Real-World Connections

Last week I taught persuasive writing to five classes of grade two students. Their teachers had done an excellent job with the lessons leading up to my visit. To up the ante, I decided to bring a real-world connection into their classrooms.

In this case, it was Lucy the elephant from the Edmonton Valley Zoo. I couldn’t bring Lucy herself but I did bring some videos and articles about Lucy with the underlying question: Should Lucy be moved to an elephant sanctuary to live the remainder of her life?

My observations of the students: engagement and passion!

Engagement? Students seemed especially attentive and curious about this topic. They watched the videos intently, spoke about the content with interest, and asked intelligent questions.

Passion? Students passionately shared their opinions (and their reasons) about Lucy’s fate. One student even stood up to voice her opinion which happened to be in stark contrast to most of her peers.

It’s not always possible to use real-world connections, but whenever we can, our students take notice.

Writing Creatively

Today I started writing a sequel to my novel. I was reminded how different it is to write fiction as compared to non-fiction. I tap into a different part of my brain. In fact, during creative writing, I might not always look like I am writing. In the moments my fingers aren’t clacking at the keyboard, my brain is spinning with ideas. I need those moments in order to write.

I suspect that my creative process is not unique.

When we ask our students to write narratives, we should remember that this process will be quite natural for some and quite challenging for others.

It is essential to provide our students with sufficient scaffolding and support before they begin to write creatively: mini-lessons, mentor texts, and plot patterns.

It is also essential that during creative writing, we realize that students may not look like they are writing; however, we cannot see what is happening within. If we’ve done our jobs well during pre-writing, their brains may be spinning with ideas.

Robert McKee once said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” Write on!

Voyage Inward

C.S. Lewis once said, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

It has now been a year since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my moments…

One of my coping strategies has been to write in my journal more often. Through writing, we process life. We sort out our thoughts. We relieve stress. We reflect and remember.

Do your students write a journal in class? An added benefit to our classroom journals is the connection that can be fostered between student and teacher. A sentence or two in response to weekly entries can have a profound impact: acknowledging feelings and interests, providing support and comfort.

This week, give your students time to look back and read previous entries. Students are often surprised at the content, the improvement in their writing abilities, or both.

Encourage your students to voyage inward: let them write!

You May Be the One

Our students come from diverse backgrounds and life stories. Sadly, some have experienced considerable trauma and turmoil in their young lives.

As teachers, our actions and words can have significant impact on our students. Sometimes we might be aware of our influence. Sometimes though, our discreetly shared lunch or our words of encouragement might affect a student in ways we don’t anticipate.

A simple example? When I was in high school, one of my teachers commented on my leadership skills and encouraged me to run for Senior Class President. I had not recognized these skills in myself and hadn’t even considered running for this position. A few months later, no one was more surprised than I was: I won the election. More important though, his words helped me to discover something in myself.

By recognizing (and pointing out) our students’ strengths, by accepting them for who they are, by celebrating their uniqueness, we may have more impact than we realize. We might spark a lifelong interest, help build resilience, inspire courage, or perhaps, provide the only positive comments in that student’s day.

Remember… “To the world you may be one person but to one person you may be the world.” Taylor Hanson


I look forward to watching This Is Us each week. I watch as a writer and marvel at the craft: the layering, the brilliant use of an episodic theme, the ability to connect us to those on the screen (those we have journeyed with over the years, and also those we only encounter briefly). I watch as a daughter, sister, spouse, stepmom, nonna, sister-in-law, aunt, and friend and I’m humbled by both the fragility and magnificence of our relationships. I watch as a human ‘being’ and I’m reminded how to ‘be’ in this crazy, complicated world we live in.

Yesterday I watched Season 5 Episode 8: In the Room. Through clever storytelling, we learn about the man responsible for keeping us connected today. Nasir Ahmed, in the early 70s, led a team of researchers who developed the technology that allows us to share images and video with each other.

Teachers’ Convention certainly was not the same as it has been in the past. But thanks to Nasir Ahmed, we were able to participate and connect and continue to learn. Thanks to Nasir Ahmed, we continue to teach our students even when it may not be safe to be with them in person. Thanks to Nasir Ahmed, we stay connected with loved ones during this pandemic.

I wonder if any of Nasir Ahmed’s teachers had any inkling of his future impact on our world. Imagine the potential of the students before you each day…

Consultant Fail

Last Thursday I ended my day with these words in mind: consultant fail. That’s what it felt like at least!

I taught a lesson on Teams to a grade three class who were half in person and half at home. I had never met these students before but soon into the lesson I realized that I needed to pivot. If I had been in person, I know exactly what I would have done. Instead, I felt myself fumbling to decide how to adjust in the online environment (especially since some were in class and some were at home). I made the adjustments I could, but I know the lesson was not particularly effective.

Then, that same afternoon, I had an online PD session with a group of teachers. About half way through the session, I got kicked out of Teams and my computer would not reconnect. Thankfully, I had another computer next to me and was able to communicate through the chat. But, for whatever reason, I could not share my slides on that computer. So, after a restart of the first computer, I was able to reopen google slides, find my place, and continue. Not quite the smooth session I had hoped for.

Participants were understanding and especially kind, feeling my pain with the tech issues, I’m sure.

Many times over the last twelve months I’ve heard teachers say, “This isn’t what I signed up for!” The differences in approach, the daily decisions, and the dependence on technology, are exhausting. I get it.

Although I felt like I had failed that day, I know I did the best I could in the circumstances. Consultant fail? No. Just some hiccups along the way…

From Why to How

Last week I asked you to resist the temptation of editing your students’ writing. In the interest of creating independent writers, we want to empower our students to edit their own work.

Today I promised to talk about HOW!

If you’ve attended any of my PD sessions, you’ve likely heard me speak about the gradual release of responsibility: put simply, I do, we do, you do. I strive to use the gradual release in each lesson I teach. There’s a reason… it works!

Today, let’s talk end punctuation. Regardless of the grade you teach, I assume that you have writers who do not use punctuation effectively, and some, not at all. Let’s explore a mini-lesson…

I do! – Explicit Instruction

I begin by reading two must-have picture books: Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka. These books spark a discussion about sentence types. By speaking about statements (.), questions (?), and exclamations (!), our students will learn to write sentences with purpose. By focusing on the type of sentence, students are forced to decide which end punctation mark to use. Not if to use it, but which to use.

We do! – Practice and Exploration

After my explicit teaching about these sentence types, students practice using punctuation. Young students hold up the appropriate punctuation cards as I say sentences to them. I make the meaning obvious by my tone of voice. Older students punctuate a piece of text, again with a focus on meaning.

Students then dive into a book and search for the three sentence types (and the accompanying punctuation). Hands up when they have examples to share!

You do! – Independent Follow-Up

Once the students have had an opportunity to practice and explore, they turn to their own writing to edit: something they have previously written. To minimize distractions, they take their writing (and a pencil) and read aloud to the wall, adding or changing punctuation where needed.

Finally, students write something new considering how to use sentence types and end punctuation for effect.

So! Rather than editing your students’ work and adding punctuation for them, a mini-lesson such as this will empower your student writers to make deliberate decisions about their own use of punctuation.

Ready to try it? Access the detailed lessons here: Division 1 and Division 2. The speaker’s notes outline precisely how to carry out this lesson. All you need are the mentor texts!

Resist the Temptation

I know, I know… it’s hard not to correct their work. Whether riddled with mistakes or just a few, our instinct as teachers is to edit our students’ writing for them.

Don’t do it…

…for two reasons.

First, think about the message it communicates (albeit unintentional) to our students. Consider a young writer’s perspective: “My teacher doesn’t think I’m a good writer.” or “Look at all of my mistakes.” For some it translates into: “I can’t write.” Even if you’ve made glowing comments alongside the corrections, our young writers fixate on their mistakes. And the next time they write, guess what’s on their mind? That negative self-talk.

Second, correcting their mistakes for them does not teach them to correct the mistakes themselves. If our goal is competent, independent writers, we as teachers then, must empower our students to edit their own work. Does it take more time than correcting errors for them? You bet! Does it have more impact? Absolutely. Lasting impact.

So how do we do this? Let’s save that for next week’s blog…

Art Rules

A few weeks ago on Twitter, a friend shared this quote by Mo Willems: “Science is going to get us out of this. But art is going to get us through this.”

I was immediately reminded of the book Frederick by Leo Lionni. This deceptively simple picture book prompts a conversation about the role of art in society. Even with very young students, the discussion is fascinating.

Our current predicament–living through this pandemic–is certainly an obvious opportunity to discuss the importance of science in our world. It can also be an opportunity to discuss the role of art.

When I consider my own mental health over the last year, it truly has been various forms of art that have made the monotony and the mundane more bearable: music, film, theatre, literature, comedy, the beauty of visual art. I am grateful for the artists who bring joy, intrigue, and hope to my days.

This week, share the above quote or the book Frederick with your students. I’d love to be a fly on the wall during the conversation that ensues…

Words Matter

This week Joe Biden was inaugurated as US president. My prevailing thought throughout the inauguration was ‘words matter.’ Over the past four years, we have witnessed a president spew words of hatred, racism, and repeated falsehoods. We watched in horror as those words led to increased division, discontent, and turmoil.

Last Wednesday, the words spoken by the new president (and the words of many others that day) had a different tone, a refreshing tone.

Compassion. Respect. Integrity. Hope. Possibility.

For me, the highlight of the inauguration was youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, and her recitation of her poem: The Hill We Climb. She concluded with this:

When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it. 
For there is always light,  
if only we're brave enough to see it 
If only we're brave enough to be it.

I’m not naive. I know that words themselves will not resolve the turmoil and unrest that exist in our world. But words do matter. Words set a tone and create a ripple effect. The words in our classrooms. Our homes. Our countries. Words spoken by our leaders. Our family members. Our students.

Yes, words can divide and dishearten, but they can also inspire and uplift. Undeniably, words matter.