Slice of Life: The Gift of Words


Last Saturday morning I sat in the nave of Riverside Church—a soaring space of beauty beyond words—as David Booth addressed the thousands of teachers gathered for TCRWP’s Fall Saturday Reunion. He reminded us that “everyone is making their own story” and that all stories deserve to be heard. It’s our job to help children reveal their story, and Booth encouraged us to “weave a blanket of words to cover our children.” He urged us to give them words we love, words we sing, words we puzzle over. He urged us to “give them as gifts.”

Each session I attended throughout the day gave me the gift of words. Audra Robb shared her wisdom about teaching students how to locate places in their writing for strong verbs and precise nouns, the kinds of words that can fill their writing with details that matter. She told us to read mentor texts closely with our students to help them become aware of the techniques authors use to create specific effects, effects they can try out in their writing. Practicing and experimenting with these techniques empowers them to find their own voice.

Brooke Geller presented a standing-room only crowd with a variety of strategies for building vocabulary. Use words, she told us, in writing, in conversations, and across our lives. Give our children opportunities to use words, think about meanings, and to read them in many different contexts. Soon the words will be part of them.

Finally, Carl Anderson urged us to ask kids questions, but then to be quiet and give them a chance to “get their thoughts together.” He reminded us to prompt them by asking them to “say more about that.” When we do this, “we nudge them to reach for more specific language.” He compared this process to Russian nesting dolls—“Each time you ask, more thinking comes out.” Most importantly, by taking the time to ask kids these questions, we’re giving kids “the gift of thinking about their thinking.”

We create our world with words. Lucille Clifton once said “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.” We can’t imagine what we can’t name. For this reason, children need as many words as we can possibly give them. We need to fill them up, so they’ll have the words they need to imagine the best possible world for us all.

Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project for the gift of the Saturday Reunions and all you’ve done for teachers and students around the world.

Thank you, StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for the gift of this space for teachers and others to share their writing each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice 28 of 31: Unpacking Poetry


Earlier this month, I attended the TCRWP’s Saturday Reunion in New York City. One of the sessions I went to was “To Lift the Level of Writing, We Need to Lift the Level of Rehearsal and Revision: Mentor Texts Can Teach Not Just Qualities of Good Writing, But Process,” presented by Brooke Geller. The session began with Geller stating that kids need to see the big picture before they begin writing. Knowing what the finished product will look like is the first step in engagement. Geller described the following process to immerse students in the genre being studied, in this case, a research-based argument essay.

Unpacking a Text

  • could be a published text, student work, or your own writing.
  • students should spend time with the text, reading and rereading
  • ask “What are you noticing?”
  • put kids in groups of 3-4, give them a piece of writing in the middle of a big sheet of paper
  • have them mark up the text with their observations and the evidence
  • students should use their prior knowledge about genre– “What do you know about essays?”
  • read first, then read with the eyes of a writer
  • teacher should go from group to group and add her own thoughts
  • come back together–create list of what they think are characteristics of the genre
  • charts can be used as teaching tools

At my school, the fifth grade teachers were getting reading to begin a unit on poetry. We’ve been talking about ways to increase student engagement and the quality of their writing, and I suggested that unpacking poems would be a great way to begin.

The teachers and I selected five poems and mounted them on sheets of butcher paper. At the start of class the next day, the classroom teacher and I modeled the process for the students. We discussed the importance of reading the poem aloud and rereading it several times. Then gave each group their poem and a marker. As they began working, the room was filled with the hum of their reading. The classroom teacher and I moved from group to group, talking and rereading along with the kids. Certain poetic elements were easier to spot; the poem either rhymed or it didn’t. Some students could describe what they noticed, but didn’t know what it was called.  It occurred to me that this activity was also an excellent form of pre-assessment. The teachers and I had a concrete list of what the students knew about poetry.

mentor text  photo-1

We left empty space so we can add more elements as they’re introduced.

After school, the classroom teacher and I created this chart to use throughout the unit.


As students find examples of these poetic elements, they will be added to the appropriate column. These examples will support them when they begin writing their own poems. We will also add columns to the chart as we teach more poetic elements and devices.

A variation on this process suggested by Geller would be to put the same piece of writing on sheets of paper, but have a different focus question on each sheet.

Possible questions include:

  • What makes this text (poetry, essay, etc)?
  • How is this text set up? Why is this important?
  • What is the purpose? How do you know this?
  • How does the author show the heart of the story?

Students could rotate around room, rereading the text in light of each question.

As we reflected on the work of our students, we noticed that engagement had been high and all students participated in the discussions. We also noted that no one had mentioned anything about repetition of words, or the word choices the poets made. And while most students could spot a simile, metaphors were more difficult. Over the next few weeks, we will be crafting mini-lessons to teach these elements.  We will continue to use the wonderful ideas Brooke Geller shared at TCRWP throughout the unit. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!

Slice 2013 9 of 31: My Day at Teachers College Saturday Reunion


This morning, I left my house at 5:30 and drove to Teachers College at Columbia University for their spring Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion. I spent the day with thousands of dedicated teachers soaking up the wisdom of the amazing presenters. Because I am now quite tired, here is my day in pictures.

The sky was just beginning to lighten when I pulled out of my driveway.
The Nave of Riverside Church when we arrived.
People choosing which sessions to attend as the Nave fills up.
Katherine Patterson begins her keynote address, “The Richness of Creation”
“In this bleak time, what our children need is beauty.” Katherine Patterson
Chris Lehman urging us to use our literature instruction to build social emotional skills.
Elizabeth Moore modeling how to use demonstrations and experiments as the basis for shared or interactive writing.
Brooke Geller explaining how to immerse students in articles to prepare them for a research-based argument essay unit.
I was so excited to meet fellow slicer Melanie Meehan at Brooke’s session. She was sitting right behind me!
Amanda Hartman reading Seymour Simon’s Super Storms during her session on deeping students’ comprehension of informational text.
During her closing remarks, Lucy Calkins urged us to treat each other with kindness as we weather “the perfect storm” that is about to hit education.
Last stop, Bank Street Bookstore!

As you can see, Saturday Reunions are an incredible experience. I learned so much today! You can also explore what others learned by checking out the #TCRWP hashtag on Twitter.  Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at Teachers College for a fabulous day!

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!