Category Archives: Writing Literacy

Visual Thinking

I’m kind of a New York Times (NYT) junkie. A few years ago, we bought a subscription to the Sunday Times at home, which additionally provided us unlimited digital access. I signed up for news alerts and a few news digests, like “Education” and “Tests and Assessments,” so I’m sent short abstracts of articles that pertain to those categories.

It was in one of these digests, recently, that I encountered the headline: “40 Intriguing Photos to Make Students Think.” Not the catchiest of titles, but the photo accompanying it piqued my interest:screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-9-27-02-pmSo, I clicked. That’s where I was reminded of another great service The Times offers: The Learning Network. In essence, they deliver education resources like lesson plans, news quizzes and the like all based on NYT articles, photos, graphics and more. Better yet, you can access the Network’s many features without a digital subscription.

Back to what brought me to The Learning Network in the first place: the above picture. It’s part of a weekly feature called, “What’s Going On in This Picture?” Readers are asked three standard questions about a visual text:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

Then, they are encouraged to acutely observe (a.k.a. closely read) the image, find evidence, and post and respond to comments of others online. Partners, Visual Thinking Strategies facilitate the online discussion Mondays between 9a – 2p Eastern Time (6a-11a Pacific). On Thursday afternoons, Learning Network writers reveal a caption and backstory below the photo on the site.  Check out this week’s photo below (week of October 17):


As for classroom applications, I immediately thought of a warm-up. Whether you participate live through the Learning Network or want to spark an in-class dialog, there are images that relate to nearly any subject are. Five minutes at the beginning of class is plenty to take in the photo and respond, turn to a partner and compare perceptions. Cogs are turning, awareness is heightened and students are engaged in analysis–great practice for getting into the day’s content. And, what a great way to build a community of inquiry, teacher included!

In 21st Century literacy, when we hear or say text, we need to be mindful of the myriad forms that word may conjure. Our students are consuming these many texts in record numbers, daily. Teaching the tools to become informed about what they consume doesn’t get more real.



Happy International Literacy Day!

Followers, first-timers and those in between, welcome back to school! It’s a new year full of new possibilities, including our hope to bring you interesting, informed literacy and math news, ideas, and musings here at Coaches Corner!

I really need to start writing my blog ideas down, so I don’t do what I did coming into school this week: panic! Once I talked myself off the ledge, an idea sparked, then smoldered, and finally caught flame: September 8th, International Literacy Day! In its honor, we’re sharing some of our favorite literacy sites and ideas from around the web.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-1-07-32-pmFirst up is The International Literacy Association or ILA (formerly the International Reading Association), the lead sponsor of International Literacy Day, which focuses on global literacy needs with project ideas and a profile on a spotlight country. Additionally, they are a leading source for professional learning, publications, and of course literacy advocacy. These are the folks who co-produce ReadWriteThink with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), where teachers can find peer-reviewed lesson plans and literacy ideas galore.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-1-06-00-pmTeachers College at Columbia University is home to the Reading & Writing Project. Lucy Caulkins, Mary Ehrenworth and other literacy giants anchor this site where teachers can download running record reading assessments, view videos of classroom laboratories and find a host of professional learning opportunities and publications. BTW, Lucy Caulkins is presenting in Portland next week!

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-12-55-52-pmLast Spring I got hooked on A Mighty Girl. It was one of those pop-up “we think you’d like” sites that showed up in my Facebook feed. A Mighty Girl celebrates all things mighty about girls and women. Since we’re talking about literacy, we’re linking you to A Mighty Girl Book Club and from there, you can explore. Like (as in the verb) their Facebook page, and you too, can be the recipient of mighty information like Today in Mighty Girl History.

02dias-blog480Here’s an updated article about young literacy superstar, Marley Dias, creator of #1000BlackGirlBooks. You probably remember her story: 11-year old Marley got tired of not seeing main characters that looked like her in any of the books being read at school. So, she went about collecting donations of 1000 books for young readers that feature black girls as the main character. As you might expect, she far exceeded her initial goal and partner GrassROOTS Community Foundation has cataloged books appealing to readers of all ages, races, cultures and more.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-12-56-34-pmMy consistent favorite site for “all things bookish” is BookRiot! Its edgy posts are probably most appropriate for older teens (high school) and up. But, that doesn’t mean that the recommended books are inappropriate. Take Kelly Jensen, for example. She authors a recurring BookRiot newsletter called “What’s Up in YA” where I get information about a wide variety of Young Adult book news from “25 YA Paperbacks to Read This Fall” to “3 on a YA Theme: Conjoined Twins or Siblings You Never Leave;” there’s truly something for everyone. There are several other newsletters to choose from; sign up and they’ll faithfully fill your Inbox.

Locally, Literary Artsscreen-shot-2016-09-08-at-1-19-28-pm is a cornucopia of literacy bounty in the Portland-Metro area. They sponsor Portland Arts & Lectures, Writers In The Schools (WITS), and the recently revived Wordstock! Our schools in Gresham-Barlow have been recipients of professional Writers-in-Residence partnering with classroom teachers on instruction. In addition, I’ve personally been involved in their College Essay Mentoring Project where high school juniors have an opportunity to get face-to-face feedback on the development of their college essay from professional writers and community members. And, last but not least, don’t forget to check out Wordstock’s 2016 line-up of authors The one-day event is Saturday, November 5th.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-1-07-57-pmOf course, we couldn’t end this piece without giving a shout-out to our local libraries! Multnomah County Library’s many branches have a wealth of resources to support your literacy needs in the classroom. School Corps is a great starting place to learn how the library can support your teaching and your students.

Obviously, these are just a few of the myriad sites out there that support literacy teaching and learning. Please share one or more of your faves in the Leave a Reply box below to help us grow our list of go-to’s. In the meantime, Happy International Literacy Day today and every day!

Rigorous Reading Across Content Areas: Text-Dependent Formative Tasks

Back in February, I had the opportunity to attend the Oregon Reading Association’s Winter Institute, featuring Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. For a self-professed literacy geek like me, this experience was akin to IT folks hearing from Steve Jobs, Classical Violinists spending a day with Itzhak Perlman, or Craft Brewers (hey, we are in Oregon) being addressed by Fritz Maytag. It’s not often we get to see our professional mentors live and in person, at the Holiday Inn PDX Airport, no less.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.15.35 AM

Their presentation provided guidance for teaching complex texts and raising the level of rigor in the classroom, which are Common Core literacy cornerstones. A bonus of our participation in the session included walking away with a copy of Fisher & Frey’s 2013 title, Rigorous Reading, 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts. Although each access point is worthy of its own blog post , the one this post is devoted to is Access Point #5: Demonstrating Understanding and Assessing Performance. In this section of the text, the authors posit the need for after-reading “Text-Dependent Tasks” such as the following:

Perspective Writing: Perhaps too often, we teachers assume the role of audience for a student’s writing. Writing from differing perspectives or to a different audience can stretch students’ decision-making powers. Who is the audience? What then is the purpose of my writing? What register must I employ in my style?

Many teachers have heard of and have used the RAFT strategy developed by Santa and Havens (1995) requiring students to understand the Role, Audience, Format, and Topic for each piece of writing. Fisher & Frey resurrect it here as a strategy for formative assessment. In one example they cite, an English teacher learns she needs to review author’s purpose and the introduction to The Metamorphosis because her students don’t show evidence of understanding beyond the literal level when presented this RAFT:

Role – Gregor Samsa

Audience – Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, his parents

Format – Note

Topic – Why don’t you notice me?

Though, RAFT is not only for the realm of the English Teacher. Apply RAFT after reading a famous historical speech, such as Susan B. Anthony’s “Women’s Rights to the Suffrage, 1873.”

Role – Participant

Audience – Susan B. Anthony

Format – Letter

Topic – Reaction to this speech

In Science: After reading the article, “West Coast starfish are dying, but why?” convince Congress that the plight of sea stars is farther reaching than just one species:

Role – Researcher

Audience – U.S. Congress

Format – Speech Talking Points

Topic – Explanation of metaphor: “…starfish are sentinels about conditions in our oceans….”

Here are a few other Text Dependent Task ideas to include in your repertoire:

  • Admit Slips: Akin to Exit Tickets, students instead respond to an assigned topic as they enter the classroom. “Describe the water cycle.” “Why are irrational numbers important in science and engineering?”  “What factors motivated the character to commence her journey?”
  • Found Poems: As students reread a text, have them find key phrases to arrange into a free-verse poem, linked with connector words (articles, conjunctions, “to be” verbs, etc.)
  • Yesterday’s News: Summarize the information presented the day before, from a film, reading, lecture, or discussion.
  • Write a letter to people who have made a difference. Write to Albert Einstein about the negotiations for a present day nuclear deal in Iran. Write to an author about his/her influence on a particular topic (TC Boyle on the environment; Roald Dahl on imagination, for example).

Students beginning some of these tasks may need a reminder to go back to text and quote or paraphrase in their responses. Sentence frames to introduce text are helpful aids to guide students:

  • (author) states, “….”
  • In her book _______, (author) maintains that, “….”
  • X disagrees when he writes, “….”
  • According to the text, “….”

Supplemental frames to assist students with explaining their evidence can prevent the infamous “hanging quote,” when students mistakenly think that quoted text speaks for itself:

  • Basically, X is saying _______.
  • In other words, X believes ________.
  • X‘s point is that ________.

Finally, writers also need to make a distinct connection, identifying the reason for including the quote/evidence. Simple connector frames could be:

  • This statement is important because ______.
  • This relates to _____.
  • This contradicts _____ because ______.

Perhaps May isn’t the time that you’re thinking about doing “heavy lifting” in the classroom, but consider these ideas seeds. Let them germinate over the summer if you’re not ready to harvest them today. You never know what you might reap in the Fall.

Poetry: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I would virtually chest-bump my English Language Arts peeps–the topic is poetry, after all, the domain of the English teacher, right? I shortly realized narrowing my audience would mean I would simultaneously be turning off other content area teachers. As I come back to revise, I’m thinking how poetry could add a dimension to literacy in Science and Social Studies while addressing CCSS Literacy Standards in the process: WHST.4, WHST.5, and WHST.10, to name a few. I’m not suggesting other content area experts start teaching poetry, but I am suggesting you might consider offering such a literacy opportunity in response to a scientific or social studies topic.

Today, April 30th, marks the end of National Poetry Month, but like many of the “month” celebrations, poetry could and should be showcased throughout the year–definitely as part of an English class and perhaps even outside of English. At Gresham High School, the opportunity to have Paulann Petersen, past Oregon Poet Laureate, lead a workshop for interested students happened to coincide not only with National Poetry Month but with prolific poet William Shakespeare’s birth/death-day, April 23rd. What you’re about to read is a chronicle of a poetry writing process. The process (minus the lesson on imagery) can remain the same, regardless of the content: Emancipation, Meiosis & Meitosis (I wrote a verse of a song about this once in high school Biology), The Holocaust, Bacteria, Imperialism, Atoms & Molecules….

Paulann Petersen, 2013

Paulann Petersen, 2013

When I joined the workshop, student writing was well underway. Petersen guided the process through Springboards. Some of us might call them brainstorms, focused freewrites, or fastwrites; her’s are a bit more involved. Ours began with brainstorming a list, but it also branched out to include reading an exemplar poem, “to know what’s possible.” With this group of high school writers, we were prompted with a common topic: food. We could list foods, describe rituals around food, categorize those we liked or disliked, etc.  Following the listing activity, Petersen introduced the poem, “Good Hotdogs,” by Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street). She stated she chose this poem because she wanted a “new to you” poem. Next she asked a simple question: “What do you notice?” Student volunteers responded: “line endings,” “specific details, like ‘the little burnt tips/of french fries.'”

Our lesson followed: Image/Imagery. We started with definitions. An image, Petersen defined, is something you can see/perceive visually, whereas imagery is a word/phrase that makes a sensory connection. She described that writers constantly battle the domination of sight imagery, and she encouraged us to do the same.

Often, Petersen relayed, students (of all ages) have a tough time getting started. Here are a few ideas:

  • Mimic the start strategy of the exemplar poem: in this case, the price of the hotdog.
  • Use first-person experience, “I take the first bite….”
  • Set up imagery: We take the first step through the doorway and smell….”
  • Start with a simile or metaphor: “It tasted like….” or “The steam was….”

Once we had a starting point, we were tasked to Fastwrite for 10 minutes straight. “Don’t stop; get down as much as you can. If you begin to hesitate or stall out, look back to your brainstorm list. Focus on imagery details.”

As time was called and pencils quieted, I noticed students stretching and massaging their hands, most of them smiling. Writing is hard but rewarding work! Our next job was to pause: take a moment to breathe, then determine a next step. That might mean setting the writing aside to let it percolate or re-reading and beginning to tinker. Petersen asked for volunteers to read works in progress; as they did, we celebrated their heroic bravery and their imagery.

She then moved us along to a new topic topic (Mammals that fascinate) and another writing Springboard. Before the workshop came to a close, time was set aside to simply share. Petersen bounced from table to table, asking if anyone wanted to read one of the pieces they’d written. In each and every example, there was at least a line, an image, something that provoked emotion…a smile, a gasp, a chuckle. And, that’s good poetry regardless of topic!

If you’re interested in a clear path to this process, see the steps below:

Step 1: Brainstorm a list.

Step 2: Read aloud an exemplar poem followed by “What do you notice?” discussion.

Step 3: Good place for a mini-lesson of choice.

Step 4: Jot down your starting point.

Step 5: Fast write for 10 minutes straight. Focus on imagery details.

Step 6: Pause.




Strategies and Activities and More, oh my!

“Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!” is a familiar quote to many from the Wizard of Oz. It’s come to represent the speaker being fearful of a rumored threat. But, we also know that Dorothy locks arms with Tin Man and Scarecrow and plows forward with them in the face of fear and ultimately conquers it (picking up the Cowardly Lion in the process). Perhaps distinguishing strategies from activities isn’t quite as intimidating as encountering wild animals in the Haunted Forest of Oz, but it has leant itself to some uneasiness.

So, let’s extend this analogy a bit: Dorothy’s ultimate goal is to return home to Kansas. In order to do that, she has to employ research-based strategies by engaging in a variety of activities. The first strategy we witness is Feedback; she confers with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North and learns she needs to go on a quest to reach the Wizard. Armed with this new information, Dorothy sets off and soon employs Cooperative Learning as she picks up Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. She collaborates with her partners to follow the Yellow Brick Road, reaching the Emerald City and the Wizard. Optional extension: continue the metaphor with a partner or on your own; for the rest, here comes the connection!

A couple of weeks ago, Shannon and I teamed up with building admin to deliver PD to middle school teachers in our district on this very subject: distinguishing Strategies and Activities (not The Wizard of Oz). In order for our students to achieve positive academic results, we need to engage in activities that employ research-based strategies to better their performance.

Once the foundation was laid, we targeted one specific strategy: Non-Linguistic Representation (NLR) and a specific activity: Concept Mapping. We briefly reviewed Dual Coding Theory, namely reminding folks that we take in information in two ways, linguistically (word-based) and non-linguistically (sensory), concluding that the more we employ both systems of representation, the better we are able to think about and recall knowledge. Following, we facilitated an activity using a jigsaw process in small groups to complete a Concept Definition Map.

Working in content area groups, teams then brainstormed other types of NLRs that would be applicable to their field. Below is an example of one such list:

NLR ELA examples

Let’s take a look at a few of these NLRs that might be transferrable to various content areas:

The 4-Square is often used for vocabulary and as part of the writing process, but it isn’t the sole property of English Language Arts. Students can help solidify new vocabulary by not only defining it and writing about it, but by also supplying a picture to represent the word. When writing, students may benefit from a structured graphic organizer that helps them organize their thoughts and reminds them to incorporate transitions, details, and a summary conclusion. The designs are many and modifiable, too–truly versatile.

Haiku Deck is a presentation software students can use for a variety of purposes/projects. Check out this Haiku Deck Sample. They also provide a simple introduction video you can access on their home page.

Comic strip templates can be used for visualization activities with difficult text or to explain a process in a visual way. I had sophomores in small groups create a strip for the classic poem, “Lady of Shalott” stanza by stanza in order to “see” the action unfolding, which aided their comprehension. Again, if you are tech-minded, there are several comic strip makers and animation apps free online or for tablets, such as Bitstrips and Toontastic. Scientific processes and historical events, among other adaptations, seem like they would be a natural fit to such an activity.

Roseanne Roseannadanna

So, it’s like Rosanne Rosannadanna says, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Either Dorothy gets bumped on the head, dreams of traveling to the Land of Oz and has to get back home to Kansas, or we have students in our classrooms who have their own dreams of success. Regardless, employing researched-based strategies, engaging students in effective activities, and providing multiple ways of gaining that knowledge is best practice.


Two Tools: Screencasts & Rewordify

I came home Thursday all jazzed from the day, and my husband asked what was up (as if I don’t always come home jazzed from the day). “I just created my first Screencast about this online tool called Rewordify!” I answered enthusiastically. Reminiscent of Jimmy Fallon’s tween character, Sara (with no “h” cuz h’s are Ew!), he replied, “Screencast? Never heard of it,” or something like that. (Aside: I fully suggest you check out Jimmy Fallon’s skit, EW! on your own). So, you won’t be in the same bind as my husband, keep reading!

About Screencasting: A BIG shout-out to Venisha Bahr, our new District K-8 Media Specialist, who introduced Screencasting to me through one she created to teach me how to share my CCSS Literacy Symbaloo. Upon further inquiry, she showed me how use the tool, and created “How To” Screencast (see below) for you! Fortunately, we teachers each have access to QuickTime on our new Apple MacBook Air which allows us to make and share simple Screencasts. There are several other apps out there, both free and not, like Jing and Camtasia, but they would require you to submit a Tech Ticket or to contact Tech Support to have them downloaded onto your laptop.

So, why Screencast? Probably the main use of Screencasting is for tutorials. As I was reminded while planning a recent professional development presentation, it’s good to deliver material to our students in multiple formats (linguistic and non-linguistic). Screencasts are short (around 3 min) instructional clips that teach us how to do something on the computer…so if you’re trying to show the class how to access something on Google Drive or how to use library resources or how to use an online tool, you can Screencast it!

I’ve also been researching how Screencasting can be a powerful tool for feedback (remember that high-yield instructional strategy I blogged about a couple weeks ago?). You could try having students submit an assignment electronically and then Screencast your response. You can highlight specific parts for audio/visual feedback. I know what you’re thinking: how will my students ever be able to access that feedback when our computer labs are lacking accessibility, and they don’t all have access at home? I wish I had a good and consistent answer for you, but creative solutions must be available. Tap me to help if you’re interested in exploring this line of Screencasting. I’m a big believer that two heads (especially with open minds) are better than one!

On Rewordify: Way back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned I tried my own Screencast about a tool I learned about called Rewordify. Basically, Rewordify is a web tool whose main feature allows you to enter text manually or through the copy/paste function, then click a button, thereby simplifying the text by providing synonyms for difficult/unfamiliar words. It doesn’t fully change the Lexile of a piece of text because sometimes simplifying means adding more words to explain a complex meaning. Check out my “How To Rewordify” Screencast below:

Rewordify could be a great tool to use to differentiate instruction for individual students or small groups. Sometimes the tool provides more than one option for simplifying, so I’d recommend skimming the changed text before handing it off to students. Still, it’s a time saver and provides a FREE service that may allow you to reach more of your students.

SBA Academic Language

After conducting trainings with both middle school and high school teachers in the last couple of months, we’ve had multiple requests to help identify common language used on the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) practice tests (both Computer Adaptive and Performance Tasks). Last week, Beth began listing the key academic language used in the stems of the ELA assessment items by grade level (taken from the SBAC Resources page). She compiled lists for 6th-8th grade and 11th grade. As she began to try to cross-reference the middle school lists to determine words/phrases that were common across grade levels, it was clear it was going to be a laborious task. We’re up for a good challenge, for sure, but we had a revelation, too: we could give you what you want in a timely way through a Wordle!

For those of you yet unfamiliar, a Wordle is a word cloud that is created by dropping text into a Wordle Create engine and then hitting Go; it’s that easy! When creating our grade level lists for middle school, Beth wrote down each word/phrase once, regardless of how many times it was used in an assessment. We then combined the three grade level lists and dropped it into Wordle Create to get our custom word cloud:

SBA terms Worlde

Grades 6-8 SBA Academic Language

The words in the larger fonts are those repeated across grade levels, where the smallest fonts indicate terms only seen at one grade level. We’ll work on a separate Wordle for individual grade levels by going back and counting the number of times individual words/phrases are repeated in the tasks.

In fact, that’s what we did for 11th grade. Here, Beth repeated words as many times as they were used in both segments of the practice test. For example, the word text is used 20 times, whereas the word opinion is used once:

11th Grade SBA Academic Language Wordle

11th Grade SBA Academic Language Wordle

As you work on word walls or otherwise infuse academic language into your lessons, these Wordles can help both you and your students focus on significant vocabulary, and you can instruct on the skills these words/phrases pinpoint (like identifying and using text support).

As a classroom practitioner, it’s your call how much time to spend on such terms; we’re all about balance. Students will encounter the live SBA for the first time next spring (2015). Regardless of the assessment tool, Common Core State Standards use the same kinds of terms. Infusing academic language into your lessons across the year is best practice, and these lists may offer terms from which you can draw and add to your students’ repertoire.