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    The Benefits of Writing Into the Day for a Whole Year

    By Den'ja Pommarane
     | Sep 20, 2018

    Healing Through WritingDon't get me wrong. I value the importance of writing in my classroom. The work we do with students to prepare them for the next step (college or career) is paramount. We teach students to write the persuasive, the expository, the narrative. We support students with word choice, syntax, organization, ideas, and conventions. We help students patch the bleeding words, sometimes playing the role of the Civil War surgeon, lopping off paragraphs like limbs destroyed by bayonets. To me, high school writing is a high stakes game with little time for “playing” out of bounds.

    With Writing Into the Day, I felt like I was in a battle with time. Just 185 days to take my students to the next level, essential learnings and short cycles, assisting them to reach their highest potential. If I found a cool quote in a book or a moral issue that related to the lesson, then we would spend some time free writing. Otherwise, Writing Into the Day was benched; fated to ride the pine with the other third-string activities and practices that had flowed through the threshold of my mind. The notion of writing for writing’s sake, to let go and see where the mind and pen takes you, appealed to me, but I didn't know how I was going to let go of the precious and limited time I had with these students to ensure the curriculum was covered and the students met the proficiency levels of the standards.

    It wasn't until after spending the summer of 2017 with the Wyoming Writing Project that I resolved to include Writing Into the Day as a part of my classroom's daily routine. I decided I would spend the 20172018 school year committed to this practice with my ninth-grade English and American literature classes. Today, as I reflect on the school year, I can't deny the positive impact Writing Into the Day had on my classes.

    Writing Into the Day is an activity where students spend a slice of time (usually seven to 10 minutes) writing at the beginning of the period. Writing topics sometimes differ from the lessons and goals of the day’s curriculum. At first, I worried it was going to be a waste of time or that the students would view it as an opportunity to mess around on their phones and chat with each other. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

    In the beginning, prompts were informational and low risk. For example, a prompt might ask students to write about their favorite season or their least favorite food. I found that starting with these more accessible prompts helped students build the confidence to eventually share their writing. I never mandated that students had to read aloud their work every day or that they had to adhere to the prompt. Sometimes, the prompts weren’t meaningful to them or they had something more pressing on their mind—maybe they had failed a math test the period before English or had a fight with their parents the previous night and needed time and space to process. Their Writing Into the Day might have taken a whole different direction, perhaps for the better. At times, this practice became a form of catharsis. It allowed students to explore their feelings in a safe, constructive manner.

    By the end of the year, students wrote about their personal thoughts and feelings. As the students learned more about each other and made meaningful connections, we created a classroom environment that embodied empathy, compassion, and understanding. 

    I recall many times when Writing Into the Day sparked an interest in writing outside of the classroom, but two incidents stand out in my mind. The first occurrence happened in mid-October. A student raised his hand and said he had not been writing to the prompt that day, but rather was continuing his work on a short story he started over the weekend. He asked if he could share an excerpt with the class. As he started reading aloud the murder scene, complete with blood spatter, shell casings, and red and blue lights, I watched my students slide forward and lean in on their seats. He had hooked them. Upon finishing the excerpt, the class asked for more. He refused, saying it was still a work in progress. His eyes lit up and a smile stretched across his face as his classmates groaned in disappointment. During that moment, Writing Into the Day provided an audience for my students and acted as a bellows to intensify their burning desire to write.              

    Another time, a student chose to write a poem about finals week and the end of the school year. The prompt asked students to discuss strategies they had in place to study and how to end the school year strong. She didn't share that day, but two days later, she handed me a poem. It described her brain as oatmeal and her knowledge running through her fingers like sand through a sieve. Being a freshman, she had encapsulated her feelings about finals and ending the school year in a poem that was not required for the class.

    I feel that Writing Into the Day built my credibility as a teacher, writer, and friend of my students. Too often as teachers, we compartmentalize ourselves. Students see teachers as a source of knowledge, a sort of gatekeeper to our content and a “giver” of grades and little else. Through my experience last year, I found Writing Into the Day became the great equalizer. The practice gave me an opportunity to write side-by-side with my students. When I modeled my own writing process (including the mistakes, struggles, and insecurities) and demonstrated vulnerability, I found that my students did too.

    By no means was Writing Into the Day a "magic bullet." It took practice and patience to achieve the classroom culture both students and I wanted and deserved. Reflecting on the 2017–18 school year makes me place it on the shelf with some of the greatest years I've had as an educator. I believe that Writing Into the Day played an integral part in this success.

    Den'ja Pommarane is an ELA teacher at Laramie High School in Wyoming. 

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    Should a Book Be a School Supply?

    By Justin Stygles
     | Sep 18, 2018
    Classroom Library

    For years I have wondered if a book should be considered a school supply. Recently, I posed this question to parents, educators, and “friends” on social media.

    As a research question, I must concede that clarity is lacking; the question is rather open-ended. I expected the respondents to assume I meant an independent reading book. I posed the question because I sought to evaluate what parents think about ensuring students come to school with their own independent reading book.

    Twenty-four hours after posting my question, I gleaned two major observations.

    First, either due to vagueness or the open-ended nature of the question, many people considered a “book” to be synonymous with a textbook. Second, most educators agreed that a book should be a school supply. Parents and community members felt that books should come from the classroom, or at least a library.

    Before I discuss the results, I would like to share some information. I am not a data analyst; I am merely making conclusions based on the information posted. Second, I posted my question in two forums: my personal Facebook page and a closed group representing parents. My “friends” consisted of colleagues and coworkers from my current career fields and several previous jobs as well as friends and acquaintances from high school, college, and today. Many of the responses on my personal page were from current educators. The closed group included parents from a rural community whose children were enrolled in the local school system.

    As educators, we should consider the implications and questions that need to be raised beyond this very informal study. I wonder how many students, past and present, consider reading to be an act performed in a textbook?  Is this why a certain number of students do not read beyond school? Does this suggest that students who have experience reading independently outside of the classroom are more likely to become lifelong readers? 

    Because I did not define a book as a trade book or an independent reading book, I can see why many parents revolted at the notion that a book be considered a school supply. What parent wants to invest in a basal reader or a textbook? However, if they believe I am the sole supplier of independent reading, I am quite concerned about that value of reading in a maturing reader’s life. There is a strong reality that, although we impart the value of reading, our students might be resistant because reading is not prioritized in the child’s overall existence. This also places a tremendous, and honorable, responsibility to ensure the best books are available to my students for independent reading so that they may be inspired to read beyond the limitations of our school day.

    My question did not consider whether one book constitutes a school supply for an entire year, much like a package of pencils. Nor did my question suggest an invitation for consistent participation in the class book order.

    To conclude, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, the idea of a reading book as a school supply was met with heavy resistance. Although reading is the integral component of education, books are materials that many people consider a responsibility, if not an obligation, of the school. Although I agree that our schools and district have a fiduciary (or moral) obligation to stock and maintain classroom libraries for the sake of readers, I am left to wonder how invested families are (again, disregarding those who do not have the time or resources to support independent reading habits) in the development of reading and lifelong reading outside the classroom.

    If I can take anything away from my tentative, informal research, it’s that we have no greater responsibility than to show our students that reading is more than a practice performed in a classroom and to help readers develop their relationship with an individual text and the desire to seek reading beyond our brick and mortar walls. Our responsibility begins with an earnest commitment to curate classroom libraries.

    Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He’s taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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    Who’s Doing the Work?: Letting Students Guide the Process in a Writing Workshop

    By Jennifer Bekel
     | Sep 12, 2018

    student-guided-writing-workshopWriting workshops are a common daily feature in many classrooms, including my own. However, the work used to feel robotic. Writing time was not enjoyable, students did not see themselves as authors, and their craft was not improving. The workshop was not working.

    To reinvigorate our writing workshop, I studied Katie Wood Ray’s text, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (National Council for Teachers of English). After simple adjustments and a willingness to let students lead and guide learning, our writing workshop began to work for all involved.

    Immersion in examples

    Modeling, allowing students to observe the writing process, is an important component of writing workshop. Although I modeled and cowrote with them, the students were not trying new techniques or growing in their writing. Ray is a proponent of mentor texts— quality examples of writing that spark students’ ideas about the craft and technique used to create the texts. Moving from only teacher modeling to the inclusion of great mentor texts was one of the first essential adjustments I made to my writing workshop.

    During writing time, we studied rich mentor texts and discussed the authors’ choices. Leveled texts were also shared with students to allow them to make more decisions about their writing. The availability of independent-level texts after the minilesson allowed students to study text structure and gain ideas based on personal interest and choice during independent work. Additionally, we examined samples of past student work so students could further understand quality writing at their grade level.

    After being surrounded by texts, the students were quicker to engage during writing workshop time. There were fewer conversations that began with “I don’t know what to write about,” and students explored new techniques in their writing.

    Writers don’t always write

    Recognizing not all instructional time in writing workshop needs to be spent writing is another essential adjustment to teaching. Rather than walking students through an artificial writing process, they should be given the freedom to decide what work needs to be accomplished in their writing.

    Ray describes how students learn what authors do and how to use their time accordingly. My students know during writing workshop they can look at mentor texts for ideas, finish a draft, or start something new. This empowerment improves student productivity due to the motivation students gain from making their own choices. Time on task is maximized because students need not wait for others to finish to advance to the next step.

    The students realize the value of their time during writing; although they may not be doing the same task as their peers, they all recognize they are working as authors.

    Let’s customize it

    One day during a writing conference, a student who was struggling with the mechanics of writing noticed yet another letter written incorrectly. I encouraged him to fix it. His hopeful response was, “Can’t we customize it?” This led me to another insight and adjustment to writing workshop: allowing students and their work as authors to determine the sequence of lessons and conferences.

    Instead of assigning topics or tasks for the week and following scripted lesson plans, writing instruction is designed on the basis of students' previous weekly work and where they can be guided as writers. At the end of each week, students are asked to choose and submit their best writing sample. These pieces are graded using a district-created rubric. Recognizing the need to customize, I look for trends across the writing samples. Significant areas of need, such as adding details or using transition words, become the focus of whole-group minilessons. With every lesson based on student needs, the immediate relevancy increases engagement.

    After noting where whole group instruction needs to occur, I make piles with all the papers, using the rubric to decide who needs support in areas such as word choice, conventions, organization, and so forth. Armed with a conference plan for the following week, I can meet with each student and provide targeted instruction and customized learning.

    Using this adjustment has yielded improved student rubric scores, indicating quantitatively improved writing. Further, students are more engaged during writing because the instruction is relevant to their current interests and work.

    Students are the experts

    A final adjustment in writing workshop is letting students be the experts in the room by providing sharing time and guiding questions to elicit partner feedback. In this way, students ask and answer questions about the elements of their work. The authenticity of these questions gives students ideas and inspires potential revisions.

    Further, students frequently take the role of expert writers throughout the workshop. One student, trying to think through an idea, began asking me a question. Before I could offer any suggestions, another student who was diligently illustrating her book said, “I can help with that!” Empowered to coach each other during writing time, students’ workshop productivity increases because of the immediate availability of help from their peers.

    Take action

    Implementing these adjustments in the classroom and moving to authentic, student-driven writing has improved student engagement and quality of work. As we began making these changes, one student was explaining the book series she was creating. After explaining her action plan and how she might make changes based on feedback, she said, “Then they’ll go into the world!”

    Her comment epitomizes the climate this approach to writing workshop has created. The students no longer think of writing as the completion of projects assigned by the teacher; they are invested in their work and believe in themselves as authors. Students are doing the writing work.

    Jennifer Bekel, an ILA member since 2009, has a master’s degree in education and interdisciplinary studies and a master’s in reading. She is currently a third-grade classroom teacher and EL coordinator for the North Scott Community School District in Iowa. The writing practices described in this article were originally implemented in her first-grade classroom.

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    Honoring Diversity: Resources for Your Classroom

    By Anna Osborn and Tricia Ebarvia
     | Sep 10, 2018

    honoring-diversityThe following list of resources is a supplement to “Honoring Diversity,” an article in the September/October 2018 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
    It is provided by the article’s authors, Anna Osborn and Tricia Ebarvia.

    Recommended middle and high school titles for your classroom

    • Inside Out and Back Again and Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại (HarperCollins)
    • Blackbird Fly and Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow)
    • Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette (Heyday)
    • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (Macmillan)
    • Flying Lessons & Other Stories by Ellen Oh (Crown)
    • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (Simon & Schuster)
    • When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon (Simon Pulse)
    • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (Anchor)
    • You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
    • Warcross by Marie Lu (Penguin)

    Additional resources

    Tricia Ebarvia, a Heinemann Fellow, teaches English at Conestoga High School outside Philadelphia, PA. She is also a codirector for the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project and an Educator Collaborative literacy consultant.

    Anna Osborn, an ILA member since 2008, is a reading specialist and National Board Certified teacher in Columbia, MO. As a member of her district’s equity team, certified by NCCJ-St. Louis as an equity facilitrainer, Osborn leads educators in difficult conversations about identity, systemic oppression, and strategies to achieve liberation. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in literacy at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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    The Greatest Gift We Can Give Our Youth Is a Passion for Literacy

    By Warren Adler
     | Aug 30, 2018
    The Greatest Gift

    I believe that literacy provides our youth with the soul of education and allows them to attain a deeper understanding of what makes us human—the joys, perils, and insights of our experience. I applaud and celebrate those who understand the importance of instilling a passion for literacy in our young people, and I am a firm believer that it can start with just a single spark.

    Looking back to my childhood, which took place in Brooklyn in the 1920s, the memory of my mother’s reading habits takes root. When she finished her chores for the day and I returned home from school, she would be sitting and reading, waiting to serve the evening meal. She was a prodigious novel reader and I watched her read day after day, getting her books out of storefront lending libraries for what I think was 10 cents a day.

    It has taken many years to discover this as the seed that grew my own obsession to read and write, but that image of my mother living in a parallel world of fictional characters has stuck with me throughout my entire life. It is almost as if I am writing my stories and novels for her, and I think that is my biggest tribute to her.

    As a very young child, before I was able to read on my own, my parents read to me from storybooks. My parents’ gift to me one holiday when I was 6 years old meant more to me than they could know, and it was absolutely essential to my grounding in literature. They bought me a set of My Bookhouse by Olive Beaupré Miller, which was six volumes of stories and rhymes chosen from international literature for children. The offerings in these wonderful books began with nursery rhymes and progressed to material for children as they grew.

    I loved those books. I read them over and over again. They were gorgeously illustrated, and I never grew tired of reading them. It was like crossing a moat from the reality of a world of struggle and strife, to a paradise of storytelling, which opened infinite possibilities and aspirations in a young boy confronting a strange and scary future.

    When I had my own children, the set had been moved so many times that I had unfortunately lost track of it. But one day when my oldest child was about 5 years old, I found them in the book section of Marshall Field’s in Chicago during a business trip. Honestly, I had the feeling that I had struck gold and the discovery brought a rush of memory and stirred deep emotion and heartfelt tears. Of course, I immediately had a set shipped home for my children.

    Literacy is a prize to be savored and a path to insight and wisdom. Lack of literacy is a creeping danger, and neglecting the teaching of literacy to children through indifference, impoverishment, and neglect is a travesty that can condemn them to a life of ignorance and enslavement. To truly appreciate the power of literacy is to understand its ability to empower.

    My own love affair with reading inspired my dream to become a novelist by the time I was 15. After high school, I went to New York University and pursued a degree in English literature, where I was introduced to the roster of great American novelists, becoming bewitched by the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. My freshman English professor, Dr. Don Wolfe, inspired me, and I later went on to study creative writing with him at the New School, along with Mario Puzo and William Styron.

    As a writer of the imagination and a reader of works of the imagination, I believe reading and writing have given me the necessary insight, understanding, and greater comprehension of the human condition on all levels. It has taken me out of the living moment into the mind and motivation of others, both past and present, and showed me a path to empathy and potential wisdom.

    No matter who it is that first sparks that flame, dedication to instilling the values and wisdom that come to us through literacy is sublime, offering a lifetime treasure trove for the soul, the most valuable gift that someone can provide a young person as he or she navigates life.

    Watch his video, "For the Love of Reading: How Books Shaped My Destiny," here.

    Warren Adler is the prolific author of over 50 works of fiction including his iconic The War of the Roses, Private Lies, and Random Hearts. You can read about his latest film/TV developments here. He recently launched Writers of the World, a campaign featuring aspiring and established writers. He has been featured in The New York Times, EntrepreneurPublishers Weekly, and Pfizer and is a regular contributor to Lit Hub, Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast. With a growing fanbase of over 600,000 fans on Facebook, Adler regularly shares advice to aspiring writers and is considered a pioneer in the digital publishing world.

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