Book Talks Energize Research Reading & Writing

The Power of a Chart

About two weeks ago, my students and I sat down with two sheets of giant yellow chart paper. On it, we listed every way to take notes that came to our brains; we drew pictures of what they looked like, and we talked about reasons we might chose one over another. I have done this before with my students; it is nothing new. Although I have certainly discussed things like this with my students before, I have never made a wall-chart of note-taking options (See bottom of page 43— Energize Research Reading & Writing).

However, since that chart has been on the wall, it has become one of our most used resources. I see students skimming an article and then glancing up at the chart. They know the importance of choosing the best technique for the source at hand. And they also know that I am holding them accountable for their notes.

Truth be told, I have never placed too much value on notes. I knew they were important, and I told the kids which kind to take and when, but I never spent more than a day going over them. Two weeks later, these are common phrases heard in our workshop:

  • I like how you used different colors to show differences.
  • Do you think I need a Ven Diagram or is this more like a T-Chart?
  • I love bullets, but I think this bullet list needs subtitles.
  • I’m rereading my notes and highlighting them in different colors so I know what information I need, for different sections.

And then on Friday, in block two, the ultimate teacher joy:

  • I love research.
  • Can we research again next week? With new topics?
  • Now I really love this!

What changed?

1. I had them annotate their articles as they read them.

  • They put hearts around places they loved and question marks when they were confused.
  • They highlighted things they knew they might use in their papers.
  • They wrote new questions that were brought up by the text.
  • They drew pictures and labeled them to help them understand.

2. After they had annotated two articles, they took notes.

  • They found ways to bring their thinking on the two articles together.
  • They chose a note-taking format that would work for them.

3. We had an in class gallery walk

  • Everyone left their notes open and we all walked around with post-its leaving comments on our peer’s notes.

Somehow, in the mist of all this, research has become fun.  Kids are using YouTube videos as sources and taking notes on interviews. Their topics are ranging from Child Labor in shoe factories, to Justin Bieber and his musical roots. They’re not complaining about taking notes, in fact, they’re walking back to the chart on their own and spending time thinking about the best way to organize their notes for their paper and for their reading.

All this from a chart? Who knew?

Stay tuned as we learn how to take the notes and create interesting nonfiction feature articles from them!

Book Talks Energize Research Reading & Writing

Handling Uncertainty

In our switch to the Common Core, I’m finding the only way we can really accomplish everything we’re looking for is to let go a bit, to let students have control. If we are going to say that they are ready for the world, we’ll need to stop scripting the perfectly planned research project and start teaching them to overcome roadblocks and create products that will be useful to them or society. Chris Lehman (@iChrisLehman) even goes so far as to say, “when we are the ones rushing ahead, engagement drops dramatically as we take the intellectual rigor out of the job”(10).

Sounds beautiful, letting go and letting the kids take control, increasing rigor— I’m not sure it’s that easy.

But let’s quote Chris again, “If we are developing students to be creative, flexible, independent learners. Then we cannot scrub away opportunity for mistakes to be made and corrections to be learned”(10). We talked about this at our book study and our school librarian offered up the library for hard days. Days were we might be unsure if kids would come out with anything other than frustration that they couldn’t find any information on “The History of Justin Beiber’s Haircuts” or “Why the Eagles Keep Fumbling?” Days where research topics are changed twice, maybe even three times, can we handle the uncertainty of research?

At the end of the day, and with Bill, our librarian at our side, we decided we could in fact handle the uncertainty. But we were wondering, could our kids? What will our kids do in the face of frustration? Is this something we should talk to them about first? Or should we let them struggle and then bring them together to reflect? What about kids who want to research difficult topics, with little text at their reading level?

Feel free to talk back in the comments. Do you let your kids reach frustration? How do you reflect with your class? What did you notice in chapter 1 & 2 that we missed?

If you have the book, Energizing Research Reading and Writing, I’d like to add on that you should check out page 14 for a great way to help your kids generate ideas for research across the content areas.

Classroom Writing


It all started with test prep. I mean, I dread test prep; I value its importance, but I dread test prep. So with persuasive writing test prep, the easiest and maybe one of the most important things I do with my kids is to have them write to a prompt, because really, I don’t give them writing prompts all year, so this practice is important.

Somewhere between test prep and moments of testing anxiety only a teacher can understand, came McLaren.

I know nothing about cars. But, I can definitely pick out a cool car. So what would be cooler than persuading the McLaren MP4-12C to come see us at school? Well, if it actually worked, nothing would be cooler than that. In fact I think it would make test prep authentic, which is really the reason I hate test prep in the first place, the lack of authenticity in the process.

When we started writing our persuasive letters to McLaren and our Principal, I was all about the details— that is providing valid persuasive techniques, putting the thesis statement in the right place, a genuine rebuttal that actually helped the paper. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I realized their reasoning had persuaded me too, learning about this car was one of the most educational things we could do for them and if I could make it happen, I would try.

Before I knew it, the science teacher was involved doing materials science labs and talking about the strength of a carbon fiber body. Then the kids were building their own rubber band powered racecars, and it was happening, it was actually happening.

Our math teacher brought the whole project to a new level, planning out McLaren math and getting the kids to figure out Drag Speed Coefficients and things I do not understand at all. He was even e-mailing the Chief Engineer over at McLaren England; I mean really. And so what had started as a really painful test prep lesson became a community building, learning experience, across three curricular areas— oh and one really amazing day with The McLaren MP4-12C!





During this project, I saw my kids do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. They struggled and didn’t give up: Each subject area really raised the bar with this one, we all expected things out of them we were not sure they had the ability to do. We all watched them fail; we all watched them try again, more than once.
  2. The helped each other: Without me suggesting it, without thinking that if they helped one team they might not win a prize, they selflessly shared tips with their core group of friends and people they rarely talked to. They really wanted everyone to succeed.
  3. They smiled: I see them smile everyday, but this project had some really excited smiles from kids who sometimes struggle to find a reason to smile (See screams of joy when Chad turned on the car stereo and played Taylor Swift for them and gasps of awe as Matt opened and shut the car door).

Then again during this project, I saw adults do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. Jon, Donna, Jen & I worked together as a team: We each changed lesson plans, we each conducted research above and beyond, we were flexible and supported each other in the way coworkers should.
  2. All the people at McLaren Philadelphia and McLaren helping us and making us feel like family, answering our questions along the way, and being excited for us: They didn’t have to, they weren’t making a profit for this, they valued us when we had nothing we could give them in return.
  3. Chad, Alison, and Matt giving up their day to be with us: They stayed way longer than expected; they brought gifts for the kids; they answered countless questions. They got sunburn!
  4. Evan, typically a star in our classroom, came in to help us build cars, take photos, and make sure I stayed sane at the end of the day.
  5. Gerald Catagnus, our principal, who saw the value in our plan and welcomed McLaren into our school.

A Footnote:

This past summer, I attended Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. I remember one class I took with Colleen Cruz, author of Reaching Struggling Writers. Maybe what I remember the most, without looking at my notes, is that if you draw on something kids already think is fun, and then apply writing to it, they’ll be more likely to give you their best work.

Generally speaking, I thought I was pretty good at doing just that. However, it was in this class that I realized I may have been missing some pretty valuable teaching tools. Sports. Video Games. Hunting. Cars. Anything, that I might have previously labeled utterly and totally ummm boring boy?

I made my mind up this summer, that I would open my mind. I would try harder with a topic that my kid’s love, even if the very thought of the topic would be utterly vapid for me.

But in the end, this project, this undertaking, was anything but vapid. In fact it sits high on my teacher shelf of things I loved teaching, loved learning about, and I still can barely believe this all happened to us.


**There was a press release for this day, hence the kid pic love I’m totally able to post. If you love style of these photos, email me at [email protected] , and I can set you up with our amazing photographer Evan.


Classroom Reading

Once Upon a Twice

Once upon a twice, in the middle of the nice, in a middle school classroom, the students had fun during the week of the PSSAs.

? This is not a fairy tale.

But, it does involve a picture book.

It was a book I had forgotten about until retreated by to my familiar and well loved Columbia University Teacher’s College notebooks— it’s where I go when teaching gets hard, because I know if I have the motivation and the joy, my kids will too.

I saw the title, Once Upon a Twice, scribbled across the top of the page, with the words BUY THIS BOOK written in bold and underlined near it. I hadn’t bought the book, but I did remember this youtube video of a five year old reading it.

I also remembered my frustration the first time I had heard this story read to me, the rhythm and rhyme were beautiful, but hard for me to follow and my comprehension was hindered by made up words and out of context places for words with which I was familiar.

And then I remembered the third read of the book at Columbia, when I sorta’ fell in love with this book and it’s whimsy, “a riskarascal in repose, a mouse who stopped—to smell a rose.” I resolved right then that I would read the book to talk to my kids about a time when I, as an adult, struggled with a children’s book.

There is no better time to admit to your kids that reading is sometimes hard for you than during the PSSA. So I ordered the book from Amazon, and we set off to discover a book that at first had stumped me and then had me under its spell. There were giggles, laughs, gasps, and . . . I have to admit it learning—even during the week of the PSSA.

If you’re looking for a book to read to your kids of any age I’m totally recommending Once Upon a Twice by Denise Doyen.

Here are the strategies things I would teach with it . . .

  1. Vocab in Context
  2. Root words, Prefix, Suffix work
  3. Really anything you can think of vocabulary
  4. Foreshadowing
  5. Theme
  6. What to do when reading doesn’t make sense
  7. And for the little guys, using pictures to help with comprehension
Classroom Reading Writing

Product of: Starbucks, Conversations, and Dreaming

Yesterday I was trying to figure out if we have been in school for two weeks or three. I’m starting to feel a sense of urgency in just about everything I do. During the summer there was Starbucks, conversation, and dreaming. Now I reflect, plan, and do, praying that a little bit of sleep makes it into the equation somewhere.

But, I feel like we are gearing up—I’m giving them the tools and structures they’re going to need for the journey this year.

  1. Lots of Reading & Post-It making
  2. A ton of Partner Talk
  3. Generating Ideas to write from

Post-Its. I’m a teacher; I love them, that comes naturally with the job. However, it wasn’t until this summer at Columbia University’s Reading Project that I understood their value for my students. I’m modeling strategies for responding to text in ten-minute mini-lessons and then watching the kids use that strategy on Post-Its in their Independent Reading book. It’s a beautiful thing to see their thinking sticking out on brightly colored notes between the pages of a book.

Partner Talk. I was pretty good about remembering partner talk last year with writing. I understand the importance of talk within the writing process, but this year I added reading partners to the mix. Now, my kids are talking purposely at least twice during the block. Once during reading; once during writing. I’m modeling this talk with my coteachers and other kids in mini-lessons, and mid-workshop interruptions. Sure, I’m hearing off topic talking. Sure, this is taking up valuable time. But, I’m thinking, give me another week or two and everyone will know my expectations for both reading and writing partners—from that point, these partner talk relationships will become invaluable to my instruction.

Generating. It’s weird to say I teach my kids to think up their own ideas. It’s even weird to me that they can’t just do it on their own. I mean they have facebook; they like to post. But, in response to their cries of, “What should I write about today?” I’ve learned the importance of teaching them to generate their own ideas. I try to give them about one generating strategy a week in the beginning of the year to get them going with ideas. Then later in the year, if they come to me with the awful, “What should I write about today?” question, I can simply point them to my wall charts and move on with a smile.

It’s the end of week two, it’s the product of: Starbucks, conversations, and dreaming.

Classroom Reading

I’ve got the Magic

When I think about my time as a child, some of my closest memories are with picture books. I can still remember the thrill of the welcome invitation to jump into Mom’s bed and how fun it was to get tangled in her soft sheets. But mostly, I remember when she finally got my brother and I to be still, and listen to a story. It was magical; it didn’t matter that my brother had picked Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel for the tenth night in a row, because each time she read it I could live in the story and be amazed at Mike’s bravery and strength.

While I have kept these memories close to my heart, I haven’t really used picture books in my teaching. Sure, I’ve used them a few times— Who doesn’t want to read The Lorax during a propaganda unit? And Three Nasty Gnarlies is my favorite book to read them at the end of the year . . . but during my time at Columbia’s Reading Institute I was reminded not only of the magic behind these books, but of their power in a reading classroom (even an 8th grade language arts room like my own).

Reading a picture book that’s written for slightly older kids lends itself to instruction beautifully. First, with an interactive read aloud students can easily practice the skills from the minilesson within the context of a whole story. Picture books that are aligned with your unit of study, done once or twice a week, with a consistent structure provides your kids a wealth of opportunity to practice, without a major loss of time. During your interactive read aloud get kids to turn and talk using prompts like: discover, categorize, question, teach, wonder, compare & contrast. Get them thinking, get them talking, get them to remember the magic too.

The other big bonus of using picture books in your classroom is their ability to be used as a teaching tool in small skill based groups and independent reading conferences. When you see that your kids are struggling with a skill, you can think back to these books and teach from there. It’s so much easier because you already know the text and they do too. This way, let say if you haven’t read the independent reading book they’re reading, you can still teach a skill for them to use within their book. At Columbia they recommended that you actually carry the book with you to your conferences, just in case, and believe me, I’ll be doing just that— hopefully it will work like magic.

Classroom Reading

Because I want to know.

The Fourth of July was on a Monday this year, and I was in NYC. Although I knew I had class the next day, I still managed to make it quite a magical night out in the city. Wisdom tells me that next year I should probably plan on making it to bed sooner than I did, but alas sometimes I just HAVE to be twenty-something and in New York. Can you blame me?

I guess you could when you find out that I missed the Keynote for the first day of the institute—I’m gonna blame that on the Subway.

My first day at the Reading Institute started off slowly, with a cup of coffee in hand. Traces of my week working with writing were still dancing through my head, and friends from home were texting me in full force. I wasn’t sure I would be able to focus at all.

Then I saw Brooke Geller walk into the room; and I knew I would be fine. After all, I am ahappyteacher and tired or not I could never pass up an opportunity to learn from the best.

Class started off with a question: What are three books that you remember reading?

My answer: Hidden Gems, The Hunger Games, & Nickle and Dimed

Then we were instructed to fill in the blank. I’m the kind of person who likes to read books about _____________________________.

My answer: justice and compassion and their struggle to work together.

The tone was set. We needed to care about reading as teachers of reading. Right off the bat, they wanted to know who I was as a reader.

Immediately I found myself thinking of the first days of school this year, of all the work that would need to be done, and the importance of giving my students these kinds of reflective questions. The importance of saying, right off the bat, who are you as a reader? Because I want to know.

Professional Writerly Life

That too.

I journaled twice last week about reasons I love being home— there are a lot. But all the people that know me best are looking at me with questioning eyes, some are surprised I came home at all, so I’ll admit it, I wanted to stay at Columbia forever and become a teacher for the project. Maybe next year? For now, I’m sitting here with a highlighter, pouring through at least 100 pages of notes and two curriculum calendars.

Overwhelmed? Definitely. Christmas morning excited? That too.

Two weeks at Columbia was certainly an information overload. I wanted to blog everyday while I was there, but New York City is magical even for a workaholic like myself.

I’ve posted a lot about the week of writing instruction I had, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface with volume of information I’m actually taking away. My plan is to start tomorrow with the Reading Institute, and work on processing that. I promise to go back throughout the year and touch on each of these as they play out in my classroom.

As a side note, if you’re wondering where I’ve been (besides spending time networking for another project I’m working on), I’ve been snuggled up with my kindle.

On my first day at the Reading Institute, Mary Ehrenworth said this, “Reading about teaching reading but not actually reading novels is like talking about running but not actually running—you’re still not skinny.”

I’ve got a two-page book list— books for the kids, books for me, and only a few professional books, because summer is the perfect time to get lost in a dystopian fantasy. This reading teacher is off to . . . read. Maybe I’ll share my list with you during my next break?

Classroom Writerly Life Writing

breaking silence— part 3

As a teacher and natural organizer, I love and maybe even crave structure. It makes me feel safe and lets me know what to expect. A predictable mealtime, the order I put hair products into my untamable curls (prep, cream, mouse, shine), dentist appointments six months apart on the 14th of August & February—this is not normal, but at least I’m upfront about it?

Needless to say, when we started to analyze the structure of memoirs, I was both happy and nervous to hear that not every story follows the “plot diagram” we teachers love to present to our students. Plot diagrams, they’re easy to teach, but they easily fall apart in the face of real literature. Not every story is as neatly packaged as I would like it to be, but that’s the beauty of a story—of life—inviting people in journeying together in the unstructured uncertainty of at all.

But sometimes we can use a little direction, from someone who has done it before, someone willing to lead the way (in this case a published author). So, in looking at short sections from mentor texts, we formed maps—short little diagrams of a craft moves.

From one text we found a string of pearls, —o—o—o—o—o—o— Short and beautiful moments of life held together with a common theme.

From another a series of events story told, A–>B–>C–>D

And from yet another, “Quotes”+ Reflection–> “Quotes” + Reflection

There were more texts, more patterns, and a room full of teachers looking from above at a text and mapping it out however they saw fit. Just seeing a pattern helped me to see purposeful craft moves that I could make, because even though my story wasn’t exactly the same, there was still much to learn.

The structure gave me something to hold onto, got me out of feeling so stuck in my writing, so while the reflecting was hard, it had a place in my story and I would have to go there to make the piece effective.

I wrote all that to say a few things:

  1. Wow, the impact of just a few carefully chosen mentor texts.
  2. Imagine the power of letting students create their own map & follow it.
  3. Being teachable— in writing, in reflecting, in journeying—Beauty.
Classroom Professional Writerly Life Writing

breaking silence— part 2

Coming up with an idea, something I needed to write about, that wasn’t hard. In fact, I easily produced at least five pretty quality topics I could have used. Even then, collecting story seeds around my idea wasn’t hard either. For a few of my topics, I had well over ten pages of writing. But then I had to name the issue, or the common theme throughout the seeds that I would be able to weave into my memoir.

It was in this process of searching and reflecting that I realized this was a project where I could face hard things head on or choose something easy and go through the motions (much like the book report I did on Rachel Carson every year throughout elementary, middle, and high school). But, you don’t travel from PA to New York, pay to go to Columbia, and fork over NYC rent to write a piece that tells you the something you already knew.

Now I’m going to take a second and pause, I’m not sharing my final piece with you. I don’t want to get your hopes up with all this reflecting and then have you be disappointed in the end. I’ve already shared the piece out as far as it goes, which pretty much means the people in my class, and Jess (my writing partner from home), oh and little baby Siena & her awesome momma Michele because they were there for one of the torturous revision sessions I put myself through. Sometimes we (our students too) need to write and not share it with the world. For me the topic I ended up picking is a little too raw to share with everyone, at points it felt too raw for me. So, while I wish I could share some amazing piece with you, know this—I tackled hard stuff, I grew.

Okay back to the process. Once I found the topic that I needed to write about, I asked myself the hard questions, I boxed out the parts of the stories that revealed what I was trying to say. We began to study mentor texts, to see how other authors had done the same thing that we were trying to do.

At this point I began to use a few tricks that we were seeing in mentor texts.

  1. Reflection- using questioning within the text
  2. All the time- this is how it always would go; he would or she would always
  3. One time- but this one day
  4. Symbols & Metaphor

And because I am a classic version of the overachiever, I used all of them.

Even just typing this out, I am amazed at the process, and how much thinking I was forced to do. Somewhere in the middle of all this, we revised for structure. We had been doing a lot of up close looking at the text and working within reflection for so long that I had almost forgotten to pull myself away and analyze the story structure.

The story structure thing, it was pretty huge for me, so I’m going to stop here and save that for its own blog. It deserves it.

To be continued . . .