Inspired by Art

I attended Broadway Across Canada on Friday night. Once again, I was reminded how art inspires me to be both creative and reflective.

Consider how you might use a form of art–visual, performance, or literary–to inspire your students’ writing this week! Will you go on a virtual tour of an art gallery… show students a video of a dramatic performance… play classical music… or watch a spoken word poet?

The use of two freewriting prompts in this situation is effective: “I notice…” and “I feel…” are especially powerful. Students can begin with one and move in and out of them as they wish.

Don’t forget to write with students and consider if or how your own writing is influenced by the art form. The discussion that follows the writing will be interesting! Wish I could be a fly on the wall…

Excited. Empowered. Validated.

The last few weeks I’ve been busy with PD. What does that mean for me? Opportunities to talk about my passion! What have I noticed though? The dedication, willingness, and hard work of teachers. Despite the hectic nature of this time of year, despite being busy and tired, teachers are willing to learn, make changes, and adjust their practice for the good of their students.

Often, after I’ve finished a PD session or series, I ask teachers how they are now feeling about the teaching of writing. Some of the answers from the last few sessions: inspired, ready, eager, excited, empowered, validated, equipped with creativity…

Rock on teachers: keep on sharing the gift of literacy with your students!

Ripples of Joy

I’m writing a book about a boy I know: a friend’s son. As I’m writing, I’m talking to others who know him too. What I’ve come to realize is the power of one. This one little boy has brought much joy into so many lives and has an incredible knack of bringing out the best in others.

Harold Kushner said, “Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.” That’s Ben. No judgement or motives. Only kindness and compassion.

In a world that sometimes feels riddled with sadness, we can take a lesson from Ben and spread ripples of joy.

The power of one.


Every time I’m in a school for a writing residency, I am inspired and humbled by students.

Last week, when I asked a class of grade six students what they find challenging about writing, one student shared his difficulty and frustration with printing, the fine motor aspect (without naming it such). Often, when one student is brave enough to share a vulnerability, others feel willing and safe enough to talk about their own challenges, too. The open and honest conversation in grade six that day proved this to be true.

In another school last week, when I sent grade one students from the reading corner to their desks to write, one little guy remained on the carpet. I sat down next to him to talk. Eventually he said: “I don’t know how to write.” By the time I left that class, he was so proud of what he had written! Did he need scaffolding and support? Yes. But did he write? You bet.

I’ve said it before: writing makes us vulnerable. By acknowledging the emotion tied to writing, by giving students the space to feel and to share, they are often empowered and willing to try.

What a great place to begin.

“Emails by paper!”

Last week I was preparing for a Family Literacy Night and found myself walking through the aisles of the dollar store. I was reaching for a package of envelopes when a boy–seven or eight I’d say–held an envelope up to me and said, “Look, you can send emails by paper!”

With a smile I replied, “Yes I suppose you can!”

He then took the envelope to his mom further down the aisle and said the same to her. She snapped back, “Yeah, they’re called letters.”

Another customer heard what he said, made eye contact with me, and we shared a smile, both suppressing our laughter.

Tomorrow I begin a Writing Residency in another school. As per usual, we will begin by talking about writing and its many forms and purposes. I wonder if this boy will be in one of those classes…

As promised… an example of orthographic mapping!

Orthographic mapping is a process that helps lock a word into memory so it can be recognized instantly by sight. In the example below you will notice the explicit focus on the connection between the phonemes and graphemes. The process is most effective when we can also connect the meaning of the word to various contexts.

1. Say the word to students and ask them to repeat it.

  • “Today we’re going to map the word have. Say it with me. Have.”

2. Connect the word to meaning and/or give context.

  • “We use this word a lot. Sometimes we use it in statements like this one: I have new shoes on today. Sometimes we use it when we are asking questions: Have you seen Min this morning?”

3. Analyze the sounds in the word.

  • “As I say the word have, I want you to put up a finger for each sound you hear. I’ll say it slowly: have.”
  • “How many sounds did you hear? That’s right! Three.”
  • “Try saying the word yourself and put up a finger for each sound you hear. I should hear you stretching out that word.”

4. Analyze the spelling of the word.

  • “Okay, now I am going to write the word have on the board. Look at the letters as I say each sound.”
  • “What did you notice?” (Students can talk about the letter e used at the end of the word.) 
  • “You’re right. There is an ‘e’ at the end of the word have. What sound does an ‘e’ usually make? /e/ Do we hear the /e/ sound in have?”

5. Connect the word’s sounds with its spelling.

  • “You told me there are three sounds in the word have. Let’s look at the letters that go with each sound.”
  • Using an Elkonin box with three spaces, write the letters for the word have as you say it, stretching it out for emphasis. The last box will have ‘ve’ together.
  • “What did you notice about the letters? That’s right! The ‘ve’ are together making the /v/ sound.”

6. Give students the opportunity to practise reading and spelling the word.

(Individual white boards are ideal for this activity.)

  • “Okay, you write the word with me now. Listen to the sounds as you write.”
  • “Did you remember to put both letters ‘v’ and ‘e’ for the /v/ sound? If not, add the ‘e’ now.”
  • “Let’s read it together. Drag your fingers under the letters as you read.”
  • “Great! Now erase your board and try writing the word yourself.”
  • “Once you’re finished, read it one more time.”

7. Connect back to meaning and context.

  • “A few minutes ago, I used the word have in a statement—I have new shoes on today. Turn to your partner and say a statement using the word have.”
  • “I also used the word have in a question—Have you seen Min this morning? Ask your partner a question using this word. Here’s a hint: the word have will often be at the beginning of a question.”

8. Connect to other words that follow a similar pattern.

  • “Can you think of any other words that are spelled this way with a ‘ve’ at the end making a /v/ sound?” (love, live)
  • If time, map one of these other words as well.

13 Words

Did you know that 13 words account for approximately 25% percent of the text we read? It’s true!

These high-frequency words–a, and, for, he, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was, you–are certainly ones we want our students to know!

But wait, there’s more… In their book Shifting the Balance, Jan Burkins and Kari Yates list 109 high-frequency words that account for almost 50% of the text children read!

Depending on the grade you teach, you may want to consider which of these words need your attention and how you will help your students learn them. Some of these high-frequency words are phonetic and others have some irregularity.

We may have traditionally prompted our students to memorize the words (especially those less phonetic) or used strategies such as chanting. But in his book, Equipped for Reading Success, David Kilpatrick turns to research to support a shift in instruction: “Researchers have discovered the mental process we use to efficiently store words for instant, effortless retrieval. It is called orthographic mapping.”

If you haven’t yet discovered this process, it’s time! Stay tuned for an example next week…

An Emotional Journey

“Reading is both a cognitive and an emotional journey.” Donalyn Miller

As much as we support our students on their cognitive journeys of reading–the teaching of skills and strategies–we must also remember to support our students’ emotional journeys with books and reading, too.

For some students, this is a relatively easy task. They come to us loving books, comfortable and confident with their skills, and they enjoy reading. Supporting the emotional journeys for those students whose feelings towards books and reading are indifference, frustration, or defeat is especially important.

What can we do to help these students find books that they enjoy… to motivate them to read… to change the attitudes they currently have?

A few ideas:

  • ask students to complete an interest inventory to help you understand their preferences in topics and genre
  • support students when selecting books, providing recommendations based on their interests
  • generate book buzz through book talks or book commercials
  • choose engaging read-alouds
  • celebrate success by sending positive notes home

What are your plans to support your students on their emotional journeys with books and reading this year? Do share!

What do you want students to leave with?

Last week I asked what you carry into the classroom. This week, consider what you want your students to leave with at the end of the year. If you’re willing to freewrite again, you just might be surprised at some of your answers.

Regardless though, be sure your answers guide your interactions with students as early as the first few days and also ground you throughout the year.

A few thoughts:

  • A love of books and reading. What can we do to make this happen… for each and every student?
  • A willingness to take risks. How can we establish a growth mindset from day one?
  • Empathy and compassion for others. How might we give our students experiences unlike their own? How can we inspire kindness inside the classroom and out?
  • Confidence. What is needed from us to inspire confidence? How can we ensure each student is successful (understanding that ‘success’ will look different for each of them)?

We strive towards curricular goals of course. These goals, however, seem just as important to me.

What do you want your students to leave with?

What do I carry into the classroom?

Last month I saw a tweet by Jess Lifshitz that referred to this question. She uses it as a writing prompt at the beginning of the school year with students. If I had a class of students this year, you know I’d be using it too!

But it’s a question that today I ask you. In fact, I challenge you to sit for ten minutes–yes, you can spare ten minutes–and freewrite. To make it easier if you get stuck, turn the question into a statement. “I carry ______ into the classroom.” Fill in that blank and then expand on that idea or explain what you mean. But when your brain stops with that thought, rewrite the prompt and fill in the blank with something else. Do this as many times as needed to fill the ten minutes.

Even though I don’t have my own class this year, I did this freewrite myself but changed ‘classroom’ into ‘school year.’ Some of my thoughts were as expected and yet the longer I wrote, the more profound the ideas. I discovered what I believe to be my strengths, acknowledged a sadness, and an insecurity too. All in ten minutes time.

I hope this exercise affirms all of the wonderful skills, talents, and qualities that you bring into your classroom each day. When your classroom fills with students, try it with them too!