Writing Paragraphs: Hamburger Style?

I have a confession to make. I have never taught my students to write a paragraph using the hamburger method. You know, the one with the topic sentence, three sentences each with supporting details, and then a closing sentence.

Never. Not once.

Do I teach my students to write in paragraphs? I do… but not in the way you might think.

Content dictates form.

When I teach narrative writing, I teach students to begin a new paragraph when a new character speaks. When we revise our freewriting, we find natural breaks in topic. When I teach students to write persuasively, we find an effective place to stop, using our paragraphing to add emphasis to our arguments.

Consider the paragraphing choices I made in this blog. Intentional? You bet! Hamburger style? Far from it.

Student Clues and Cues

Last week when I finished a lesson on writing in a grade five class, a student blurted, “I want to keep learning!”

I smiled in the moment and probably said something like, “I’m so glad.” But even now, five days later, his comment has stuck with me. As a teacher, perhaps there’s no better compliment than an exclamation like his.

So what was it that had him so engaged? What did I do on that particular day that motivated and excited him?

I think my use of mentor texts and the intentionality of the lesson contributed. I also think the students felt empowered as writers because I gave them specific tools to help them revise their work. That day, writing became manageable for those grade five students.

When do your students express the most excitement over their learning? How do you know that a lesson has been effective? What clues and cues do your students give you?

Expert Jugglers

This week I was reminded of the realities of classroom life: indoor recesses, kids throwing up, nosebleeds, artists-in-residence, assessments, interruptions, more indoor recesses… oh, not to mention regular classroom instruction.

Teachers are amazing. They juggle all that is thrown at them day after day. And somehow, amidst all else, they manage to teach the curriculum and do so with enthusiasm.

This week I was also reminded that sometimes the most important lessons are outside of the curriculum. The hug and the “I’m so glad you’re here” to the student who perpetually arrives late. The impromptu classroom basketball game with a balled up piece of paper initiated by the teacher. The reassuring “I knew you could do it” to the student who needs to hear it most. The grace of the teacher casually continuing to teach even with a child’s breakfast on her shoe. The search for a missing student during a cold, winter evening. The sharing of a lunch to a student without.

There is no doubt: teaching is love in its purest form.

Revision: A Mindset

Have you ever noticed what students do when they finish writing?

Typically, they close their books, or hand in their papers, and announce, “I’m done.” Not only have they not revised their work, often they have not even read it!

Revision is a mindset. I teach students to get their ideas on paper first and then work to revise and improve their writing afterwards.

This mindset is not a one time lesson but an ongoing conversation throughout the year. I begin the conversation by showing them the early drafts of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White included in the book Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White. We discuss the types of changes White made to his early drafts. Students have the opportunity to observe the revision process of an effective writer.

But that’s only lesson one and not enough to change the behaviour of most student writers. It’s simply the beginning of an eventual change in thinking.

Once, while I was teaching a grade five class about the process (and the power) of revision, a student said to me, “It’s like my Rubik’s Cube. I try something and if it doesn’t work, I try something else.”

Exactly, Lloyd. Exactly.

My 2020 Reading Goal

Those of you who know me, know I love to read. Last year I was challenged to read 52 books. The challenge made me more intentional in choosing to read when I could be doing something else.

I tracked my reading on Goodreads. Did I reach my goal? Sure did! 54 books in fact: some shorter, some longer. According to the Goodreads stats, I read 14 634 pages. (And no, that doesn’t include the countless picture books that I read in classrooms…)

Does this reading matter? Did these 54 books affect me?

Consider this: “Reading broadens the mind, heightens the senses, and enlivens the spirit.” (Richard Branson, A Velocity of Being)

And this: “Reading is for the brave among us. It teaches us how to love people we don’t know and will probably never meet. It teaches us that we too deserve that same sort of love.” (Thomas Page McBee, A Velocity of Being)

And this: “Reading startles you. Reading upsets you. Reading takes apart your world and expectations and rearranges them. Imagine the last few years without the books you have loved–it would be a much flatter, sadder experience of living.” (Naomi Wolf, A Velocity of Being)

I was both lost and found within the books I read last year. I relished in the sentences and stories crafted with beauty and care. I walked journeys with the disadvantaged and the privileged, with outcasts and with heroes. These journeys caused me to reevaluate and reconsider my place and purpose in our world. So, did this reading matter? Did these 54 books affect me? Most certainly.

This year my reading goal is 60 books. (Too ambitious? Time will tell…) Join me in setting a goal by creating a profile on Goodreads!


There are times when words escape me. Times when I witness selfish actions or hear cruel words and wonder why some people choose to do what they do or say what they say. Times when I shake my head and think, “Really?”

There are also times when I am moved by the kindness of the human spirit. Times when I witness quiet acts of generosity or moments of spontaneous tenderness. Times when I hear words of encouragement or words of incredible grace.

At this festive time of the year, I will counter the ignorance and cruelty of some, with as much compassion and generosity as I can muster. After all, Robert Ingersoll reminds us, “We rise by lifting others.”

Lift. Rise. Love.

Indelible Magic

I look forward to the holiday break for many reasons. Time with family. Great food. A mental break from work. And yet one of my favourite reasons is the extended opportunity to curl up with a good book.

Where did this inclination come from? My childhood, I’m sure.

Would finding the time to read have occurred to me if it wasn’t something my family modelled? Perhaps. But to be sure, watching those around me read, and receiving books as gifts, persuaded me as well.

Why not give a little encouragement this Christmas? Spend time in the light of the Christmas tree, reading. Give books as gifts.

Though they might not be the immediate favourite for some family members, they are sure to have lasting appeal.

“No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book, which becomes a tutor, a wit, a mind-sharpener, a soulmate, a performer, a sage, a verbal bouquet for a loved one. Books are borrowed minds, and because they capture the soul of a people, they explore and celebrate all it means to be human. Long live their indelible magic.” (Diane Ackerman in A Velocity of Being)

Books. The best gift ever.

“Keep them within reach, always. They contain nothing less than the entire world. Opulent. Staggering. Rich beyond your imagining.” (Dani Shapiro in Velocity of Being)


Over the Christmas break, I plan to watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new release about Mr. Rogers. A few weeks ago I saw Tom Hanks on Ellen speaking about what it was like to play this iconic role.

While filming, he was often reminded: “slow down.” He was compelled to make his actions more deliberate, to speak considerably slower than his norm, and to spend more time listening.

During the interview, Hanks said this about Mr. Rogers: “He taught me that listening is a million times more important than talking.” He also explained that since playing this role, he now lives by a new acronym: W.A.I.T. which stands for Why am I talking?

Hmmm…. so what about us in our role as teachers?

Do we talk too much? Do we ensure our students have the opportunity to talk, to process, to articulate their thinking? Do we give ample wait time when we ask questions? Do we truly listen to what our students have to say? What about our colleagues?

Dean Jackson has said, “Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” Wise words.

When I am in the classroom, when I am working with teachers, when I am in a social situation, I will try to consider W.A.I.T.. What will I learn from becoming a better listener?

Beyond Comfort

This week I was forced to work outside of my comfort zone: presenting on a topic and to an audience beyond my typical area of expertise.

The experience challenged me, nudged me into thinking a little differently. It also caused some level of anxiety: wanting to maintain high standards for myself and yet somewhat unsure of how to do so. I spent more time planning than I normally do. More time reflecting, researching, experimenting, and reflecting some more before revising.

I took the necessary risks and put myself out there: I even came home unscathed at the end of the day! If I’m honest, perhaps I experienced a greater sense of accomplishment because the task was challenging. I didn’t ask for the challenge, but I am better for it.

When I returned to my comfort zone later in the week – my area of passion, an appropriate audience – confidence replaced anxiety.

I wonder how many of our students feel like they’re in their comfort zones in school. (Those students to whom academics comes easily.) I wonder how many of them move in and out of their comfort zones like I did this week. (Those students who have strengths in some areas of study and not others, for instance.) I wonder how many never quite feel like they’re in an area of comfort. (Those students for whom academics is a continual struggle.)

Imagine the emotion, the self-talk, and the challenges for these students. Imagine the fatigue.

Given this reality, what can we do in our classrooms to support all students? How do we inspire a sense of pride and accomplishment when students persevere? How can we ensure a level of security and encouragement so that students are willing to take risks, to challenge themselves, to make mistakes?

Push your students out of their comfort zones, but when you do, ensure the safety net is visible.

Masters of Craft

During the last seven days I’ve been utterly spoiled: surrounded by the creations of masters.

We were privileged to see three plays on Broadway (and one at the Citadel which is soon heading to Broadway): the combined craft of the writers, directors, actors, singers, dancers, costume designers, set designers, musicians, lighting and sound designers, created stunning results.

We attended a taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where we watched a master comedian at work, using humour to make the news more palatable, contributing his voice to a collective conversation.

We also visited several galleries where we saw paintings, sculpture, glasswork, ceramics, and furniture all created by masters of their crafts: Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, Bouguereau, and Klimt being some of my favourites.

Surrounded by these masterful works of art, I was inspired.

What does this have to do with our classrooms?

Teaching, too, is a craft. Consider this: have you ever watched a master teacher at work? Have you marvelled at a teacher’s (seemingly effortless) ability to inform, engage, and provoke thought? Have you observed this teacher connecting with students, building trust, and ensuring that each student feels respected, valued, and loved? Have you ever watched a passionate teacher inspire creativity, diligence, and rigour?

These masters of their craft may not create a tangible product such as a painting or a play. And yet, these masters help to create confident, compassionate, and thoughtful citizens.

When we teach, reflect, continue to learn and adjust, we too, can improve our craft. When we are intentional, when we are present in the moment, when we are passionate, we can inspire students to become excited about learning and confident in themselves.

A craft worth honing to be sure.