Friday, September 18, 2015

Unpacking Writer's Notebooks

     I love the start of a new year and thinking about the essential tools in the classroom — the ones I need to use as well as my students. One of my true pleasures in teaching writing is introducing students to the writer’s notebook. Whether I am working with third graders or pre-service teachers, there is no better tool for students.

     What better way is there to validate their lives or say to them, “What you observe and notice matters.”

     So what are these notebooks or daybooks or lifebooks?  I think of them as vessels or containers of sorts — places for you and your students to quietly record their musings, thoughts, and delicious words.  Ralph Fletcher says, “Notebooks give children the lens to appreciate the richness that already exists in their lives.”   The notebook validates one’s existence.

     It’s true that if we are not careful, they can become just another place for writing, like journal recordings or endless lists, or the rehashing of another day — or they can become a new way of looking at the writing process.  

     These notebooks become an invitation to generate thoughts, drafts, observations and ramblings on millions of topics.  They help you as well as your students to live more wide awake lives.  They help you to become careful observers.  Because truthfully, you don’t want to walk around unwritten.

     Truly, they ask you to pay attention to the small moments. These small moments can become kernels for larger pieces of writing — they are the seedlings waiting to develop.

     So how do you start this?  In the beginning of the year, I hand out small notebooks and explain to my students how they need to have one with them at all times.  

     I model my own notebook and show how it is filled with all kinds of entries. When I am reading aloud to my students, I keep it nearby, eager to jot down great lines, modeling its importance. Notebooks need to leave the walls of your classroom and they should be accessible all day long. These treasure chests become invaluable during our writing workshop because students might be gathering around a new topic or have chosen a seed idea that we’re ready to develop further.  We mine our notebooks, noticing patterns and themes.  We find topics we truly care about; we find the surprising piece of writing that is inside of us.  

     In reality, when we prompt our students to write we will not get a glimpse of their best work.  But when students use their writer’s notebook as a repository of their musings and thoughts, profound writing jumps off the page.

     When I was conferring with Alexander one day, I noticed that he had a small entry in his notebook, written in tiny handwriting saying, “3/5 of a person.”  We talked about this entry and he said that he jotted it down as I was reading Nettie’s Trip South, a story of slavery in the south by Ann Turner.  Alexander was anxious to understand its reference and began reading on his own, trying hard to understand this tumultuous period in history and ended up writing the following pieces.

Freedom Path
a creepin’ and a crawlin’
rite on the freedom path
through straw and grass and thick and thin
not all of these many refugees
got safe and sound up North
and some of these poor people
never made it to the freedom path

Black Slave Lullaby
moses is a comin’
every whip cracked, she’s a creepin’
she’s a crawlin’ and a creepin’
through that forest every sec’
she’s made her way to freedom
and so will we rite soon
cause moses is a comin’.

     Clearly, he would never have written these poems if he hadn’t stop to take a note, forcing him to do more thinking, reading and exploring.

     When Katelyn was conferring, she showed me an entry in her notebook about icicles and winter words. She was delighted by her observation since it was nearly springtime and wanted to be sure not to forget her delight in noticing the wintery accessories on the building.  She wrote an amazing piece directly related to her observations.

It was Winter in July
It was winter in July,
The trees were like snowcones
Filled to the top.
A big nippy white blanket
Of fluff,
A true smell
Of winter’s wonders.
Frosty snow drizzles
Slushing bites of frost
Sprouting like flowers
In the spring.
The brisk breath of snow
It was winter all right
It was winter in July.

     I remember taking the train to New York one day and overhearing someone’s conversation.  A man was talking aloud to another remarking, “I’m all about powdered sugar.”  Wow!  What a line! I quickly pulled out my notebook and jotted down that phrase.  Months later when my Mom fell ill, I was writing a note to family and friends. I looked through my notebook, came across that line and knew I had to incorporate it somehow as I described Mom and how baking was such an important part of her life.

     Writer’s notebooks.  They matter.  They beg us to take the time and notice our rich, wondrous lives.  They speak to our individuality.  The kernels tucked inside lead to surprising, powerful writing.

– Bev

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Engagement from the Start: Launching Your Year of Learning Considering Time, Choice, and Space

It’s that time once again, and I have to say, this year I feel ready.

I have been thinking a lot about what this back to school post would contain. After all, there is so much to think about, and so many ideas to share.

But then I stumbled upon a blog post that Nancie Atwell wrote for Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.  She was writing about the term innovation, and what it means to education. In the piece Atwell (2015) wrote,

“I’d like to reclaim the term. Methods, created by teachers in a quest to develop students’ skills and understandings, are the essential innovations. In my 40-year career as a middle school English teacher, the simplest and most powerful innovation was to give my students time and choice as writers and readers."

And I thought, that’s it.  Of course Nancie Atwell would remind me of what matters most when thinking about back to school, and about daily reading and writing instruction.  The greatest innovations we as teachers have are time and choice, and I would add, space.

Readers and writers need time to write.  They need to be able to make choices and decisions about what they are reading and writing, as well as choose the tools, strategies, and materials that they will use.  Readers and writers will also need a space that supports them -- physically, emotionally and cognitively. Back to school requires us to consider how we will launch the year, cultivate engagement in all our readers and writers, and give them time, choice, and space to flourish.

Considering Space:  Preparing for the Year
I define space as the physical space and arrangement of the room, the emotional space, the cognitive space, and the materials and resources within the space.  These are four things that I do in preparation for the school year:

  1. Create an Engaging, Aesthetically Pleasing, 

and Functional Physical Environment:  

The physical arrangement of a classroom sets the tone for learning, so consider the use of classroom physical space wisely.  Arrange furniture in a way that allows for learning differences (for example, allowing a more distractible student to face a quieter or less busy wall or section of the classroom, or considering teacher proximity for a student needing more support) and carefully consider the flow of the room.  Leave room for transitions and movement, and create areas or “nooks” that will support independent practice or collaborative endeavors.  Also consider how wall space is used. If possible, paint rooms using neutral colors in warm hues for younger students, and use cool colors for older students. Don’t operate in extremes – completely blank walls or completely covered walls.  Walls should contain some charts and other visuals that provide students with pertinent information (such as an anchor chart from a recent lesson) or motivation (such as a class motto, quote from a writer, or other inspiring thought). Think less is more, and ask yourself, would I want to and could I do my best reading and writing, thinking and learning in this room?  If the answer is no, consider what you need to do to create an appealing and engaging physical space, and if yes, you are set to go.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Can you build a community with an online class?

     After attending the OESIS symposium in Marina del Rey last year, I came back very excited and intrigued about the real possibilities of online education.  True, the conference was mostly aimed at high school students, but I began to think very seriously about the practicality of designing online courses for younger students and young writers in particular. I knew how much my students adored Writing Workshop and often begged for more time. Being intrigued myself in this delivery system, I had taken a number of online courses for professional and personal purposes and studied them intently for their design and applicability for younger students.

     Would I be able to incorporate the things that mattered most to me in my classroom—a sense of community, engaging conversations, use of great mentor text and conferencing?  I decided to pilot a “writing sampler.” I explored different technologies, debriefed with my son at Foursquare and decided to use a Google calendar to set dates, add a video component and use Google hangouts for our sessions.  What a treat!

     I capped the class at six (including myself).  The students loved being able to see and hear each other and had great conversations.  Any mentor text that we used, I sent a day earlier as an attachment.  Students were able to download it and have it nearby for our sessions. Sessions were an hour long and ran for five weeks.  Students looked relaxed and comfortable in their various writing spots—some in the kitchen, others in the study and a few in the car returning from sports activities.  Seeing them in a variety of settings added to the charm, and established the notion that regardless of the setting, we were all there for the same purpose, our writing lives.  Crafting, sharing, questioning.

     Maybe the bigger question to consider was, “Why have this kind of instruction?”  That was easy. I found students desperate to continue their “writing life” outside of the classroom.  They found it easy to find other extra curricular classes for their varied interests—ballet, ice hockey, art, etc. but virtually impossible to find writing classes and ones that included a community. Running pilot classes with a variety of ages and topics helped me to answer my question -- simply, it is needed and effective.

     A future post will elaborate on details and also tell how a special guest, Paul B. Janeczko, enlivened a session about “novels in verse.” Simply magical.

– Bev

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What Bruce Springsteen Can Teach Us About Text Complexity, Choice, and Student Agency

     Since Bev and I are living in NJ, at some point we would have to get into all things Jersey.  Or actually, since Bev and I are transplants from other places (Philly and New York respectively), we can get into some things Jersey. Namely, Bruce Springsteen.

     Why Bruce Springsteen on a blog about teaching and learning?

     Well for one, he is the Boss!  And who doesn’t like him, anyway?

     But more seriously, Bruce’s records and his evolution as a singer and songwriter can teach us a lot about text complexity and how to cultivate students to read stronger, with more engagement, and with more reading prowess.


     When we look at Bruce’s music, we see that his first two albums are much less complex than his third – the iconic “Born to Run” album.  Why was this third album more complex and what did Bruce do to evolve?

     Well first of all, his “Born to Run” album contained more complex music—including the integration of a mini orchestra and some tinkering of the amp. Next, Bruce evolved in his song writing—layering his songs with lyrics that both capture and build images in the listener’s mind, as well as resonate with many - young and old, male and female alike.

     How did he evolve?  Well for one, he kept at it, standing on the shoulders of previous albums to increase the complexity of next albums. Next, he kept at it, practicing, learning from others, bringing in advice from experts.  And last, he kept at it, developing his craft and strength as a singer and songwriter by the choices he made and through the agency he had as a musician destined to cultivate his own career.

     And isn’t that exactly what our readers should be doing?

     With all that has been said about developing readers so that they are ready for complex text, it is important to recognize that this readiness should be a journey—one where the trajectory is clear, the staircase smooth, and our students involved.

     That means that as teachers, we too need a clear sense of the trajectory and an ability to smooth out the steps of the staircase. And for me, this means choice and agency.

     We start with choice.  In chapter 5 of my new book about student engagement, Engaging Every Learner: Classroom Principles, Strategies, and Tools, I unpack the principle of choice. 

     Choice begins with the teacher and is seminal to bring depth and engagement to teaching and learning.  We as teachers need to feel that we have the ability to make choices in our teaching, and that these choices reflect what we want the journey to be.  These can be choices for whole class instruction, choices around learning materials, pacing or learning connections, choices around student groupings and differentiated instruction, and choices around “the what” and “the how” of one-to-one teaching conferences. I think that it is important for each of us to outline the choices we have and the decisions we are making about student instruction.  Even when we have plenty of decisions that others may make for us, we have decisions we can make too.

     Like Springsteen chose to include the glockenspiel in his orchestra, and chose to put the amp outside when recording, we can make decisions on what we teach and use to teach and where we place our instruction.

     But more importantly, our students should have choices as learners, but most especially as readers.  And that means that we need to balance the use of core texts, alongside the use of choice texts. For it is in both of these texts that our readers will soar.

     Take for example the work that Jean DeSimone and I did with her seventh grader readers this spring.  Jean and I are alike in many ways, including our belief that there are certain texts that we want for our readers to transact with. 

     For example, I can make the case that every reader should read Wonder by RJ Polacio sometime in his or her upper elementary or middle school career.  Every single student.  The context can be different (an instructional read aloud, an independent book choice, summer reading, a book club, etc.) but no student should leave middle school without reading that text.

     Yet Jean and I are just as alike in our belief that independent reading is essential, that it is instructional, and that it matters just as much to the reader and to his or her trajectory to reading complex texts.  Our readers know best what they should be reading, what they want to read, and what will lead them to read long, strong and well.

     So Jean and I decided to build a bridge and create a smooth path between these two types of reading experiences.  We took her next unit of study, a unit where the core text was The Outsiders.  This text would be the shared text that would hold the instructional teaching points of the unit.

     Equally as important to the unit was the independent text (s).  But because Jean and I were clear about the trajectory we wanted for the students, we wanted to make sure the connection between the choice text and the core text was strong.

     So we looked at the core text, and at possible options for connecting the core text to an independent text, and ultimately decided to ask students to choose an independent text, any text, that they would consider to be a “character centric” book.

     Now the interesting thing to note is that one might say that any book is character centric.  Honestly, what good literature does not have well-developed, central characters?  However, we angled this not only toward the idea that in a character-centric text the character drives the plot and that the writing is grounded in the character actions, but that character-centric also means that the character resonates with you.

     See, complex reading is about the reader and the agency and interest they bring to the reading.  So, for these students we put forth the idea that character-centric is a character that resonates with you. This enabled us to keep both the shared text and the independent text central to the unit, as well as engage students as stakeholders, a concept I feel is essential to student engagement, and to the development of readers.

     Our conferences with students around choosing the paired independent text were amongst my favorite this year, and our conferences around the intersection between the core text and the independent texts, both in comparison and in contrast, were dynamic and rich and so much more than the conferences would have been if the conversation was grounded in only one of those texts.

     The students stood on the shoulders of the core text, on the shoulders of their prior experiences, and on the shoulders of their choices and decisions as readers, and their reading capacities grew—they are different and yes, much more complex.  Because text complexity is not just about the text, it is about the reader—the complex moves this reader can make in all texts.

     Agency in their own learning, the ability to be the “boss” of their own reading lives, has helped to engage and develop these readers.  And isn’t that what complex reading is all about?

– Patty

Monday, April 13, 2015

Where I go for nourishment and inspiration

     I loved reading Patty's blog about "a professional posse." The delightful thing about teaching today is that you can literally surround yourself with colleagues near and far and feel as if you have a very intimate circle. As I thought further, I began thinking about the various websites and blogs that continue to inform and inspire me, the ones that continually raise my level of thinking. The second part of my "professional posse." The ones that tell me which books I need to read now, which people I have to pay attention to on Twitter and which organizations are pushing the work forward in profound ways.

     So, a few of my essentials

1) The Reading Year —

     It is the place I always rely on to give me the most up to date books and ways in which they are being used in the classroom. I love how Franki and Mary Lee are steeped in best practices and show authentic ways they are using literature in their classrooms. The blog is newsy and their voices resonate. I immediately know which books I want to check out of the library and which new authors, poets and illustrators I need to explore.

     Thank you for your joyful manner and wisdom!

2) Teachers College Reading and Writing Project —

     Lucy Calkins and her splendid team have transformed the way I think about literacy over the past 20 years. Not only is their website chock full of great videos, assessments and reading lists, but timely information about upcoming conferences and institutes as well. The website is a font of information for teachers at all levels of the profession, whether you are a novice or have been teaching for 25 years.

     Thank you for making me always think about the art and craft of teaching.

3) The Twitter world —

     I remember when my friend and colleague, Carol Olson, told me that Twitter would change my life and provide instant professional development. Oh my gosh, I had no idea! Not only do I have great people and organizations to follow, but also I can listen in on chats, hear about timely conversations on grit and think about how mindfulness fits into a child's day.


     Thank you for allowing me to work on numerous initiatives at one time—in a timely way.

     Have I mentioned that I am able to do this from the comfort of my home, share my findings with others and continue to find time to push myself as a learner?

     Tell us where you go when you want to be nourished.

– Bev.

     Oh yes—my latest discovery:

Wow, what a website!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Finding your professional posse

     I am a very collaborative person. I am the seventh child in a family of nine, and having grown up on a baseball team means that I enjoy having people to learn and think alongside.

     That is one of the reasons why I love Twitter! There is such a great community of educators on Twitter who want to put themselves out there and learn alongside others.

     It is also why I love to be a literacy coach. I get to work with the most amazing teachers, students, and schools, and embrace new learning each and every day. In fact, I operate from the belief that I will learn something new every day, at work and at home. To that end, I have a group of individuals—my teaching posse—who I turn to when I have questions and ideas.

     That's right, a professional posse. People who help me when I am in need and who help me to grapple with the everyday struggles of teaching.

     When I am grappling with a struggling reader, I call Sally. She is my reading friend, the one I talk to about all things reading. When I am thinking about work with my client schools, I call Jaime. Jaime and I have never taught together, but people who have been in both of our classrooms remark on how similar our teaching is. She reminds me of what I value in teaching and helps me think through the particulars of being a coach to many different school communities.

     When I want to imagine a new adventure or talk with someone who knows what great teaching looks like, I call Bev: hers is an amazing classroom. She is the one I go to when I want to float an idea or be reminded of what matters most. She and I have recently created this blog where we can continue to develop and grow ideas together. When I want advice, especially from a leadership perspective, I call Ella. Ella was my principal when I taught in Tenafly, New Jersey, both a colleague and a mentor, the person who best knows my teaching. She gives me advice based on her own experience.

     Some of these women don't know each other, but they have one thing in common: me. They think with me and laugh with me and learn with me and commiserate with me and evolve with me and keep me the most engaged I can be in my learning.

     And this is my professional posse. What is most important is to remember who motivates and engages you as a teacher and who will be there with you to learn alongside as you grapple with the joys and complexities of teaching.

     And so, I highly recommend that you find your own professional posse! In doing so you might want to do the following:
     1. Identify the people in your teaching and learning life who motivate and engage you. Think about what you love about this learning relationship and what it has to offer you.

     2. Name what that person offers you and what you have to offer that person.

     3. Look for people outside your school or organization community to learn with and from. You push your thinking when you go outside your daily community.

     4. Find ways to interact with these learning buddies. Make space to learn with them and from them in person or virtually. 

     Find your teaching posse! These are the learning professionals who will offer you the support and love you need to have your teaching grow. And, keep us posted! We would love to hear all about your own professional posse, and how you are learning together!

– Patty

Excerpted with permission from Engaging Every Learner: Classroom Principles, Strategies and Tools, Patricia Vitale-Reilly, Heinemann, 2015.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Setting the table..."

After speaking with Sharon McKool of Rider University at the 47th Rutgers Literacy Conference in January, I was struck by the questions and concerns of the participants.  They were not wondering about the Common Core, nor testing, nor pre-made materials for teaching small group instruction.  No, they were concerned with creating an atmosphere in their classrooms which would be a launching pad for life-long readers.  
Although we discussed guided reading, book clubs and literature circles, teachers were thirsty for mentor text, mini-lessons that would make a difference for students and how students would continue to read outside the classroom walls.  I was eager to email mentor text and mini-lesson ideas to teachers, but I kept thinking about how important it is for you, the teacher, to show your passion for reading within your classroom and how to be a role model for your students.  
Early in the year I like to “set the table” for reading work by showing my passion for cooking and baking.  Not only do I bring in rolling pins, pie weights and a bench scraper (great items for nonfiction writing!), but I try hard to find texts in a variety of genres that demonstrate my interest.  A few things I prominently display are the “series” books from The Magnolia Bakery, A Handmade Life by Molly Wizenberg for memoir, Cook’s Magazine, and a delightful poem about “pie” by Valerie Worth. Glorious cookbooks from Chile, Vietnam and Italy. Not to mention all of the terrific blogs about cooking and baking (,, Not only do I have mentor text that I can refer to later on, sharing snippets and vignettes, but also the students see that I am fully immersed in reading as well.  
How do you share your passions?  What kind of books, blogs and materials could you display?  Is it sailing? Dogs?  Space travel?
Your role as a mentor is a powerful one.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Our first post!

It is the start of the New Year, and with that comes resolutions and plans to make improvements to be our best selves. We all do this, as there is something so ceremonious and comforting about ringing in the New Year in this way.

And as well intentioned as we are, there is something about these resolutions that is temporary and fleeting. We are ambitious and earnest, but most of these resolutions fall to the wayside by mid February.

And in teaching, that can happen as well. Increasingly each day we are asked to adhere to new protocols, implement new curricula, consider new ideas and teach in an ever changing new world.  And that is ok, it really is. As long as we remember what. matters. most.

I learned all about focusing on what matters a few years ago when I started yoga. In yoga, when you are trying out poses that require balance, it is helpful to focus on one spot in front of you on the floor, the wall, or some other area. Staring intently at this spot, known as a drishti, helps you remain balanced and thus implement and hold the pose.

The same is true of teaching. As educators, we need to find our drishti — a focal point, passion, or point of interest that keeps us well balanced and reminds of what we hold near and dear and what we know matters to our learning and to the learning of our students.  

This is the driving force behind this blog, the reason why we want to be out in the world with our voices and the voices of others around the ideas and topics that resonate with us and that we know matter in teaching and learning.

So we will do just that. In each post, we will explore the ideas that we feel are seminal to teaching and learning and represent ideas that we are passionate about.

We have been collaborating for over 15 years. We have been in each other’s presence in classrooms, lecture halls, study groups and our own personal collaborations and have come together around so many ideas, that we feel we have a deep and shared understanding of what matters most to the heart of teaching and to the art of our profession.

And we want to open up this collaboration to all of you.  

We want to hear your voices — your experiences and your ideas, your responses and most importantly what matters most to you.

Do you ever feel that you would just like to focus on best practices in your classroom?  Create an environment for your readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and historians that invigorates your work and is inspiring for you as well as your students? With this blog, we will do just that — focus on ideas that allow you to think deeply and widely about a variety of topics and in addition, we will provide support and resources for you as well.  Please join in our conversation by adding comments, sharing with colleagues, and tweeting your own ideas and classroom examples with the hashtag, #whatmattersmost. We are looking forward to this adventure and thank you for joining us on this journey.

Patty and Bev.