as she could use some work on end punctuation--names can show up in more than one place!

Christine developed a chart like this one with a group of many teachers and it is incredibly useful for any unit and any grade for establishing strategy groups for targeted instruction. I could see using it at various points in units when students are cycling through pieces, and it would serve as a tool for monitoring progress. 

I have one or two more posts to write about the learning that happened on Wednesday, but this is enough for today. Off to watch some basketball!

Happy Slicing!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Can't Think of Anything to Write About? Picture Your Character in a Place!

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at, but the ones that really have to do with education are here.

We are incredibly fortunate in our district because several times a year, we get to have a staff developer from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project come and work with our teachers. I have yet to meet a staff developer who doesn't thoroughly, 100% inspire me. Kate Roberts, Emily Smith, and Christine Holley currently work with our district and if you know any of them or have been to any of their workshops, then you understand why these are always amazing days.

Yesterday, Christine Holley worked with out first-grade teachers, talking about our Realistic Fiction writing unit. One of the first-grade books in the Units of Study published last spring is From Scenes to Series. This unit contains twenty sessions and moves students through writing single stories to writing series of stories, a la Henry and Mudge,  and then even other series. How amazing is it for our teachers that Christine Holley wrote the book with Mary Ehrenworth?!?!

I wish that I had taken a picture of one of our most experienced teacher's book because it was so covered with highlighting and post-its before Christine even got started with the morning. This particular teacher had decided to venture away from our current curriculum and follow the launch and first couple of sessions from From Scenes to Series. Christine got a little teary to see the life emerging from her book, especially from a teacher who is one of the most effective first-grade writing teachers I have EVER seen! At the end of the day, her comments were "This was AWESOME, as usual. I will use everything I learned immediately! This book is excellent! My kids are much better writers of Realistic Fiction because of Christine!"

Through the work and research that went into developing this book, Christine and Mary moved away from having young writers spend so much time developing and getting to know their characters, a practice that I think could help older students, as well as our first-graders. Instead, right in the first lesson, they recommend having children:

  • Imagine a pretend character and give that character a name.
  • Think of a place where that character would be.
  • Think up some of the adventures that could happen in that place.
  • Tell the story to a partner, and...
  • Write!
Christine did a demonstration lesson right in one of the classrooms, launching the unit and creating this chart for the students, as she taught them the steps and had them practice. She didn't like her chart, thinking it was too messy, but I think that it's perfect and exactly what the teachers and students needed to see to feel comfortable getting going. 

One of the most important take-aways from this lesson for writers of any age is to imagine a place. I can't believe that I have nor thought of this strategy before, because it is SO effective. Go ahead and try it now. It is so powerful to imagine your character in a place when you are trying to think of stories! When you think of your character, and then you think of a setting, writers' block dissipates. My character is at the amusement park...tons of stories. In the woods...stories. Cafeteria...stories. Beach, soccer field, hockey rink, bus, elevator...stories and stories. This strategy solves so many problems including:
  • writers' block
  • the dreaded bed-to-bed stories
  • fantasy embedded into realistic fiction--out, out, out!
  • writing about unfamiliar topics...
I'm sure that there are more advantages to starting with a place, so please feel free to try this and share some! It was so awesome to watch teachers become so excited to teach a unit with new strategies and techniques. 

More to come about this session tomorrow!

Monday, March 24, 2014

It's Monday! Here's What I'm Reading--

A lot of my reading time has been dedicated to reading daily slices, as I am participating in the daily March Slice of Life Challenge, hosted at There are so many people writing wonderful, insightful posts every day and I have felt compelled to read a lot of them! A Snicker of Magic remains on my nightstand, but I have only completed picture books this week. Check out what others are reading through and

A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams and illustrated by Floyd Cooper was one of the wonderful picture books that I read this week. Gregory is a little boy enjoying some independent beach exploration, but wanders a little too far. There are moments of worry, opportunities for prediction, even a little science woven in, as well as beautiful language and pictures. This book would be a great read aloud for younger students!

And the Soldiers Sang by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Brian Kelly caught my eye at the library while I was waiting for my daughter. Who knew I would be crying by the end of it? Had Cecily not appeared right then, I can say with some certainty that I would have been crying hard. I had never heard of the Christmas truce between the soldiers fighting in World War I. Through beautiful language and the story of a young man from Wales, we hear about the night the soldiers set guns down and sang together. This book would work as a paired text with other books about World War I, but have kleenex ready. I'd save this one for older students.

Sixth-graders have been studying Tanzania all year so I was excited to see Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson and illustrated by A.G. Ford at Barnes and Noble. This is the true story about Aunt Sharon and Grandmother Bibi going to visit their family in Tanzania. The descriptions of the lifestyles, safari, and ruins are educational and engaging. I did not realize until I researched the author that Sharon Robinson is Jackie Robinson's daughter and I have a new idol. She has done so much to honor the courage of her father through literature, foundations, and educational opportunities for young people.

What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom is a beautiful allegory that encourages people to embrace new thinking and creativity. It would be a great read aloud for any age classroom, as the message to be innovative is so strong. It could also be a really special book to give to a graduate.

Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure, written and illustrated by Anna Walker, has been showing up on many IMWAYR blogs, so I was happy to pick it up when we were at the bookstore. I had read that adults would love the pictures and I did! My 17 year-old daughter did, as well. We laughed out loud at some of a chicken's facial expressions about things that she finds in a department store. I would love to have a Peggy painting in my home, and I would love to share some of the messages about bravery, resilience, and resourcefulness with any aged classroom.

Happy reading,

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Helping Our Students Navigate Learning

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at my personal blog, because they are slices of daily life,  but this one is directly about education, so I am posting it here, on the professional blog that I share with Melanie Swider.

I have never been great at directions. I remember when I first got my license and my mother couldn't believe that I wasn't sure about how to get to the grocery store. I had my first accident because I couldn't decide which way to turn and concentrated harder on that decision than on staying out of the way of the oncoming car. (We were fine.) Fortunately, I married a guy who always seems to know the right direction to turn. Somehow, he always knows his north and south, even when it's a cloudy day. I don't.

Last weekend, I was in Michigan with our oldest daughter. We had a rental car and had to deal with navigating a completely new city. I loved Ann Arbor, but I don't think that I could provide much accurate description of where everything (almost anything) is. All weekend, I was incredibly grateful for my iPhone and my new favorite app, Waze. Waze told me exactly where to go. All the time. All I had to do was listen to the Waze lady and she knew what the traffic patterns were, whether the roads were closed, and what the shortest routes were. She told me exactly how to navigate. What I realized at the end of the weekend is that I did not even try to learn how to get around Ann Arbor myself because I had Waze telling me what to do.

This morning, lying in bed trying to figure out what to write for my daily slice, I made a connection between my lack of growth as an Ann Arbor navigator and the presentation's message that I gave on Thursday to paras who work with struggling writers: if we always tell students exactly what to do, they won't learn how to do any of it themselves. Learners (and navigators) need time and opportunities to practice just one part of the journey. Sometimes, they might have to travel that one section of the path many times before they continue on, and sometimes a part of the path might have to be shortened. However, once they get it, they can move on and be ready to learn another part.

I would have learned how to get from my hotel to the city's center if I had practiced it and made myself pay attention, but it was easier to just rely on the app. I think that many of our struggling writers, the really struggling writers, the struggling learners, have realized that it is way easier to navigate writing, learning, and school by relying on the adults around them. My message to the paras, and I presented it with a study of how to give a great conference, is that we have to break learning down for our students--give them one thing that they can do almost independently and then give them opportunities to practice it. Sometimes that task might look very different than the other work being done in the classroom, but that's how these students will make growth.

Writing a story, essay, paragraph, sentence, or even a word may feel to some students the way the roads between Detroit and our Ann Arbor hotel felt to me. Waze is okay for me as a navigator (as long as my phone is fully charged), but our students need to learn how to write (or read, or do math...) without a guide for every step of the way.

Happy Slicing,

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why We Should NOT Write on Students' Work

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at my personal blog, because they are slices of daily life,  but this one is directly about education, so I am posting it here, on the professional blog that I share with Melanie Swider.

Yesterday, I gave a workshop to the paras who work in our district within the Special Education Program. Having been a special education teacher myself, before becoming the Writing Coordinator for our district, I know the challenges that these people face on a daily basis and I think that they do some of the hardest work there is.

One of the more controversial points that I made with them (and I was not meaning to be controversial at all!!!) was that adult writing does not belong on student writing. This comment really got some reactions and questions. Here's a sampling, although definitely incomplete of some of the questions and my responses:

 Someone: Do you mean that we should never write on their paper?

Me: That's what I mean. You could use a post-it, or write it on another piece of paper, if you need it for progress monitoring, but, yes, that's what I mean.

Someone Else: Not ever?

Me: (hesitating a moment, debating how much anxiety to cause amidst the people in front of me, then shaking my head) No. Not Ever. (Watching that statement cause a buzz in the audience, waiting a moment.) The research is actually pretty clear and the experts about writing development universally say that we should not be writing on children's writing. In fact, I just had an interesting conversation with another teacher about electronic sharing platforms for student writing and whether teacher comments even belong on them.

Another person: So how are we supposed to read their writing? What if it is illegible?

Me: I am indebted to Christine Holley, our staff developer from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for the lines, "What did you mean to say?" and "what would you want to say now?" Basically, if a child can not write so that we can read it, then the focus of the work should be on oral rehearsal, letter sounds, pictures and labels, word approximations...they may not be ready to write an entire story.

Yet another question: What about the child who refuses to write a single word? He knows that his writing won't be perfect and he won't write unless he is perfect so he just makes me write for him.

The conversation continued, and I am not certain that I have captured all of the questions in the script, but this question is the one that really illustrates the rationale for why we shouldn't write on students' work. When we do, we teach them that their writing is not perfect, not even good enough. We teach them that they need us to translate their thoughts to paper, that any approximation is not good enough. Yes, our writing is much better than theirs. We know how to spell, we know how to write sentences, we have great fine motor skills so our letters are neat and aligned.

We need to give them different messages.

We want struggling writers to believe that what they think is important and what they say is important, so important that we want to capture it in a more permanent form. We want them to believe that even if their writing does not look like a printing press, they are able to express a story, or an opinion, or relay some information and we will work to teach them to do that at whatever level they are on. We want them to believe that the process of writing, at whatever stage they are in, is within their grasp and not so hard that we need to just grab the pencil or the keyboard and take over for them.

To this day, my mother tells the story about driving my grandfather's golf cart and having him reach over and keep his hand on the steering wheel. I think that it may be one of the reasons I can't get her to golf with me. People don't like to have their projects taken over, they don't like to feel incompetent, they don't like to feel like their work is never good enough, or that they need help in order to do it right.  People, children included, want to feel independent and empowered, at any age and level, and we should be striving to provide tools that meet them at whatever level they are to be independent and build skills.

While my daughter is in high school, and her writing skills are a world away from the children that these people are thinking of when they asked the questions, here are some of the responses I got when I asked her about teachers writing on her work:

"It makes me feel inadequate, frustrated, and exasperated  and like I did nothing right. I'm pretty sure that I did not give anyone permission to scribble all over my original work."

"When teachers write all over your work, all you do is look at the scribbles and not at anything else."

"You become trained to think that only the underlined things that say good are the only good things about your writing, while in reality, it could be a solid piece."

And when I asked my sixth-grader, here are some of the responses:

"I kind of just worked on that and now I just have to do more corrections."

"I know that the corrections might be good corrections, but they're really not mine."

"Sometimes, there are corrections and I have no idea what it even means."

A final thought I have about this admittedly controversial topic relates to teaching students within their comfortable zone of learning, professionally known as their zone of proximal development. Best practice is to teach right in that zone, and if that's happening, then we should be able to expect a fair amount of independence, without having to do the work ourselves. 

I'd love to hear the thinking of other bloggers!

And that's all for Day 21 of the Slice of Life Challenge,

Monday, March 17, 2014

It's Monday! Here's What I'm Reading:

I'm doubling up with a slice and an IMWAYR post. Join the slicers at and the Monday book sharers at and You will find amazing readers, writers, and thinkers through these incredible blogs.

I had some uninterrupted time and was able to read Ways To Live Forever by Sally Nicholls cover to cover. I think that this was yet another title that I got through Tara Smith, who has become an important source for my reading life. Sam McQueen is the first person narrator and he tells us right up front on the first page that he has leukemia and he is going to die. The stories that he shares range from lists, to memoirs, to insights, to favorite moments, to awful, horrifically sad and painful events. As I write this last sentence, it occurs to me what an amazing mentor text this book would be if done as a read aloud during a personal narrative unit. I'm not sure, though, that anyone would want to start the year with the level of sadness that exists within these pages and personal narrative writing usually launches the year...

This book definitely engaged me, grabbed my by my hoodie's strings, actually, and didn't let go. I was also grateful for the beginning's list of facts that the narrator provided because they served as an important reminder for the inevitable ending. I admired many of the craft techniques that the author used--there were lists, sketches, footnotes, asides---incredibly creative ways that facts and information could be woven into a narrative story. In the afterward, the author even acknowledged the various contributors, including the people who had provided handwriting, drawings, and cartoons for the book. I wished that some of the characters had been a little more fleshed out. While there were some descriptions of most of them, I found myself beginning to develop theories about them, but not getting a lot of opportunities to substantiate my theories. Maybe it was because I read the book too fast, and maybe the strength of the book just needed to be Sam's account. If any of you read it, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this matter. I definitely recommend it, especially if you know of any children who are dealing with terminal illnesses.

Happy reading and slicing,

Friday, March 14, 2014

SOLC #14: Inspiring Leads in our Informational Writing Unit

Thanks to for hosting the annual Slice of Life Challenge. We are all writing every day for the entire month of March!

I have to admit that I find it hard to always share my life and reflections as a writing coach. In some ways, I am uncomfortable taking any credit at all for the instruction that happens in classrooms. Our teachers work so hard and have been asked to absorb so much in the way of both new curriculum and new instruction. That being said, today I had an incredible shout-out from one of the teachers I've been working with closely, and she inspired me to write about the work that she's been doing in her classroom. She and her team have been piloting the new fourth-grade information writing unit, using the new Units of Study for Writing from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

This teacher has invited me in several times throughout the unit, and I have several posts that I've been crafting to offer peeks into the unit and I apologize for going out of sequence, but I can't resist writing about the lesson that went on today, especially since it was a great slice of life!

The class is up to learning about leads for introductions to informational pieces and I love that in the book, there are options for introductions that include:

  • Questions
  • Fun, surprising, or shocking facts
  • "Imagine" statements
We have added to this repertoire, as we have studied nonfiction books we love, so the choices have been developing.  Today, the teacher taught about the different ways to begin a piece, creating the chart at the right. 

Then, she modeled how writers can even combine techniques., writing on the fly in front of her students on the whiteboard.

Several of her students loved the idea that writers can combine these techniques in one introduction, and it was really fun to watch one of the young writers experiment with this concept on post-its within her writer's notebook. One student's introduction went from:
Why was a patriot a great a great horseback rider and also one of USA's most famous craftsmen?
Imagine a man who could have two wives, 16 children, be a famous horseback rider and be one of USA's most famous craftsmen. That was Paul Revere, but how many jobs did he have? What did he do?

I have to say, even though she still has work to do, it is SO much fun to watch a child play with words, revise during a draft (instead of after a draft), work to integrate newly taught strategies, and think about how to hook readers in an informational unit. I'm so grateful for these teachers for embracing a new unit when there is so much else changing and evolving around them, and I have to celebrate the inspiration that they are to me, to each other, and to their students. Stay tuned for more peeks into the Art of Information Writing.

Monday, March 10, 2014

It's Monday! What are You Reading?

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohostIt's Monday! What are You Reading weekly on their blogs.   To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

I am in the middle of the season for report cards, parent conferences, and testing so I haven't had much time to read children's books but I did make time for the new Lunch Lady book!  I am a big fan of the Lunch Lady graphic novel series by Jarrett Krosoczka so of course I was excited when the tenth finale book came out in the series: Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle

My students and I have been awaiting this book's arrival and although we were excited to read another about another lunch lady adventure, we are sad that it is the finale. It has been spreading through my classroom quickly and kids are trying to figure out what their new gadget is on the last page - Jarrett Krosoczka, please give us a hint!  If you have not had the pleasure of reading the books in this series, add them to the top of your TBR because you will not be disappointed! 

Happy Reading! :)

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm doubling up with my SOLC for Day 10 and an IMWAYR. Check out for other slicers and and for other IMWAYR posts.

Tara Smith recommended Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse in this recent post and she has even shared a video of Karen Hesse talking about the book. Thank you, Tara, for this recommendation. Brooklyn Bridge is about a Russian Jewish family, living in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1903, Joseph Mitchtom is 14, wants to play baseball with his friends, work for money, and visit Coney Island. However, his family has invented the teddy bear, and there is a lot of work to be done on the home front, organizing materials, stitching, stuffing, and supervising younger siblings. While this is an amazing book for an upper elementary historical fiction unit, it also an inspiring mentor text for how we find stories and weave them together with other stories, facts and fiction, imagery and plots, perceptions and realities. I read this book quickly, not savoring it as much as I should have, but it is one that I am keeping on the shelf to read aloud to my 11 year-old, Cecily, once she is taking a break from the annual Battle of the Books at her school.

Happy reading!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Where Does Voice Live in the CCSS for Writing?

Throughout the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by All participants aim to write a post every day for the month of March. When my posts relate to education, you will find them here. Otherwise, find my SOLC posts at

Last Thursday, I attended a presentation that was really a sales pitch for Zaner Bloser writing products. As a district, we are deeply committed to the philosophy and products of the Reading and Writing Project, led by Lucy Calkins out of Teachers College. However, I went to the presentation because I am always interested to hear what else is out there. 

Aside from offering a delicious lunch and unlimited free samples of the materials, the presentation offered several important reminders about how to think about writing. Scott had a handout and an engaging presentation. More than anything, his thoughts about voice in writing are resonating with me. To me, voice is the difference between good and great writing. All four of my daughters write. One of them is structurally close to perfect. However, her writing reads sort of like an encyclopedia. She enjoys writing lab reports and her reflections about her learning are clinical. The other three talk through their writing. I laugh when I read their writing, and when I have to, I wade through the run-on sentences because I enjoy what they are saying, even when they are writing lab reports...

I have wondered and struggled with the limited acknowledgement that the Common Core State Standards gives to voice as an important feature of writing. The fourth anchor standard calls for students to “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” I have always considered this standard to be the one that addresses voice, but Scott pushed my thinking. 

Let’s think about this sentence: I had a good time at the party down the street.  There’s not much voice there. However, what if I change it up to: I had a blast at the barbecue at the Pazzannis' house. I think that there is much more voice coming through in the second sentence and all I have done is made my words more specific. If I were going to expand on this sentence and develop some sort of a narrative piece, then I’m addressing the third writing standard, of developing “real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.” Isn’t it the well-chosen details that give the second sentence more voice?

As a writer and teacher of writing, I would have said that a great way to teach voice to students is to get them to verbally rehearse their writing, and then try to write what they’ve said. However, I am changing my thinking. What if my mechanical daughter learned to change up her sentence structure more? What if she paid attention to the length of sentences and the precise use of punctuation? What if someone challenged her to use not only precise words, but also interesting words? I'm wondering if those changes would coax out the voice that I know and love...

I believe in trait-based writing. Our district’s rubric does not exactly match the traditional traits--ideas, organization, fluency, word choice, conventions, and voice-- but it is close. Scott’s point was that teaching students about the traits of writing--about selecting ideas that matter, details that are relevant, words that make impressions, and transitions that flow--leads to the emergence of voice. I agree.

I have seen many analytic rubrics scored with voice being the only meeting expectations trait. Is this possible? Really, really possible? Or have we just tried to find a place to honor a struggling writer? I am going to be on the lookout for the answer to this question and I am interested in any thoughts that help me wonder more about this!