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.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?


I love going to conferences and workshops. They’re so invigorating. Sometimes an idea I have is confirmed, or I’m reminded of a strategy or activity I haven’t used in a while. But the best sessions are those where I learn something new that I can immediately use in my teaching and moves my thinking about a topic forward.

This happened on Saturday at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion. Carl Anderson’s session on analyzing informational texts for teaching points to support student writing caused a noticeable shift in my thinking about these books.

Anderson, author of the classic book on conferring, How’s It Going? (Heinemann, 2000), opened his talk by reminding us that using mentor texts is essential if we want our students to write well in any genre. They have to “imagine the shape of their drafts.” In order to do this, they’ll need lots of exposure to models of the genre before they write.

Teachers should look at possible mentor texts through several lenses, including meaning, structure, details, voice, and conventions. Anderson’s words came back to me a few hours later while I was browsing the shelves at Bank St. Book Store. Astronomy has always fascinated me, so Jessie Hartland’s new book, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum (Blue Apple Books, 2013), caught my eye. As I flipped through the pages, I realized I was reading the book differently that I would have just the day before. Many elements of the book’s structure and style popped out and grabbed my attention.


Told as a cumulative story in the tradition of “The House that Jack Built,” How the Meteorite Got to the Museum combines scientific facts with the daily lives of the people whose path the meteor crossed, making the story more interesting and engaging to readers. Hartland infuses the story with humor with lines like “Your car was in an interstellar collision!”

The Peekskill Meteorite’s descent to Earth is described with vivid details that include all the senses. Witnesses’ reactions are chronicled with a variety of verbs each time they’re mentioned, as is the meteorite’s journey itself. Hartland’s colorful, engaging illustrations, which remind me of Maira Kalman’s work, include diagrams, maps and other typical of non-fiction features.

All of these touches give this book a depth that will draw kids back to it again and again, a depth I might have missed if not for Carl Anderson’s ideas about analyzing mentor texts. How the Meteorite Got to the Museum is an ideal mentor text for 3rd or 4th grade students who’ve been writing informational text for a few years and are ready to stretch their writing wings and try a new text structure. And they’ll learn a few facts about meteorites along the way.

Be sure to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!