Writing to a Prompt: Cue Cards

One of my fourth grade friends has been working on elaborating her writing in preparation for the state test.  On that test, she’ll need to write to a prompt and “strut her stuff” in terms of creating a story and elaborating it well.

We’ve worked on a number of elaborating strategies: snapshots, thoughtshots, dialogue, weaving inside and outside story together, and spacing out the actions.  For each of the strategies we developed an icon that would quickly and easily represent that strategy for her. We put the icons onto small post it notes that we could stick into her writing notebook as a reminder of what she was attempting to practice each night.  One day, we tried a writing exercise.  We started with a quick action plan for a story — this happened, then that, then that — quick easy bullet-points.  Then she started writing and I started tossing the icon post-its in front of her.  The deal was:  whatever icon I tossed, she had to add next into the story.  No stopping to think about what might be best next, no worrying about where to go with the story — just write what the post-it tells you to write next.  I wasn’t reading her story as we went along, just blindly tossing icons her way.  I really only thought it would be a good practice session on each of the strategies.

What we discovered, however, was that it resulted in a pretty darn good piece of writing.  Sure, it might have been more sophisticated if there had been more intention in which elaboration strategy came where.  But, the bottom line was, it resulted in a darn good piece.

So as she approached the actual test, she decided to invest one minute at the beginning of the test to quickly jot the icons on the top margin of her test booklet page.  Then each time she found herself hesitating during the writing time, she would glance up to the margin and  quickly latch onto one icon and write it.

Here’s our chart — she kept the mini-post-its with the icons.  This is just our big version from my sketch-book.

Book Club: Making Your Teaching Stick

I’ve been working with a group of teachers around the issue of Stickiness.  We’ve done some walk-throughs looking at the explicitness of our teaching (see our post here) and we’ve done some coaching cycles around making strategy group instruction stickier.  Recently we have also had several consultants in our building who have asked questions and made comments about the work that we’re doing.  From these comments, it became clear that for many of my teacher colleagues, I was their trusted source for information — they were citing ME in response to the questions, not citing outside sources.  I’m flattered that they think so highly of me — but my job is to help them become more independent (just like with the kiddos).  So I want them to have a sense of outside sources — the sources I used to synthesize and plan our professional learning work together.  That way, they won’t need me. They’ll have books and articles, speakers and researchers upon whom they can call for their learning and whom they can cite when an consultant or someone else questions their work.

So — we’re doing a small book club study on Making Your Teaching Stick.


Here’s the plan

1.  Read Ch 1, The Stickiness Principle — then read the chapter from The Tipping Point on Stickiness.  Take a look at the info graphic on Sticky Teaching from Chris Lema.  Jot a quick post it about defining Stickiness as it relates to teaching.  (just your personal definition)

2.  Read Ch 2  — Children Learn What They’re Ready to Learn.  Pick a big skill area for your grade level (finding main idea, paragraphing, etc)  Make a skill ladder for that skill.  Bring copies to share with your colleagues (let’s be real:  we all teach the same thing, just a different points on the skill ladder)

3  Read Ch 3 — Children Learn When They are Engaged.  Watch a colleague teach.  Notice gestures they use to make their teaching more clear.  Be intentional about your own gestures.  Now, think about storytelling, you own and the children’s storytelling.  Where are appropriate places to ramp this up in your classroom?  Come prepared to talk about this.

4.  Read Ch 4 — Children Learn from Physical Representations of Their Learning.  Now browse through Smarter Charts.  Bring your learning from this book forward into your browsing of Smarter Charts.  When we get together for our book club, we’ll do a “3 A.M. Walkthough” of our building, looking at the physical representations of student learning across the grades.  Come ready with a clipboard and some paper.

5.  Read Ch 5 — Children Learn Through and Love Repetition.  Pull out your teaching board.  Get back into the habit of using it.  Think about where else in your day could the mini lesson architecture be effectively used?

As a coach, I’m working on helping my teachers to use multiple texts (just like we want the kids to do) and to think more deeply about what they read (just like we want the kids to do) and to apply the new skills and learning to their everyday teaching (hmmm, sound like something we want the kids to do?)  How’m I doin’? (I’m missing Ed Koch at the moment — I’ll get over it)

Writing to a Prompt: Solving Magical Problems

I was working with a third grade teacher friend of mine.  We were worrying a little bit about her students who are preparing for the state writing test.  One of the challenges of the third grade test is that the prompt often times presents a somewhat magical problem.  One year it was that you woke up and discovered you were only one inch tall, another year there was cereal that made you shrink.  Last year there was a gorilla who came to school.  You simply never know what you’re going to get — that’s the challenge of the prompt, right?

Well, we’ve taught the children to move the zany prompt into an arena that they “own”.  Don’t go writing about something that you don’t really know much about just because the prompt makes it easy for you to go there.  Corral the prompt into YOUR territory and write what you know.  But there is still the problem of how to wrap up the story — how do you solve magic and therefore resolve the story.

We came up with the idea that “you have to return to being you”.  In other words, everything has to be set to rights again.  That’s the definition of a solution when there’s magic gone awry.

Then we thought about the ways in which stories often create that solution.  Here’s the draft of our chart (just from my sketchbook) that she’ll be trying out with the students.

TC Content Area Institute: Kathleen Tolan — Large Group Session

Final day — I’m sad already —

Lifting the level of student note taking

Lifting the level of thinking and conversation


— reading skills

— writing skills

— content skills

3 Workshops NOT always aligned — You don’t want content area stuff to overwhelm the reading workshop and the writing workshop.  Need the kids to follow their own trails to become life-long learners

Hold kids accountable for previous learning during the content area work.

Skill work vs content work

Minilesson demonstration then “fortify my teaching with small groups” 

Teach — Read Aloud — notice phrase repeating — author wants us to notice, so I need to hold onto that

Are you grabbing for other information that we’ve already learned?

Now layer in the photos that we worked with in  the photo center.

At first I thought… but now I realize

When we only read a text, we get some good stuff — when we add other texts in to our understanding, we get so much more.

Fast to ending — what do I understand now?

Ensure that we pause and think and grow our thinking — then re-read and push ourselves and our thinking

Explicit minilesson — pops out something kids need to do

Need the movement of looking closely and then stepping back — cannot only look through 1 lens/view to understand the world.

Give kids a purpose for doing the skill thing

Clarify — continual thing in life — give kids ways to clarify their explanations and answers and to support them

Point of view — we see the same evidence, but differently — Kids need to be able to identify that, not just bully conversations

Video of a partnership — watch for investment, for use of text, for growing of ideas

Conversations build thinking — only if the conversation is GOOD

Developing content knowledge for BOTH partners in the conversation

Talk in partners, then talk in groups — not just sharing facts, but using strong thinking skills —

Video of another partnership — think about larger categories — how they agree, how they disagree — how they clarify and the conversation and idea building happen —

Generate big ideas to take away —

Create big idea pages for each unit of study in Sci or SocST — kids will find recurring big ideas across units, time periods, cultures, places etc.  Also creates thesis statements for kids to quick-write essays

Ways to assess –

we want kids to see the complexity —

“it was a time of ___, but it was also a time of ______”

re-sort their information into new categories

sort into bigger idea statements as categories

create quick posters or charts that amass the sort

product comes out of what the learning has been — we don’t teach to the product

dramatizations of key events while also articulating big ideas

Essays — longer project — pieces must happen along the way , NOT stop to build the project

Relevance of History to today — it sill exists — whatever it is that you’re studying in that time period — it still exists today — in some form, in some way

We want kids to be participants in democracy — they need to be able to see it and recognize it — only then can they decide to do something about it.



TC Content Area Institute: Kathleen Tolan — Large Group Session 3

Yesterday you looked a photos through different lenses — how they can give you clues as to what is really going on

Close reading of text is a parallel process — transfer the skills from content area reading of photos to the close reading of text in reading workshop

how to analyze an object or photo against another

— compare/contrast (we say them together like that and kids often think they’re together as one thing — they’re not — they are options.  You can compare something — find the similarities — or you can contrast — find the differences

What do you actually do when you compare or contrast?   Put synonyms around it to help kids understand

provide thinking frames at different levels of thinking

put this alongside text features — kids can say them, identify/label them but still not use them.  Same with similarities and differences.  There must be a “so what”

Raising questions to think more deeply —-> more sophisticated thinking

focus on transference to independence

Find a definition or way of close reading that fits the purpose — if you’re reading the Gettysburg Address — why are you reading it?  Then your close reading will more likely achieve your purpose.

Demonstration and then gradual release toward student independence

Carefully delineate small groups vs whole group instruction — Avoid doing the work of the lower level small groups as the whole group work.  The kids all know something — find out what it is and build upon it.

Photo analysis — one minute just looking — no talking or notes  — then quick notes — make clear – you need to bring forward what I’ve taught you about analyzing photos. — Bring what you’ve learned elsewhere in our study to the analysis of this photo — what about last year in the study of XYZ or in our study of ABC earlier this year — bring that learning and lens for thinking forward as well.

In what ways do we see this carried through to today?

Move upper grade thinkers toward symbolism and metaphor as ways of thinking about things —- “This could come to symbolize…”

This is why some photos become iconic – they symbolize larger ideas

Then slide the work over to reading materials — look for symbolic scenes or moments or objects as you read.

Non-Fiction Reading Skills

read passage — stop to identify clues as to how the text is organized — then carry that forward to better comprehend what you’re about to read

Cause and effect is the number one structure in history text — History is all about one thing causing another, which leads to another….

Prior knowledge:  keep going — I don’t know anything about “beavers”… okay, what about animals?  or animals with fur?  or teeth?    I don’t know anything about the American Revolutionary War —- okay, but its a war — so you can bet there are two sides — its the “american” revolutionary war, so it probably involves America — what do I know about America?  Help kids to see that  even when I think I have no prior knowledge, I really do.  I always know something — Put things into a larger category in order to tap into prior knowledge, not just the thing itself.

Main idea:  if your bullets don’t come from all across the text, you probably haven’t figured out the main idea of the PIECE — you’ve probably just found the main idea of a part — the part your bullets all come from.

Close reading of a poem — demonstration (this took a long chunk of time and is hard to to reflect in notes, but was sooooo valuable)


TC Content Area Literacy Institute: Kylene Beers Keynote

This is rough draft thinking — things are changing so fast in education. The internet is speeding up the change process.

CCSS — Kylene Beers was president of NCTE when CCSS was being drafted – very involved – wrote the NCTE response to CCSS

Rigor – wide range of definitions and understandings

PD idea — have everyone jot a definition of rigor and create a common understanding and definition for the building. Important to build shared understanding that includes everyone – art, media, music, SPED, administration, classroom teachers — in order to be clear with parents.

Rigor without relevance is simply HARD

Strategy demonstration – Words UP — from Probst and Beers
Put up list of words and phrases
Tell the kids the words all came from the same article
Ask them to write 5-7 sentences — use all the words before you’re done
Create a table in MSWord — Put one sentence (from someone) in the left top cell — continue with sentences from others (can be in groups)
Look at the first sentence only — read it — when you see that sentence with that information, what questions come to your mind? Record questions in the right cell — this should generate multiple questions
Repeat with next cell and so on
Now read the article
Return to the sentences — color code with highlighters — which things turned out to be accurate and which not?
This is essentially a KWL with a Possible Sentences mixed in
pushes kids to ask text dependent questions for themselves — you won’t always have an English teacher trailing around behind you to ask you the text dependent questions
The problem with text dependent questions (the way we are currently thinking about them) is that they require a teacher to ask them. Kids need to create their own questions and learn to access text to get the answers. This is the life skill — answering a teachers’ question ISN’T a life skill

TC Content Area Literacy Institute: Kathleen Tolan – Large Group Session 2

Read Alouds in Content Area teaching —
— conversation modeling
— strong opinions
— support above level access for students

How can we rev up our read alouds?
– How can writing serve a purpose?
– the level of conversation is high — How do we get the level of writing closer to the level of conversation?

Shared Writing
— create an exemplar — we are not creating enough exemplars for kids to see the progression and how they can grow there.
— let’s compose a post-it together
— let’s compose a jot together
— what’s another way we could say this?
— how could we write this to show cause and effect?

Improve vocabulary
— use academic vocab
— precision of language

Non-fiction Read Alouds
create a place where you bring other texts and put them side by side to support understanding and meaning making

need more inter-textual work even in literature
How does this sit in the larger literate body?

Gorillas by Seymour Simon
— author makes assumptions about your background knowledge — If you don’t own that, you need to access other resources.
— notice when I get confused — NOT because of the book level, but because of assumptions that don’t work
— habit of mind — reach for other materials when reading NF
— must create text sets that support that habit of mind for kids

Can provide kids with
— vocab banks
— short pre-reads to back fill information
— tag materials in centers to bring forward to read aloud
— kids can tag own notes, books, center materials, etc — find all the places about XYZ

Works on synthesis — notetaking, organizing, carrying big ideas
— create contrasts to get kids to interact with text, not just consume it
Go back and add to old sketches
Stop and jot notes
— compare your notes to your partner’s notes
— make your notes better — revise
— talk about determining importance in notetaking

Gather facts —
— Prompt kids “This shows…” and “This matters because…”

Contradicting information — Kids need to see the contradictions and grapple with them.
— point of view
— media perspectives — Time vs Newsweek, Fox News vs Bill Mahr

Video -Gorillas
What prompts? Skills? Standards? Content Knowledge?
Create connectivity between materials at centers that create and answer questions
link back to read alouds and to other reading
create theories but also test out — confirm or disconfirm — NB: a quick google search often confirms or disconfirms in a minute or two

Are we using our read aloud in a powerful enough way?
Who was doing most of the work? most of the talking? Our work as teachers should be in the planning, the kids should be doing the work during the read aloud.

Purposeful use of maps – problem solving to ge at map skills
How could this have been better? Plan from what they’re having trouble with — always be in an act of revision — tap into what they should bring from previous year’s curriculums

— notetaking
— reading skill

jigsaw — knowing you will need to teach something positions your thinking!

compare/contrast demo of minilesson with demo of read aloud

Alter Egos — photo presented to kids
— be the people in the photo — not just the subject of the photo, but each of the people in the photo
— now someone be their alter ego — tell what’s going on inside their head that they’re NOT saying
— switch roles
— carry something you’ve read forward and now do it again
— then read XYZ — think about this by carrying your alter ego activity forward
— think about passive roles — presence does not always mean agreement or support — might be afraid or in shock
Does looking or wanting to see mean agreement or support?

— artifacts to support the lecture
— word bank with photos
— choose powerful subject — something the kids won’t forget — something important — something emotionally powerful
— NOT common knowledge — create a WHOA!!
— connection paragraph —
— listening prompt — “listen for…” or “you’ll want to make notes about…”
— lecture
–claim — “Tenement life was hard” etc
–reason — “one way it was hard…” model the clear structure of an essay
cause/effect structure — structure guides listening
— turn and talk — process ideas, summarize information, synthesize
— notetaking opportunity — stop and jot in your notes
— next reason
— picture
— turn and talk
— note take
— another reason
–jot notes (this time NO turn and talk — scaffold toward independence)
— link

— stories stick — think of people no longer with us. We remember stories they told and stories about them
— good way for kids to remember events in history
— after learning more, add/revise and tell the story again and again, deepening and broadening your understanding of the event

Jigsaw the storytelling to expand knowledge
use illustrations to support content information
Start with teacher story telling — then kids can read and do center work and revise with new information
— sound effects — horse hooves etc
— dialogue — imagine who said what
— add details – red uniforms, heavy boots

Paul Revere vs Sybil Luddington
— add perspectives and other stories into the mix
— model skeletal stories with just a sketch or two — let kids add and revise
— pick one major event from the unit of study that you want the students to hold onto — only do that ONE story –over and over with revision after revision

Notetaking — writing longer

Writing Workshop – informational books — opinion writing

Go through notes and find something you could teach
Write a potential table of contents as an organizer
— think about the topic
— how will I teach it? what text structures support it?
imagine multiple possibilities in order to select the one that works the best (CCSS structures work)

begins revision work at a deep level — re-imagine the work and see it anew

Argument/Opinion Writing
Structure Development Conventions
place kids on the continuum
think about lead — place on continuum to find next steps
apply in quick opinion essays — 7-10 minutes in Soc St
creates repeated practice
use checklists to self assess and to prime thinking
keeps the work they’ve done in writing workshop from slipping
require kids to use tools (checklists, charts on wall, charts in their notebooks etc)
on most reading tests, they will end up with 7-12 minutes to crank out a response to reading — and quickly move along to the next piece

TC Content Area Literacy Institute: Donna Santman – Keynote

When kids can talk extensively about what they’re learning — they are REALLY learning, not just regurgitating facts.

having their own thoughts about the things they’re learning
not just “know”, but have ideas
ideas need annotation — facts that support them
relationships between ideas
explaining what we know —
having theories and supporting them with evidence

from the desire to know comes the desire to understand, to explain, to decide and to convince

— values accumulation of knowledge as an end itself — simply because they want to know
— collector of facts — for the joy of knowing — “Hey, did you know….?” Try to be the kind of readers who do that.
— values lingering on and being thrilled by ideas – thoughts about the topic under study — stop rushing for evidence

“All we have is time, its how we choose to spend it” Randy Bomer

Robust teaching and learning will give kids everything they need for the next and beyond.

TC Content Area Literacy Institute: Kathleen Tolan – Large Group Session

We need to be actually providing literacy instruction and thinking instruction in Science and Social Studies.

Is our curriculum rich enough?
Have we though through what we’re teaching and how?

Guiding Principles:
— cannot just follow a textbook — what is our goal? What do we want kids to get out of it?
— check the state curriculum guide
look at the essential questions then at the focused questions
design teaching to get to the essential questions

What CCSS standards will be addressed?
— inference, interpretation, synthesis, main idea, big idea

Academic vocabulary –
— academic vocabulary – words hold tremendous amount of meaning beyond the initial sense of the word. Huge concepts held in little words eg democracy
— vocabulary that will hold the key turning points in the saga — eg Boston Massacre

Reading and Writing Skills
— to teach
— to revisit
— to require students to apply

Link curriculum — after essay unit in Writing Workshop — plan for practice and application in Social Studies — keep the momentum of the learning going

Teach for Transference
Plan for Transference

Textbooks — most written 2-4 years above the reading level of the grade for which they are targeted. Do a running record, if below 95%, there is no possibility of effective comprehension, much less deeper meaning
Broader — do not have to be all reading based sources of information — allows strugglers and ELLs to access information and think deeply without the barrier of reading
— articles
— NF books
— HF books
— mark specific pages of text books with appropriate tools such as timelines or maps (timelines help determine importance — what goes on the timeline and what doesn’t make it onto the timeline)
— photographs
— biographies
— maps
— timelines
— diaries/journals
— letters
— speeches or quotes (quotes become famous for a reason!)
— postcards (get on state websites)
— artwork — especially statues
— songs/poems (representational of the time and cultural climate — usually very political)
— primary documents — photocopy the basalized version from the textbook alongside the original primary document in order to support the reading of the primary document
— movie clips (just clips, NOT the whole thing! 3-7 minutes)
— documentaries (same rule — clips only)

Methods and Structures
— can be reading skill
— writing skill
— notetaking skill
— skill from the domain (Science or Soc St) such as how to analyze a photo etc
— very focused — will do more work with this later in the institute
Read Aloud
— jotting
— conversation
Close Reading
— especially primary documents
Shared Reading
— poems
— songs
Shared Writing
— note-taking

Independent Practice
— go off and read, review notes, do SocSt centers, take notes etc

— photographs
— statistics
— video clips
— music
— compare/contrast

Start with the number of centers that you have classroom teachers at that grade level. Each teacher makes one center — same center for each unit of study. Teacher becomes more efficient and BETTER at making that center.

— Random Act of Violent Note-taking — factoid collectors — usually cannot talk about the topic without their notes because it is a random list of facts

Organize it in some way — headings
Scaffold kids to take better notes
— sketches with stick figures
— not just a single sketch, but a short series of sketches that hold onto learning and information
— allows kids to hold onto information and to talk long about that information
— especially good with cause and effect

— determines importance
— event — opposing view — multi layer timeline
— event — my thinking — multi layer timeline

Venn Diagrams
only work if we teach into them – what is the criteria for the comparison in the Venn? Otherwise kids make comparisons that don’t help their understanding

also use T-Charts and Double Entry Journals for compare contrast work

Set Up Notebooks for the work
use tabs
Have kids read and take notes in different ways — first read, sketch, second read (same material) boxes and bullets Compare the information that we can hold onto with each method of notetaking

As teachers — construct continuum of work. Analyze – what makes this one better than that one? Create categories and descriptors to name the differences or qualities of the work.

Don’t teach to the top of the ladder — teach to the next rung from where the child is

Minilesson — where do MOST of my kids need to go?
Small group — where do specific kids need to go?
Don’t hold the class back to target the needs of some of the lower skilled students.

TC Content Area Literacy Institute: Tony Stead Keynote

I’m sure that my notes will NOT make any sense — but here they are.

Engagement — non-fiction reading must NOT be restricted to the non-fiction unit of study

That’s Amazing — find one amazing thing/fact each day and add to a class book. Students need to collect amazing facts just for the sheer joy of knowing stuff.

use www.greatfacts.com as a source of amazing facts.

Focused Talk Mentor Text Demonstration
— argument, opinion, persuasion
— information, explanation
— narrative, personal informational, fictional
— response writing

What percentage of daily read alouds are NF?

NF is NOT harder to write — kids don’t have sufficient academic vocabulary — because they haven’t learned it or heard it during read-aloud etc

Engaged talk — alpha boxes — give students a scaffold to accumulate academic vocabulary

90% of third grade students can read the NF text
75% of third graders can understand them

Writing Text Types — Mentor Texts
see Tony’s new book — Big Book of Mentor Texts

Will Durrant — Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.


System for Inquiry based learning
Rethinking the KWL — taken from Reality Checks by Tony Stead
Traditional KWL only works if the kids have prior knowledge that is ACCURATE and RELEVANT. Otherwise, it soon goes haywire.

Use the RAN — Reading and Analyzing NF
What I think I know
Research to Confirm
Look for new learning

Color code — red = still in my head blue = it must be true (confirmed through research)

Glue together one red folder and one blue folder to create a 3 section folder for research and post-it keeping

Student lead inquiry — I wonder …..
Raise wonderings from what they’ve discovered during the research to confirm
Misconceptions = we don’t think this anymore

All about expectations — when kindergarteners were given a sheet of paper with 4 sections (folded in quarters) they wrote 4x as much as when they were given the same sheet of paper but as a whole (one whole sections)