Fighting to Bring the Purpose Back


Wolf Dog Bored Grim Statue Sullen Garden Statue

Is there a more dreaded word in world of education? As teachers, we all want our classrooms to be places full of energy, excitement, and flow.  So when I was working with a group of teachers earlier this year and heard their audible groans when looking at the upcoming unit, we took a time out to ponder the problems they saw coming.

“Literary essay is just so dry,” said one of the teachers.  “I can’t get my kids excited about it.”

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We begin asking ourselves…   Why couldn’t we get our kids pumped up to share their thoughts with the others?  Where did this draining feeling come from?  Why were our kids bored?  When thinking deeply about these questions, we came to a moment of clarity.   We couldn’t get our students excited about sharing their ideas because they didn’t see the purpose behind this work.  Their writing wasn’t talking TO anyone, so they were simply filling in the parts and pieces for US.

Then, out of our discussion a new idea was born.  If the work felt purposeless, we needed to find a way to bring purpose back to the kids.  And what brings more purpose and fire into our work than an argument, right?  So we lit a fire under our kids with the work of debate.


It may seem like a risky move to begin a unit of study on essay without even mentioning the word essay, but we knew we needed to take a leap of faith.  Our first days revolved around immersing our students in rich short stories, videos, and picture books.  Then, we taught into taking stances and pushing ourselves to argue stances that were given to us.  We helped students to understand the protocols behind debate work, how to lean on those fighting with you, AND how to listen to the arguments of others to build up your writing muscles.  And while sometimes it was loud, and sometimes it felt messy, the fire was back in our classrooms.  Students were filling their notebooks and pouring over the texts they were using to find the perfect bits of evidence to prove their points.  The entries grew longer and longer until it seemed that students were writing naturally flowing essays to prepare for their debates.


While our essay work didn’t end there, this unconventional start led us to work that was full of purpose, energy, and life.  There are times in our teaching lives that we must take that leap of faith to bring the fire back.


A special thanks to Jen Dunn, Paul Levitan, and Norma Chorlian, who planned and developed this work, and were willing to jump with me.  I’d also like to thank all of the teachers who have been open to trying out this work in their classrooms.  I am grateful to teach and learn alongside you each and every day.  




A Plea From Your Writer’s Notebook

Dear  Writing Teachers,

Alas, the end of September is soon approaching.

Every year, September is my best month.  The month when I am the star of the writing classroom.  All month your students have opened me and I’ve captured their joys and sorrows, wonderings and concerns, noticings and plans.  They’ve filled me with the best parts of them, and I can be the fuel for all the writing yet to be…  Yet I fear as the breeze turns cooler and the leaves begin to turn, my shiny newness and joy may fade, and I will be lost to the dark cavern otherwise known as the back of the desk.   So this is my plea…

Please don’t forget me!

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I realize that as you move into studies of all types of writing and genres that it’s easy to put me away.  Yes, you may use me for a bit as kids come up with ideas or even to fill me with the planning they do for each piece they plan to publish.  You may even make organizers in me for this work.  But remember that while I can hold some of these things, that is NOT my purpose.

I am a place of dreaming.  A place of hopes and ideas and knowledge and play.  I am meant to  hold life, not work.

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So in an effort to save myself, I am offering a few suggestions on how you can keep me close all throughout the year.  While I know every classroom is different, I pray that you take me up on one or two…

1.  Make me part of your morning.  While “Do Now” worksheets may help to make the room a quiet place for lunch counts and morning tasks, I must ask, “Aren’t I more important than yet another worksheet?”  For I can become the seed that helps to grow the next great novel or at least next week’s essay.  Not that I’m a “have to” for everyone, but I’d like to be invited as a option.  Think about it.

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2.  Carve out some time for me, even if you have to steal it.  I know writing time is sacred and we all feel that there’s never enough, but I’m important too!  It’s okay to give yourself permission to steal a few moments from your workshop or shared writing or other parts of your day to fill me up.  I may help out later.

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3.  Send me home.  Not as a assignment, but instead send me home because that is the way that writers live.  Invite kids to bring me places and know that writers fill up their notebooks because they really see the world.


4.  Help me multiply.  If you’re going to send me home, you might as well send home one of my blank cousins for a mom or dad or family member to write in as well.  I know not all families will take up the invitation, but maybe a few will.  My cousin and I dream of quiet family writing time, where writers fill up our pages at the dining room table.


5.  Try out peace time.  I’ve seen this beautiful time set aside in a few classrooms.  Picture this… It’s right after lunch and the kids bustle into the classroom with a strange wild energy.  The teacher puts on some music, puts out some yoga mats, and invites kids to use a few moments to settle.  Some may draw.  Others may stretch and relax.  Some may choose me.


To be honest, how you find the time for me matters little.  Just please do.

With hope and sincerity,

Your Writer’s Notebook


Closing the Door on Another Year


Well Friends, we’ve done it.  We’ve sent another crew of students who we’ve loved, nurtured, taught, and who sometimes sent us home with a headache, through our doors for the last time.  Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re packing up and walking around in circles, getting one bit of a task done until something catches your eye and reminds you of yet another thing on your to-do list.  Of course instead of finishing what you’ve started, you wander over to begin, but not finish, the next thing.  During these crazy, messy, quiet moments, we pack our things away and reflect on the year.  Holding a favorite read aloud brings back special moments with our kiddos… the laughter, the tears and the wishes.  A funny sticky note stuck to the back of a misplaced book brings a chuckle and a lingering wistful smile.  These moments are bittersweet and have us thinking.


So how can we use these moments of thought and reflection to help us as we prepare to begin again.   A recent conversation with some amazing colleagues (and favorite people) had me thinking about some questions that can guide our reflection into positive actions.  Let’s try a next steps approach, thinking through a positive lens.

  1. What started out really strong but may have gotten lost along the way?  How did it lose steam?  What can I do to make sure it lives on throughout the year next time?

2.  What went really well this year?  What did I do to support it?  How can I lift it even            higher next year?

3.  What do I wish I could have tried this year?  Where can it fit into my teaching?

4.   What is something I truly believe in as an educator?  Do I see that belief align with            my practice?  Can I do more to bring my beliefs and practice together?

5.   Who can I share this journey with?

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer full of fun, sunshine, and lots of reflection!


Writing to Teach


Pulling hair out

Let’s face it.  Teaching writing can feel hard.  It’s this delicate balance of admiration, reflection, feedback, and mentoring, with teachers finding ways to kindly critique work in a way that will move students forward.  We teach from our units or teacher manuals and try to give our kids the support they need to keep growing…  But many of us are not sure exactly what that support looks like or what type of coaching and/or strategies we should share!  When those feelings overwhelm us, many teachers lean heavily on cute and easy to recreate ideas from Pintrest and Teachers Pay Teachers.  While some of these resources can help our students, I often wonder if scrolling through these sites is the best way to reflect on the writing process and think about the moves that may help our kids.

So what are the alternatives?


One idea is to move back into the role of writer!  While many of us write for the purpose of demonstrating different moves for our lesson work, I wonder… When was the last time we wrote a piece simply to live through the whole process?  When did we last write with the intention of studying our own moves?  A couple of months back, a few teachers and I decided to bring ourselves back into the role of writers, and we set forth on a PD adventure to explore our inner authors, mining the moves we made to bring ourselves all the way from seed to story.  From immersion to publishing, the process I outline below brought us through the journey of writing to teach.


  1.   Choose a genre.  (Most of us chose the genre of focus in our next unit of study.)
  2.   Find some good mentor texts to study.  Then, read them and notice your thought process as you unpack the writer’s moves.  As you’re reading you’ll want to think,  What questions am I asking?  How am I working through the text to study the author’s craft moves?  How am I finding areas that help me define the genre?  
  3. While you move through the text, WRITE all the questions and strategies you used along the margins of the paper (or on post-its across the pages of a book.)
  4. Now it’s time to move into your notebook and get started.
  5. Begin with generating ideas and fill your pages.
  6. After a bit of writing, pause to mine your process.  Ask yourself, “How did I come up with these ideas?  How did one idea move me to the next?  Was there a pattern to my moves?”  Then, write your strategies in the margins and highlight them.
  7. Repeat the steps of ‘write then mine’ all the way through the writing process.  To mine, continue asking yourself questions that focus on how you moved through the process, how you used mentors to guide you, and how you refined and got to know what you were really trying to say in your piece.

Once your writing is complete, you’ll have filled your back pocket with tons strategies that can support writers as they move through the writing process, AND you’ll have a notebook full of examples to use during your teaching and conferring!  So instead of leaning on internet tools, use your time to mine your own process and lift the level of your teaching.   I hope you decide to give this a try!

Happy Writing!








The Power of Why

Grit.  Ownership. Engagement.

These words and ideas have been at the heart of many recent collegial conversations.   As educators, our shared desire is to have classrooms full of students who are resilient and independent thinkers, highly engaged in their learning.  While it is no  secret that we want this for our students the question that remains is… How do we get it?  


A great first step that many teachers are taking is to focus on readers and writers instead of products, as we know that focusing on teaching strategies that support bigger goals can lead students to that golden place called independence.  However, even when our conferences are goal-centered and focused on supporting students with strategies, we may still find that many of our students are not applying what we teach in the conference!  There are few things more crushing  to the teacher soul than heading back to a student a couple of days after conferring with him/her and asking, “So, how’s it going?  Can you talk to me about what you’re working on?”  only to find that they haven’t tried any of the work!  In those moments we may want to drop to our knees, pull out our hair, and cry out “WHY!” at the top of our lungs.   But instead, we must take a deep cleansing breath and ask ourselves,  “Why do some students seem to apply strategies while we’re with them and then stop the moment we walk away?”  One part of that answer may be pretty simple…

 We forgot the why.


Understanding the purpose of the work is vital if we want to move people toward independence and engagement.  Think back to a moment in your life when you were asked to complete a task that you felt was meaningless, or worse, felt was a task to prove your understanding.  How engaged were you in the work?  Did you bring this learning into your daily practice without being prompted?  For me, this experience was typical of my high school chemistry class.  Memorizing the periodic table seemed pointless to me without being told how this information might help me understand the world around me.  That table was simply a bunch of random letters that represented things that I didn’t really understand.   I memorized them for the test but quickly forgot them.

So how can we make sure we’re teaching kids how to master skills while making sure they understand why they are learning these skills to begin with?  You may want to try some of these ideas…

Bring samples.  If you have a conferring tool kit along for the ride, be sure to include student work samples with post-its that name what the student was trying to accomplish in the piece.  Then, highlight or draw arrows to places that show how the student tried out the work.  This moves us beyond simply naming the strategy and into showing  how that strategy can lift the level of our work.

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Simply add why to your teaching point.  This doesn’t have to be complicated.  Understanding purpose drives us, so simply name a teaching point with a teaching stem tied to it like, “If you want to… (purpose)  you might try… (strategy)”  Or “When we are trying to… (purpose) something many readers/writers do is… (strategy)” Or even, “When you… (strategy), it can help you to… (purpose). 

Tuck in examples from your work!  Let kids see how you’ve used what you’re teaching in your own reading or writing life.  Show students that what we’re teaching them IS applied to real life situations, for kids and adults alike.  This can help them see that their learning is purposeful.

Finally… The when is important too! Along with telling kids why they might try something out, it is equally important to tell them when they might bring out this new move.  If our intention is to make the learning purposeful for students, then we must make them aware that at different moments of our reading or writing, we pull out different moves to support our thinking and our work.


Wishing you all classrooms full of engaged and independent learners!

Am I conferring or helping?

Off you go.  In classrooms worldwide, those three little words send students off to either read themselves into brand new worlds, or to become the creators of them.  Those words also send us as teachers off to become listeners, coaches, and fellow readers/writers.  However sometimes, as we grab our conferring clipboards, we look up and our eyes are magnetically pulled to those students who need help.  There may be  kids with hands up, staring off into space, or just looking stuck.  In those moments, we are tempted to head over and use our conferring time to help them get ‘unstuck’.  Watching this happen in classroom after classroom had me asking myself, Is helping really conferring? The more closely I watched, the more I realized that the answer is no.

A few months back, I was working in a coaching cycle with a teacher who was interested in studying conferring together. The teacher was a bright and bubbly woman with a forever smile.  I watched her as she pulled up next to a student who was sitting and staring at his booklet with his face was scrunched up into a grump.  “How’s it going?” she asked.  He looked up and quickly said, “I need help!  How do you spell train?”  Seeing that the student was feeling stuck, the teacher helped him listen for the sounds in the word train.  He got to writing, she jotted a note about stretching out words on her clipboard, and went off to visit her next little friend with his hand waving wildly.

You may ask, what’s wrong with that?  It does seems like she was able to guide him without giving him the answer.  However, when we think a bit more deeply about that conference, we see that her coaching was directed to just that moment instead of any moment he gets stuck on a word.

The problem with helping is two-fold.  First, helping typically addresses a specific issue with particular text.  In other words, it helps for one moment in one text, but it isn’t necessarily transferable or strategic.  The ongoing nature of our work with students when we ‘help’ is random, preventing us from really supporting the next steps of a particular reader or writer.  The second larger problem, is that our classrooms become teacher centered!  If we spend our time helping at signs of trouble, the students think that they need us, and sometimes our approval, to make decisions or figure out how to problem solve.

So how can we move from helping to conferring?


WATCH CLOSELY.  Notice students’ facial expressions and gestures, along with their actions.  You can help yourself focus your observations by looking at students and their work through different lenses.  For example, if you’re conferring in writing, watch through the lens of engagment.  Read the work through the lenses of structure, elaboration/craft, conventions, voice, etc…  By changing your view, you’ll notice different aspect of a child’s writing which may bring a new appreciation for the work.  Write down your noticings and be sure to include all the things they already CAN do.  Then name one of those for them!


Bring the child into the decision-making process.  While it is true that teachers often have many ideas for possible teaching points in their conferences, if we don’t ask the child what his/her goals are, we are becoming those “you need us” teachers.  Begin each conference by asking something like, “What are you trying to do in your work today?”  When first starting this in your class, you may find that students are telling you what they are writing or reading about.  If that happens, try asking, “So what are you doing to read/write that book/piece well?”  This clues the child into the idea that you are asking about his/her process instead of the content.

To remind students that they are the ones in charge of setting these goals, you may want to ask kids to create a plan for their work before they head to their reading or writing spots for the day.


Speak in general terms.   To truly support a student’s next steps as a reader or writer, our language MUST be generalized so that the child can apply strategies we teach to their current work AND their future work.  Let’s go back to our little friend who asked for spelling help.  Instead of coaching the child through the spelling of train, we might have tried saying, “When stretching out words, we can listen for each letter by tapping the sounds down our arm.  We tap the first sound and think of the letter that matches.  Then write that letter.  After that, we tap the next sound and write the next letter we hear.  We do that until we’ve said all of the sounds and written all of letters we heard.”   Naming the strategy in general means that it can be applied anytime to any text.  Plus, our kiddos won’t need us next time!


Make a plan.  Try to carve out a loose schedule of some small groups and students to confer with for the week while you’re planning.  This plan will change weekly, as we are not necessarily creating “Monday kids” and “Tuesday kids”.   Instead, it is a schedule that ensures that you’re supporting everyone and grouping kids that may have similar next steps in small groups.

Wishing you all happy conferences!  Off you go.