Last week I saw Michelle Obama, Amal Clooney, and Melinda French Gates interviewed on CNN by Sara Sidner. They were talking about Michelle Obama’s Mission: Empowering Girls. At one point, they were asked about self-doubt. When I heard these powerhouse women speak about their own self-doubt, my own felt normalized and acceptable.

As I said to a group of teachers earlier in the week, teachers have an incredible opportunity to influence and empower their students in so many ways. How powerful to talk about our own vulnerability in front of students. How powerful to admit our failings or regret. How powerful to remind students of these messages, shared by the women in the interview, that can become ongoing, internal self-talk: “I am worthy.” “Pay attention to that flame in you.” “Believe in yourself.” “Seek knowledge.” “Keep on. You’re getting there.”

At the end of the program, Sara Bareilles sung her song Brave. I was thinking about how many of the lyrics in this song can be messages shared with students, too:

“You can be amazing.”

“Let the light in.”

“Be Brave.”

Messages for all of us, teachers and students alike.

Seasonal Mentor Texts

Whether a classic or new release, leverage your seasonal books as mentor texts. Of course, read and enjoy them first. But then, study the craft of the author!

Here are a few ideas to get you started…

The Polar Express – Explore the first few pages to see how Chris Van Allsburg develops mood and mystery. Point out the phrasing on the first few pages and the intentional alliteration with the ‘s’ sound. Consider the verbs he chose throughout the book and what they are describing (the lights flickered, the wolves roamed, the train thundered).

Dasher: How a Brave Little Doe Changed Christmas Forever – This charming story by Matt Tavares is ideal for discussing sentence fluency: sentence type and length, phrasing, and the use of dialogue too.

And of course, this is THE time of year to discuss those transformation stories: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Crippled Lamb, and A Christmas Carol, being my favourites.

What are your favourite seasonal mentor texts?

Genre Challenge

Today I read my first manga book! I have never read anything from right to left or what seems to me, back to front, with the spine on the right. It was an enjoyable experience. Not only was I thinking about the content but I was conscious of the logistics of reading it, especially at first. I was surprised how quickly I got used to it though.

The experience got me thinking… students often gravitate to one genre or another. Why not propose a genre challenge in your class?

Begin by asking students to brainstorm a long list of genres, as specific a list as they can. Then, ask them to circle their favourite two genres or whatever they read most often. Perhaps there’s something on the list (like manga or a graphic novel) that they haven’t read before. Or, perhaps there’s something that they don’t typically read (nonfiction, mystery, poetry, a novel in verse). Challenge them to choose a genre outside their norm and then support them in finding a book that fits. Perhaps classmates could share recommendations, too.

What will you commit to reading? How will you motivate your students? How might they share their experiences with you and their peers during the process? Could they make predictions before they begin and then freewrite to reflect on the experience afterward? (“At first I thought…” and “I’ve realized….”)

Regardless of what you decide in your classroom, have fun!

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…