Posts Tagged ‘English Language Arts and Reading’

Poetry Please

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

AUTHOR: Laura Lee Stroud, Elementary ELAR Specialist

An Abandoned Tool

Past U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins says “High school is where poetry goes to die” because it is there that many students inadvertently learn that poetry isn’t relevant to their lives. Oftentimes in working with these teachers we find that poetry remains buried and absent from their instruction, until, that is STAAR is over and we pick up poetry as a fun filler. But poetry is a powerful, emotionally clad, succinct genre teachers can use to helps students express themselves, make their words come alive and synthesize their thinking.

Building Community Through Poetry

Nowadays, in order for our students to care enough to invest in writing and reading, we must take the time to create spaces of trust. Writers thrive in spaces they can take risks, feel valued, receive feedback and learn how to write from models and mentors. Writers need to understand that an investment in learning to write well will yield lifelong returns. Creating a writing community inside of a classroom means that as teachers we must let go of some control in order to empower our student writers to make decisions about their writing.

Cultivating a writing community doesn’t happen with a week or two of “getting to know you” activities but thoughtful planning and commitment. Taking time to read and discuss thought provoking ideas, problem solving together and planned inquiry of ourselves and families, all work to build spaces our students can thrive in as writers. Students must know that their thinking, their words, their perspectives matter and without it, our goal of meaningful learning remains unaccomplished. Weaving poetry through instruction works to create this communal space. Finding poetry models your students will love and allowing them to experience reading and rereading it together, can serve as a tunnel to bonding. Repeated readings promote fluency, boost vocabulary and engage students.

Give this a try:

  1. Show a spoken word poem. Button Poetry is a great place to begin mining for poetry. Just like any other text you would select for your students, it is critical that you preview the videos for instructional objectives that align with your purpose and that you are sure the content is appropriate for your students.
  2. Pass out the words. Joshua Bennett’s Tamara’s Opus is a poem eighth grade students’ love.
  3. Play the poem again.
  4. Allow students to discuss what they liked about the poem in small groups. The purpose of letting students identify what they like about the poem is that they are able to highlight the language that appealed to them without having to identify the academic labels in the beginning stages. Remember, our goal is building community with poetry. As you give your students the opportunity to discuss poetry in this way, academic language will emerge.
  5. Have students highlight their favorite lines.[4]  Read the poem aloud to students and when their highlighted line appears, they read that line aloud along with you (and the others that have selected this line). A chorus of voices will rise to the occasion.
  6. Invite students to bring in poems they love for community viewing/reading.

Poetry in Tiny Packages

Lucy Calkins speaks of poetry as powerful thoughts in “tiny packages.”   Tiny packages allow even struggling writers the ability to write powerful poems. Jeff Anderson agrees and teaches us that even a sentence can serve as a mentor text. We can focus on what is beautiful or empowering in one sentence.  If students can feel successful writing one beautiful sentence or phrase, they can become poets. By starting out the

year with these tiny packages, all will feel successful.

Creating Community to Boost Reading and Writing Performance

As Kelly Gallagher says, “Writing instruction should be a non-negotiable core value” (2015).  If we are looking to raise our performance and learning outcomes, we must ask if sound writing instruction and time spent writing are “core values” in our schools?

Sound writing instruction is not the same as test preparation. In fact, when test preparation replaces writing instruction, test scores are not likely to improve as evidenced by researchers like Judith Langer (2000).

Research Base

Remember that the power of poetry to teach reading and writing skills is well documented in the literature. The authors of Inside Out, (Kirby and Liner, 2004) teach us how the writing of poetry contributes to good writing:

In poetry, as in all writing, the technical aspects of the poem are really of secondary importance; good writing is honest writing. The writer risks feelings with us, and we respond to the words because they touch our feelings through shared human experiences. (p.74)

Such honesty and confidence can come into play through many different writing tasks. For example, if students are able to tap into their everyday experiences, they will be able to write short stories, personal narratives and, of course, write the deep development demanded on the expository essay.

Through poetry we can teach students not only come to understand the written word more deeply, but also make more meaningful connections to text. Therefore, if we are going to teach writing, we must include poetry. Poetry has been called “the great equalizer for both the reading and writing workshop” (Dorfman and Cappelli).

Revisiting Poetry for Different Purposes

The rich language and ability to engage readers make poems the perfect choice for teaching students to deepen comprehension through analyzing and comparing texts, citing evidence, offering opinions, drawing conclusions, and talking about main ideas and themes (Dorfman and Cappelli).  When we teach poetry, we offer multiple opportunities for practicing reading comprehension that will prove beneficial to reading in other genres.  Through the  analysis of different types of literature, we  promote cognitive development and give students an opportunity to apply such skills and strategies, as identifying themes discussed in one genre–fiction, for example–to other genres like poetry, reports, descriptive pieces, and plays (Smith, 1991). And last but not least, poetry is an often-tested genre on STAAR.  As responsible writing teachers, we cannot omit poetry!

Let’s encourage our professional learning communities to take up this often abandoned genre and find new ways to teach reading and writing this summer. One way to begin a new exploration of poetry, is to register and join us for Linda Christensen’s workshop on May 18.  She will discuss her journey into poetry as a powerful genre that changes not only students’ reading and writing skills, but their lives as well.  We would love to be a part of your continued journey with poetry!

Works Cited:

Smith, C. B. (1994). Helping Children Understand Literary Genres. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from

Langer, J. A. (2000, May). Guidelines for Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well Six Features of Effective Instruction. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from

Worsham, S. (2001). Essential ingredients: Recipes for teaching writing. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gallagher, K. (2015). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom.

Kirby, D. L., Crovitz, D., & Kirby, D. (2013). Inside out: Strategies for teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

The Need for Bilingual Education in Texas Today

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

AUTHOR: Trish Flores, Coordinator, Curriculum and Instruction

Bilingual education is a high needs area felt by many school districts across the country.  In particular, it is a high needs area for Texas due to the increase of second language learners migrating to this area of the country. Many people may ask themselves, why do we need to provide bilingual education for these students?  What do students gain from participating in this “type” of instruction?  And how does it really support students in meeting today’s high stake assessments?  To answer these questions and many more, it is necessary to start by investigating what bilingual education is and why we need to make it accessible to students.

Background:  How language programs became a law

Before 1968, bilingual education was not required to be implemented in schools but instead was a voluntary program.  This all changed in 1981 when a lawsuit was brought against the state of Texas resulting  in the requirement of bilingual education programs in the elementary grades, English as a second language (ESL) or bilingual programs at post-elementary grades through eighth grade, and ESL programs in high school.  The new legislation also outlined specific procedures for the identification and exiting of students.

What is Bilingual education?

Bilingual education is teaching academic content through two languages, the native language and a secondary language, with varying degrees of support that are commensurate with the student’s proficiency levels in both languages.  Instructing students through the use of their native language enables them to access new content and build upon what they already know.  Students will be successful in “bridging” ideas and information from one language to the next when the content and processes are first mastered in the native language.  Throughout these interactions, students are learning English in a non-stressful environment leading to individuals who are able to meet the academic rigor of today’s standards and assessments.

Benefits of Bilingual Education

There are many benefits that student’s gain from participating in bilingual programs.  They include:

  • Cognitive Ability: Students are able to enhance brain flexibility in the areas of mathematics, logic, reasoning and problem solving.
  • Social/Emotional:  Students who participate in bilingual programs have a higher level of self-esteem than students who do not because Spanish if valued.
  • Educational Advancement:  Studies have shown that it takes 5-7 years to acquire academic English. If a student is not in a bilingual program they are more likely to miss critical instruction due to their inability to process content presented in English.
  • Family:  Students who retain their native language are able to communicate with family members thus resulting positive relationships.
  • Health:  Increased brain activity has been shown to decrease the onset of dementia and other debilitating brain diseases.  Students who are bilingual have increased brain activity as they navigate between two languages.


Bilingual education is required by the state of Texas as means to educate students whose first language is not English.  Countless studies have shown the effectiveness of language programs for students.  It is imperative that the educators and communities in Texas see these benefits as gains not only for the students and their families, but for the future of Texas as a whole.

Originally published on VOXXI as Bilingual education: Why gutting it hurts us all

©2008, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. –

Preparing for the Reading and Writing STAAR the Smart Way

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

AUTHOR: Janet Hester, Secondary ELAR Specialist

Begin at the Beginning: The STAAR-Prep Dilemma

What do we do when students enter our classrooms lacking confidence and fluency in writing? For many schools and districts in Texas, the attempted answer to this skills deficit has been to drill students on writing the STAAR tasks over and over again. Twenty-six lines, over and over. And in the same manner, practice multiple choice reading and writing packets over and over again. Test-prep passage and multiple choice bubbles, over and over.

We know that such practice does not raise confidence and fluency in writing and reading. Students might improve in jumping through a very specific hoops when they are challenged to write 26 lines of expository text repeatedly, but their versatility as writers and their confidence and joy in writing will have be the price they pay for this act. In the same manner, when we curtail our engaging reading instruction for packet work, we may stunt our students’ growth. Traditional STAAR prep has led to slightly more prepared, but very burnt-out students.

We all know this. But, without these traditional practices, we are sometimes stuck on how to create a transference of skills on test day.

Transitioning to STAAR: The Test as Genre Unit

When we begin to prepare students for STAAR reading and writing tasks, we should not throw out all the good work that has come before in instruction, much of which has been presented through a reading and writing workshop model for many Region 13 teachers.

3The Test as Genre Unit is a tried-and-true method of preparing students for standardized tests while building on what has already transpired in classrooms. It is a riff played on the Genre Study Unit through which many schools deliver ELAR instruction. If your curriculum is grouped in units by genre, instruction was delivered as a genre study. Students read and wrote fiction pieces in one unit of study. Students read and wrote persuasive pieces in another unit of study. Most definitely, students read and wrote expository texts in the expository unit. 

Katie Wood Ray in Study Driven details a Genre Study Unit cycle:

Stage Description
Gather Texts The teacher, sometimes along with students, gathers examples of the kind of writing students will do.
Setting the Stage Students are told they will be expected to finish a piece(s) of writing that shows the influence of the study.
Immersion The teacher and students spend time reading and getting to know the texts they’ll study. They make notes of things they notice and about how the texts are written. They think about the process writers use to craft texts like the ones they are studying.
Close Study The class revisits the texts and frames their talk with the question, “What did we notice about how these texts are written?” The teacher and students work together to use specific language to say what they know about writing from this close study, developing curriculum as they go. The teacher, through modeling, takes a strong lead in helping students envision using what they are learning in their own writing.
Writing Under the Influence Students (and often the teacher) finish pieces of writing that show (in specific ways) the influence of the study.

(Wood Ray, 2006, p. 111)

4In our schools, this cycle might look a little different. Teachers might weave the different stages of the cycle together so they take place simultaneously. Due to scheduling in some middle school classes, students might also experience the different stages in separate reading and writing classes. However, most students will have experienced this sequence of reading in a genre and then emulating craft moves they learned to write in that genre.

When students have been immersed in reading and writing in different genres throughout the year and the STAAR test is drawing near, they are ready to begin a Test as Genre unit. A Test as Genre unit follows the same methodology as other genre units. Students immerse themselves in the genre of the test, reading passages from released tests as well as reading and discussing the types of multiple–choice questions they will have to answer. Students explore the writing tests’ tasks and prompts. As a result, they slowly begin to build a rapport with the standardized test. In this case, familiarity breeds confidence. Randy Bomer, the director of the Heart of Texas Writing Project, describes his process:

“I like to throw a huge pile of tests onto a table and invite students to browse through them and see what they notice in them. I want them to see tests not as something fearsome that controls their fate but as a dime a dozen, common as can be, which they are. I want to position the students as powerful, intelligent analyzers of these kinds of texts.” (Bomer, 2011, p. 285)

After this close study, students write passages and questions that imitate the released tests they studied following the Katie Wood Ray cycle from above. Students study writing prompts and write their own. When students have been reading like writers all year in other genre inquiry units, the Test as Genre is a logical next move in preparation for the test. They have been reading like writers all year in other genre inquiry units, reading like poets, reading like op–ed journalists, reading like short-story writers. Now, in the Test as Genre unit, they read like test makers, practicing the reader and writer moves they have been honing all year (Atwell, 2002; Bomer, 2004; Bomer, 2011; Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001; Serafini; Taylor, 2008). Region 13 will hold a full-day, just-in-time workshop on implementing this type of unit on February 29, 2016.

Using the Region 13 Elementary and Secondary Playbooks as Part of the Test as Genre Unit

In the weeks leading up the tests, not only are students analyzing passages and multiple choice questions from both the reading and writing tests; they should also be honing in on the specific expository writing craft they will need to write a satisfactory essay on the day of the test.

5With respect to the STAAR expository writing tasks, the Region 13 Product Store now sells two products that will help the accomplished and the novice teacher alike. The Elementary and Secondary Expository Playbooks offer immediate tools and strategies for a Grade 4 and English I teacher.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The Elementary Expository Playbook breaks down the five components of STAAR expository writing: Focus, Organization, Idea Development, Progression, and Language and Conventions.

For each component, the playbook provides a chapter outlining

  • the fundamentals of what each component means in the context of the STAAR expository task;
  • two published mentor informational texts that powerfully demonstrate the chapter’s component (for example, a mentor text that employs a strong problem/solution organizational structure in the Organization chapter);
  • four STAAR expository students essays to demonstrate strong and developing examples of that writing component; and
  • several plays, or instructional strategies, to use to improve that writing component in student writing. All plays begin with the writer in mind and inspire confidence and transfer of skills on test day.

Often, teachers do not have the time to find specific mentor texts to demonstrate the skills they wish their students to emulate. The Playbook saves so much time, in that published mentor texts, strong student examples, and weaker student examples are already there, organized under specific instructional targets with helpful teacher commentary.

6The Secondary Playbook follows the same pattern of including content, mentor texts, and student essays that align to the English I expository task. Grade 7 writing teachers will definitely find support for the Test as Genre unit in either playbook.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            When preparing students for STAAR, we must instill a cheerful attitude that builds upon the skills students certainly have. Asset-based instruction reminds students of all their world knowledge and invites the students to bring this knowledge into the standardized writing and reading tasks.

For more information about the Playbooks and implementing a Test as Genre Unit, contact:

Janet Hester
Secondary ELAR Specialist

Laura Lee Stroud
Elementary ELAR Specialist


Atwell, N. (2002). Lessons that change writers. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Bomer, R. (2004). Strong enough for tests and life. College Board Review, 41-43.
Bomer, R. (2011). Building adolescent literacy in today’s English classrooms. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Fletcher, R., & Portalupi, J. (2001). Writing workshop: The essential guide. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Serafini, F. (n.d.). Standardized tests as a genre. Retrieved from
Taylor, M. M. (2008, Spring/Summer). Changing the culture of “test prep”: Reclaiming writing workshop. Language Arts Journal of Michigan, 23-34.
Wood Ray, K. (2006). Study driven: A framework for planning units of study in the writing workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Content in this article addresses T-TESS Planning dimension 1.3 – Knowledge of Students and Instruction dimension 2.2 – Content Knowledge and Expertise.

Be the Learner

Monday, December 7th, 2015

AUTHOR: Laura Lee D. Stroud, Elementary English Language Arts Specialist

Superintendents expect principals to learn. Principals expect teachers to learn. Teachers expect students to learn. The field of education sets high standards for our children but do we hold ourselves as educators to the same standard? How often do we engage as learners outside of the classroom ourselves? We want students to ask questions, seek the answers, problem solve and ask more questions, pursue learning; but are we doing the same? Are we pushing ourselves beyond what is comfortable, beyond what we know?

Whether you are a principal, an academic coach, specialist, parent, or all of the above—you are a teacher. And someone is learning from you. Watching you to see if you practice what you preach. Watching to see if you are engaging in the types of literate activities you have assigned to them. Stellar leaders, whether classroom teacher leaders or superintendent leaders, are learners. They are stellar because they spend time learning through reading, writing, and discussing their profession in order to be better at their craft. They are stellar because they are action researchers who reflect on their practice. Stellar because they adjust instruction to fit the needs of their learners.

In this day and age, there are shifts in pedagogy that require our attention. Our students have vast amounts of information at their fingertips but need us to structure the environment for collaboration, discussion, critical thinking and relating with their peers in academic discourse. Our learners are different than the learners we were. No longer is it valuable for them to answer our questions and forget theirs. Our world is different. Technology is redefining the way text is processed. So we must do what we can to stay on top of the changes, zone in on our students’ instructional needs, and adjust our instruction to maximize their learning.

With encouragement from Ghandi, I would like to empower educators with this phrase: be the learner you want your students to be. There should be an expectation that educators and students alike continue to push themselves to become the best they can be.

Time, or the lack thereof, is often used as an excuse for limited learning and growing as professionals. Professional development opportunities on a district level often tend to provide one-size fits all learning. On the other hand, each of us is aware of our individual needs as learners. We know where our understandings are solid and in which areas we require growth. We have the ability to tailor make a menu of professional learning for ourselves.  But where to go from there?  How do we get the necessary information to meet our individual needs?

Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) are groups of educators dedicated to supporting each other in achieving learning goals. So create yours. Ask yourself: where is an opportunity for growth in my practice? And then research, try new ideas, read, write and blog, ask others, take risks, reflect. Just as Ronnie Burt, a participant in the Twitterverse expressed, “…I realised that developing a Personal Learning Network is an empowering, transformational process, which fundamentally transforms your professional learning and teaching approach. And my experience is hardly unique…”

Just like our students, we may need a little inspiration to work harder. Here are a few things you can do to get started:

  1. Find fresh texts for your students to read and discuss based upon their interests. Share the outcomes along with the text with your colleagues. Follow this link to Tcher’s Voice, a blog from that incluldes a wonderful annotated list of sites to find such texts.
  2. Contribute to our profession through writing a blog and reading others. To discover a great way to begin blogging follow this link to Slice of Life Writing Challenge.
  3. Participate in a twitter chat. Need help to understand how to participate? Look at this Edublog site for all you need to get started: Step 3: Participate in Twitter Chats and then click here find a twitter chat relevant to you.
  4. Or, last but not least, read a trade book on literacy practice. Need a suggestion? For elementary practitioners, Jennifer Serravallo’s Reading Strategies Book has teachers raving about the accessible, “implement tommorow” content and format. Although Serravallo’s latest work has strategies for beginning readers, it is appropriate for all levels because of the complexity of comprehension strategies it includes. All grade level teachers can find ways to help their readers slow down and notice author’s purpose through Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.

Once you have engaged in one or more of these suggestions, share what you have learned and ask others about their new understandings. Decide what you want to put into action in your practice.  Be a risk-taker and be prepared to reflect on and learn from your mistakes. And repeat. In this way, educators continue to refine and improve our craft.  So, what kind of learner are you going to be?


  1. Burt. (2014, September 23). Step 1: What is a PLN? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Translanguaging – Normal Bilingual Discourse

Monday, December 7th, 2015

AUTHOR: Ivonne Santiago, Bilingual/ESL Specialist

Translanguaging refers to the language practices of bilingual people. Cen Williams first coined the term in 1994, referring to a pedagogical practice in which students alternated between languages for the purposes of receptive or productive use. Students may have been asked to read in English and write in Welsh and vice versa. Since then, the term and its meaning have slightly changed and yet the basic concept is the same. It is a process in which two or more people, who have comfort in the languages being spoken, are able to maneuver through an intermingling of languages without alienating any one member of the group. Bilinguals, with facility, mix all languages freely according to the situation and their current needs. It also refers to pedagogical practices that use bilingualism as a resource, rather than something that is perceived as a problem.

Translanguaging is NOT “code-switching”. It is not simply changing from one code to another. Code-switching assumes that the two languages of bilinguals are separate monolingual codes that could be used without reference to each other. Instead, translanguaging differs from that notion in that it refers not simply to a shift or a shuttle between two languages, but to the speakers’ construction and the use of original and complex interrelated discursive practices that cannot be easily assigned to one or another traditional definition of language. In addition, it makes up the speakers’ complete language repertoire (Garcia & Wei 2014).

All teaching uses dialog or discourse to communicate and to develop academic use of language. The language of instruction is similar to that of the students’ home language. There may be some slight differences, but nonetheless there is some continuity. That is usually not the case for bilingual students. In order for bilinguals to develop the language, they must practice it within an academic context. Translanguaging affords the opportunity to use home language practices, different as they may be from those of school, to practice the language of school.

Translanguaging practices are particularly effective with bilingual students because their language practices are often stigmatized. Many Latino students are told that they speak “Spanglish”. This term has a negative connotation, as it implies poor command of the language. In reality, it may have more to do with normal contact with English; it’s normal discourse for bilingual students. Translanguaging permits students and teachers to acknowledge and use the full range of linguistic practices of bilinguals, and to use these practices for improved teaching and learning. Listed below are some effective translanguaging practices:

  1. Create a student-centered classroom in which they are sitting in collaborative groups and work on engaging, hands-on tasks together, which will inevitably lead to translanguaging.
  2. Provide many opportunities for students to discuss, reflect upon, negotiate, and debrief on content, in whatever language they choose, but to present something or collaborate on a product in English.
  3. Have students present in one language and provide analysis in another.
  4. Provide many opportunities for low-stakes writing in which students can use whatever language they wish (learning logs, personal dictionaries, journals, reflections). These writings can then be used as a scaffold to write something in English.
  5. Structure the class so that students are asked to do frequent formal/informal presentations where there is reason to use English. You may allow them and encourage them to use whatever language they wish for reading texts, the negotiating process and ideas and discussion.
  6. Purposefully group students so that home language support is available to those who need it. It is best to have students sitting in a small group with at least one other person who shares his/her home language.
  7. Have students read a text in their home language before reading one on the same topic in English. This strategy can be used as basic scaffolding-reading about a topic in a language in which students are more comfortable, thus enabling them to better understand a reading on the same topic in English.
  8. Encourage students to use bilingual dictionaries to ensure they are learning the “anchor concepts” in both their home language and in English.

Translanguaging is a process by which the human brain is capable of accessing two or more linguistic databases in order to formulate a tapestry of words in various languages (all bound by the rules or English grammar) in the formation of a thought (Vinson 2012). One may implement these pedagogical practices in any educational setting: bilingual, ESL, and even a monolingual class. Translanguaging can serve as a scaffold for learning English and is a powerful way for students to use their languages as an invaluable resource.


García, Ofelia, and Li Wei. Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basinstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillian, 2014. Print.

Gunnarsson Tina. Translanguaging: A Review of Flexible Language Use on Students’ Learning of Additional Languages (n.d.): Translanguaging. Lund University, 2014. Web.

Vinson, Jenni, and Dr. Ophelia Garica. “The Deliverance of Bilingual Education: Translanguaging.” Translanguaging. NYU, 2012. Web. Nov. 2015.

Witt, Daria. “The Deliverance of Bilingual Education: Translanguaging.” Translanguaging Strategies. CUNY-NYS Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals, Mar. 2013. Web. Nov. 2015.

Place Markers: An Effective Reading Strategy Tool for Distracted Readers

Monday, December 7th, 2015

AUTHOR: Holly Salas, Instructional and Write for Texas Coach

Teaching children to read involves countless variables. However, strategies to teach comprehension, fluency, accuracy, etc., cannot be effective with students who are disengaged. Teachers regularly instruct students who are sleepy, ill, hungry, disinterested, or distracted. Often, a student’s distractibility is the result of a disability. Whatever the reason for distractibility, teachers must accommodate a student’s attention to instruction in order for quality reading development to occur. Teachers often have difficulty getting students to follow along while reading silently, as well as while listening to another reader. “The child’s difficulty in making left-to-right tracking movements while reading…disrupts sequencing of letters and syllables in words…and the inability to keep place also shows up when someone else is reading” resulting in reversal, rotations, inversions, omissions, substitutions, additions, etc. (“Visual-Spatial Dyslexia,” p.8 (n.d.)).

Teacher-monitoring for substantive comprehension breakdowns such as text inconsistencies, sentence scrambling, and misunderstanding with background information is difficult enough without the teacher’s ability to first monitor if the student is even attending to the text in the first place. For an already distracted student, the practice of interrupting reading for during reading strategies can further displace students from the meaning of text and impose a time-limit pressure that breaks down comprehension and enjoyment. “Heavy time pressure should not be imposed to individuals if they are to accurately complete important reading tasks” (Cauchard, Cane, & Weger, 2012). Metacognitive reading tasks are most effective when a student’s engagement with text is facilitated even while reading is stopped.

Before implementing other reading strategies, teachers need something that will help students focus. Only then will teachers be able to facilitate learning and assess ability. The place marker is a simple, minimal-preparation strategy with multiple implications that not only enables educators to modify and accommodate for students, and even assess the students’ task-compliance, but also provides opportunities for higher-level instructional strategies that scaffold students from decoding to comprehension to complex analyses. Although educators may purchase from a ubiquitous selection of marketed reading strategies and tools for engagement, the place marker requires no cost and almost no preparation. And because some students have difficulty transferring multiple reading strategies to settings outside of the classroom, establishing a procedure for the use of place markers allows for year-long instruction and may even facilitate independent reading for the student following graduation.

There is a seemingly limitless body of literature surrounding metacognitive monitoring, especially among distracted readers. From Mackey’s small-scale, easy-to-follow qualitative study (1991) that draws conclusions following Before, During, and After reading strategies, while accounting for context, content, and time; to Pan, Tsai, and Chu’s close look at fine motor skills within children with autism, children with ADHD (inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/ impulsive, and combined), and children without disabilities (2009), it is within a teacher’s own practice that she is best able to collect data for an isolated, a single reading strategy and its implications for large-scale conclusions.

Though conducted in the United Kingdom, the focus of Gillies and Robinson’s research on art-based strategies is particularly noteworthy (2012), because of its acknowledgment of the creativity within reading comprehension and beyond. Like the arts, reading and writing involve a human’s knowledge prior to the academic literary task, and that knowledge endures long after the academic setting, if not for the rest of the reader’s lifetime.

During a 2014 professional development research project at a Texas high school, teachers were asked to monitor the use of place markers as a during-reading strategy for a three-month period. Following data collection, teachers reported that 98% of students were less distracted than without the use of the place marker and that 98% of students transitioned more successfully back to reading after reading had been interrupted. The procedure:

  • enables distracted students to attend to the task.
  • creates student accountability.
  • facilitates before-, during-, and after-reading strategies.
  • enables students to self-monitor.
  • enables students to reflect on learning and evaluate progress.
  • enables the educator to monitor and track student compliance.

How it works:

  • Provide each student one place marker, three sticky notes, and an intentionally chunked or excerpted copy of a text, for multiple readings.
  • Instruct students to put a place marker under the title and read along until the teacher says, “Stop.”
  • Remind students that it’s important that the place marker follow along with the reader’s voice.
  • When all students have place markers ready, begin reading aloud the first chunk or excerpt of text.
  • After students complete the first section of text, say, “Stop. Leave your place marker where you stopped reading.”
  • Instruct students to write a brief summary or draw a picture of what was just read and give the summary or picture a one-word title or caption. Provide two minutes. Model and monitor.
  • Return to the text and read the next text excerpt. Say “Stop. Leave your place marker where you stopped reading.”
  • Continue through the end of the text, spiraling into independent reading, with teacher-directed stops. The goal is for students to eventually monitor their own reading by stopping at text points he or she deems significant.
  • Follow activity with Think-Pair-Share activity.

IMPORTANT: While students are writing, use teacher moves to check for understanding and collect data.

Before testing out the place marker theory with your own distracted students, reflect on your current practices:

  • What strategies are currently in place for enabling distracted students to attend to the task?
  • What strategies are currently in place to create student accountability?
  • What strategies are currently in place to enable the teacher to monitor and track student compliance and understanding?
  • How effective is each strategy in aiding students to visually attend to the text?
  • What strategies are currently in place to facilitate before-, during-, and after-reading textual interactions?
  • What strategies are currently in place that enable students to self-monitor?
  • What strategies are currently in place that enable students to reflect on learning and evaluate progress?

Before setting up the procedure with students, glean some information on their attitudes about their own reading. Consider asking the following questions:

  • Do you consider yourself a good reader, a fair reader, or a poor reader (circle one)? Why?
  • When do you most enjoy reading? Why?
  • When do you least enjoy reading? Why?
  • Where do you most enjoy reading? Why?
  • Where do you least enjoy reading? Why?
  • Why do you read?
  • Does reading make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable (circle one)? Why?

Collecting Data:

While monitoring, consider using a qualitative data analysis protocol such as the following:

  • Student is more, less, or just as distracted from text, using the place marker, as he/ she normally is during reading. Explain (body language, posture, eye tracking, expression, other unexpected physical reactions…?):
  • During the Stop-and-Jot activity, student transitions to task and then returns to text more quickly than without the use of place markers, at the same rate of speed as when reading without the use of place markers, or more slowly or disjointed than when reading without the use of place markers. How do you know?

The following Observation checklist may also assist in your data collection.

Student: __________________________________ Date ______

Please place a check in the box (more, just as, or less) that corresponds to the blank within each box to the left. Use the space to jot down observations (body language, posture, eye tracking, expression, other unexpected physical reactions…):

During reading, the student is __________ distracted than without the use of a place marker.
After Stop-and-Jots, the student transitions back to text  _________ quickly than without the use of a place marker.
The teacher-participant is _____________ successful in student reading compliance than without the use of a place marker.


1 Sponge Activity Before Reading Essential Question Quick WriteExamples:

“What happens to a person who always feels alone, even with those closest to him/ her?”

“Why do fractions matter in daily life”

“Why should we understand how organisms, places, and ideas have changed over time?”

“How do climate and natural resources affect the way people live and work?”

5 Min.
2 Set Induction Anticipation Guide 3 Min.
3 Pre-assessment of student understanding of the lesson concept/process/skill K-W-L:“Based on my prior readings (equations, lab results, etc.) what do I know about the _______________?” 3 Min.
4 Large Group Instruction Teacher reads aloud the first paragraph/ excerpt. Teacher models use of the place marker and where to put it. When she/he says “Stop,” the teacher also models summary or picture with one-word caption. Teacher monitors. 10 Min.+ 1 min. feedback
5 Independent or Group Work Students read silently, using place marker. Teacher says Stop. Students complete a Stop-and-Jot with one-word caption. Teacher models and monitors. 10 Min.
7 Evaluation –Post assessment of concept/ process/ skill K-W-L“Based on my prior readings (equations, lab results, etc.) what do I know about the _______________?” 3 Min.


Cauchard, F., Cane, J., & Weger, U. Influence of background speech and music in      interrupted reading: an eye- tracking study. Applied Cognitive Psychology, Appl.       Cognit. Psychol. 26: 381–390 (2012).

Gillies, V, & Robinson, G. (2012). Developing creative research methods with challenging  pupils. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 15 (2).

Mackey, M. (1991). The association between reading strategies and reading histories of          adolescents: a qualitative study. University of Alberta (Canada): ProQuest. UMI          Dissertations Publishing.

Pan, C., Tsai, C., and Chu, C. (2009). Fundamental movement skills in children     diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity          disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 39 (12), 1694-1705.          Visual-Spatial Dyslexia (n.d.). In A 2 Z of Brain, Mind and Learning. Retrieved     February 9, 2014, from

Explicitly Teaching Literacy Cognitive Processes

Friday, September 25th, 2015

AUTHOR: Janet Hester, Secondary ELAR Specialist

During a week in August, Laura Lee Stroud and I were tucked away in a conference room at the service center. Our mission: to analyze the 2015 STAAR released tests. Armed with multiple highlighters, TEA item analysis tables, copies of the TEKS vertical alignment, and a gallon of coffee, we read the passages quietly. We laughed aloud at times, frowned when Pearson-written passages bored us, and labored over the multiple choice questions. We found that some questions tripped us up. Only while answering questions together as a team did we make discoveries — we hadn’t correctly comprehended a section of text (the horror!) or we had missed a telling detail that slanted the theme of a passage in a surprising way. We discussed. We reread to one another. We talked out different theories of the text, of the answer choices. We discussed what all this meant for the students. Our conversation during these days of study illuminated what authentic literacy should look like for our students. Dialogic talk, conversations that “expect that speaker becomes listener and listener becomes speaker and that through give-and-take other ideas might emerge,” (Beers and Probst, 2012, p. 28) is a subject we have discussed in a previous Insight Article. Nachowitz and Brumer discuss “knowledge-building learning” and its “emphasis on progressive discourse, the kind commonly associated with scientific communities where knowledge is advanced as theories, facts are scrutinized and tested, and the body of knowledge is added to by a community of participants” (Teaching the Talk, Not the Text, 2014, p. 16).

How do we manage to get students to not only engage in dialogic talk, but also consciously move their understanding of text deeper and wider through progressive discourse?

Why We Need to Explicitly Teach Cognitive Processes

Ten years ago, Spencer Kagan argued that given the information explosion of online media, “memorizing one new fact is of little value compared to the ability to understand, analyze, organize, apply, evaluate, and create new information” (2005). Thinking passed STAAR and its all-importance in the here and now—students will need the skills to wade through a vast pool of information, to silence the noise around any given issue, to comprehend the big ideas, to determine other’s’ agendas, and to synthesize their own meaning.

For more teachers, the importance of teaching a specific list of novels and texts has become less important than teaching thinking skills. Indeed, with all that is expected of us to add value to students’ academic ability, how do we ensure that our instructional time is used to its utmost advantage? Teaching students to think about their reading is a sound investment in that time.

In fact, teaching the thinking and the talking will reach more students than assigning a list of classics will.  Students need to read all manner of texts, and they need explicit instruction in “how to talk about and think about ideas, how to develop and refine ideas, and how to extend and constructively critique the ideas of fellow students” because this “will lead to deeper understanding” (Nachowitz & Brumer, 2014).  Building classrooms that value thinking, community and talk “recognizes that the contexts within which literacy is used and learned lead to particular ways of thinking and doing—that culture (including the culture of the classroom), language, and cognition are inextricably intertwined.” (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003, p. 688). We cannot afford to assign reading without regarding talk and thinking as core values in our classroom. Thinking and talking will allow all students the opportunity to read text and understand deeply.

What Deep Understanding of Text Looks and Feels Like

Hierarchal levels of thinking found in Bloom’s Taxonomy and Costa’s levels of thinking do not correspond with truly understanding text—as in that they assume a one-way street from “lower-level” thinking skills in reading  to “higher-level” thinking skills in reading. In fact, to understand text, one is constantly upshifting but also downshifting, going from comprehension, to inference, to comprehension, to noticing a stylistic choice (analysis), back down to comprehension, to noticing that the earlier stylistic choice is recurring, and then inferring author’s purpose based on this noticing.

Strong readers expertly employ upshifting and downshifting in thinking without realizing it. Reading an article on my phone from the Huffington Post, rereading a novel, reading my kids’ picture books, I am constantly upshifting and downshifting. And this is precisely the type of activity we’ve noticed students need to perform well in STAAR, based on our analysis of 2015 released tests. We found not only that students always needed a comprehensive understanding of a section of text, but often needed a thematic understanding as well in order to select the correct answer choice. Students needed to employ many levels of thinking to correctly answer many of the questions, and when we took the test ourselves, we realized that in no way were the cognitive processes we employed a straight shot from lower-level thinking to higher-level thinking. We were constantly upshifting and downshifting.

Take this item from the 2015 STAAR English II Released test.


To answer this question correctly and eliminate other answer choices, students would have to:

  1. Comprehend that this poem is about the speaker’s reaction to a fox’s appearance
  2. Determine the connotation of the word “ordinary”
  3. Infer that the fox’s appearance was unexpected
  4. Determine a thematic meaning: unexpected events’ capacity for teaching individuals lessons

We probably missed a few. But one can see that this understanding might not progress in a linear fashion for a reader.

Here’s another example from the 2015 STAAR Grade 4 Released Reading test:


We noticed that students would need to:

  1. Infer a joking relationship between Jen and Joey
  2. Hold on to comprehension from the beginning of the story
  3. Comprehend that fear of showing her skin ultimately was not the motivation for her actions

Students must be skilled at maneuvering up and down a taxonomy of literacy thinking to correctly answer questions at every grade level. We found that student performance on these kinds of questions ranged from an extremely low 50 to 70 percent correct. Our region- and state-wide data, as well as our work in districts, lead us to believe that teaching of cognitive processes would benefit students.

How Do We Teach Students Cognitive Processes?

Explicit Instruction

Borrowing heavily from Archer and Hughes’ seminal work on explicit instruction, our manner for teaching cognitive processes should:

  • Name and sequence skills logically. Choose a methodology (several explained below) and decide which order would make most sense for your learners.
  • Break down skills one at a time. For example, analysis is a tough skill. First show students how to notice patterns in author’s craft. Then teach a process for interpreting meaning of those patterns.
  • Provide step-by-step demonstration. Or model, model, model. Re-read a text to demonstrate a new cognitive process. Use the beginning of the text your students’ will read in small groups later. Find some text, read it “cold” and conduct Think Alouds to make these processes visible for a student. Dr. Thea Woodruff, of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, asserted at this summer’s Write for Texas conference—if kids are not doing the work, it’s likely because we haven’t modeled it enough (2015). Show them!
  • Provide guidance and supported practice. Students should have the benefit of a teacher model, and then they should draw support from their peers in guided practice. We discuss dialogic talk and progressive discourse below. Students should also have opportunities for independent practice, within the same text, or a text of their own choosing. (Archer & Hughes, 2011)

Choose a Methodology for Naming Skills

Kagan espouses a practice of embedding thinking skills into any lesson by using instructional strategies that engage those skills. So as demonstrated in many of our workshops, students might read a text and then generate an analogy about the content, and therefore practice the skill of synthesizing new text information with their current schema. In his determination, the thinking skill becomes part of every lesson without special preparation or planning, especially when teachers conscientiously choose the same strategies over and over again (Kagan, 2005).

However, in our work, we have found that students do not always successfully and independently employ the thinking skill when academic work asks them to do so. Thinking skills are not learned by osmosis of practicing a strategy over and over again but through helpful scaffolds of the classroom and help of classmates. Without explicit instruction of naming the skill, modeling the skill, and debriefing about guided and independent practice, students were merely completing an activity. Perhaps the activity of creating an analogy involves high levels of cognition, but the student was merely jumping through hoops, as opposed to owning a cognitive process.

Kylene Beers and Bob Probst advocate providing specific signposts to read for and accompanying prompts that encourage thinking about the text and making inferences, prediction, analyzing theme. This approach goes beyond merely completing a strategy — it supports students in the metacognition of getting to deeper understanding of text independently and through dialogic talk. So as opposed to teaching the skill of “Prediction,” students are taught to be on the lookout for signposts in literature like “Contrasts and Contradictions,” which then provide a stimulus for making a prediction. They discuss how noticing signposts seems more natural than consciously making an effort to predict, infer, or make thematic meaning, classic cognitive processes of reading.

Beers and Probst’s process calls for the explicit instruction of thinking. Teachers have been inspired by how well signposts work for reading literature in the classroom and excitedly await the forthcoming book on reading nonfiction with new nonfiction signposts.

Levels of Meaning

We offer here another structure for teaching thinking, ‘Levels of Meaning,’ inspired by specific skills we found assessed on the STAAR test. We have added questions and examples from the popular movie Finding Nemo to improve accessibility as an anchor chart.

To teach the Levels of Meaning, we advocate the methods Nachowtiz and Brumer used in their study of progressive discourse: teachers should “model and scaffold students through guided collaborative and individual practice in how to initiate something they wanted to talk about, how to extend and develop an idea through talk, how to build on other students’ contributions, how to challenge other students through constructive talk, and how to put ideas together into a “big idea” understanding (2014, p. 16).

For example, we might first use a powerful photograph, such as those found in this blog post that chronicles photographs from May 1963, Birmingham, Alabama. We discuss the use of the photo captioned “Alabama Fire Department Aims High-Pressure Water Hoses at Civil Rights Demonstrators.”

A teacher might teach and model creating meaning on one level of meaning at a time to students.

  1. Model reading the title or caption of the photograph, and asking herself, what do I already know? This was during the Civil Rights Movements, when black citizens fought for their rights.
  2. Model “reading” or noticing people, items, and actions captured in the photograph. Model discerning meaning from what is “right there” in the photograph, by answering the question, what is happening? I see young people against a wall, being shot with water from what looks like a high-pressure hose. There are three people; they are all African American; their backs are turned toward the water that is hitting them)

Following Archer and Hughes’ suggestions of breaking down complex skills, a teacher might end this first mini-lesson and allow students to practice (review) the first two skills in small groups. Students would use different photographs to progress through the first level of meaning. Sentence stems used to begin and extend talk, such as “I noticed . . . ,” “I don’t understand . . .,” “I have a different idea . . .,” “I agree with you because  . . .” help students learn how to engage in progressive discourse (Nachowitz & Brumer, 2014, p. 21).

The next day, the teacher might:

  1. Model interpreting meaning by using text and schema to infer more meaning. She would ask, given what I know about the Civil Rights movements, what does the author want me to understand about the people, the actions in this photograph? The fact that the people have their backs turned away from the water tells me they are trying to protect themselves. That water must hurt and be very powerful. The photographer wants me to know that this must have been a scary experience.
  2. Model interpreting analytical meaning by looking at the parts of the photograph and asking, how does the author use the craft of photography to add meaning? The young people are smack in the middle of the photograph. The author wants us to focus on their experience. Also, you can see their left arms in the photo are almost aligned in a defensive block to the water. I wonder if the photographer chose this particular shot because of that symmetry, to show how the people were suffering together. For a purpose.

More time for modeling and practice would certainly be warranted for the analytical skills.

  1. Model finding thematic meaning by connecting the photograph to the world and asking, what are the big ideas the author wants all of us to understand? Two things come to mind. The photographer is documenting inhumane treatment of humans. He wanted to show the world how African Americans were treated. Another thing, the people in the photograph experienced something horrible. Perhaps the theme is: We are obligated to bear witness when injustice is inflicted on others. And of course, I think he would have wanted his audience to act and help African Americans.

Teachers might then move onto modeling using short mentor texts. Students could continue to practice the skills in small groups and independently using other photographs, short videos, and eventually longer and more complex texts.

Regardless of whether teachers choose to use Beers and Probst’s signposts, Levels of Meaning, or other methodologies, naming and explicitly teaching cognitive processes will promote deeper understanding of text.

Providing Opportunities for Guided Practice: Dialogic Talk and Progressive Discourse

Nachowitz and Bumer describe another method for encouraging progressive discourse, “chalk talk”—silent written conversations, set within a specific time frame, that require all students to go the board and write what want to say about the text. Thereafter, students may then extend, comment on, question, or build upon other students’ comments (2014, p. 16). Students draw arrows, plus signs, and other symbols to show their convergent, divergent, and progressive thinking.

A model of reading instruction called Collaborative Strategic Reading is a strategy developed by the Meadow’s Center that restructures the learning environment so that all students, no matter what their ability-level, contribute unique ideas to the literacy conversation. (Boardman, Moore, & Scornavacco, 2015). We have taken this model’s plan for strategic reading and reformulated it, using the Levels of Meaning from above.

Collaborative Strategic Reading

A plan like Collaborative Strategic Reading assumes that multiple reads of a text build layers of understanding. As Judith Langer found, “rather than say simply that students ‘comprehended’ or ‘did not comprehend’ what they were reading or writing about . . . students’ envisionment of a text at any time was a mixture of understandings, questions, hypotheses, and connections to previous knowledge and experiences. She found that the envisionment changed and evolved with further reading, writing, discussion, or reflection” (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003, pp. 690-691).

If we teach cognitive skills explicitly by providing names for them, modeling the use of them, and providing guided and independent practice, we teach students to honor their changing “envisionment.” We also provide tools for understanding on students’ own terms.  Instruction becomes less about a handful of classroom-specific strategies (hashtag summaries; before/after characterization; plotting beginning, middle, and end of a story). It’s the thinking behind those strategies that is the most important content for students to instill. Let’s teach the thinking and the talking.


Applebee, A., Langer, J., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-Based Approaches to Developing Understanding: Classroom Instruction and Student Performance in Middle and High School English. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 685-730.

Archer, A., & Hughes, C. (2011). Explicit instruction; Effective and efficient teaching. New York: Guilford Press.

Beers, K., & Probst, B. (2012). Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Boardman, A. G., Moore, B. A., & Scornavacco, K. R. (2015). Disrupting the “Norm” with Collaborative Strategic Reading. English Journal, 105(1), 48-54.

Hester, J. (2014).  Dialogic Talk and Enriching Our Students’ Reading Metacognition and Close Reading: The Need to Teach Metacognition. Insight: A newsletter for curriculum, instruction and assessment. Retrieved from

Kagan, S. (2005, Fall). Rethinking Thinking: Does Bloom’s Taxonomy Align with Brain Science? Retrieved from Kagan Online Magazine:

Nachowitz, M., & Brumer, N. (2014, September). Teaching the Talk, Not the Text. Voices from the Middle, 22(1).

Laura, P. (2012, February 23). Some kind of sign: Charles Moore: Civil Rights Photographer. Retrieved September 17, 2015, from

Woodruff, T. (2015).Using Effective Writing Instruction to Support Response to Intervention. Write for Texas Summer Conference. Austin: Texas Education Agency.

Let’s PLAY!

Monday, April 20th, 2015

AUTHOR: Lori Reemts, Project Coordinator – Curriculum & Instruction

As adults, we long for the long weekend or holiday because we are eager for a brain break, a new adventure, or a chance to play in life. Play is our departure, our recreation, and sometimes our connection to the inner child or to memory lane. It is the opposite of what we consider work to be. As a result, we sometimes lose sight of the many benefits of play and how important these benefits are to our developing youth. Many of us feel happy when we see children playing; we may even recognize some general social and physical benefits. And yet some may question what they see when walking by a classroom full of 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old children who appear to simply be playing. Play is fun after all and classrooms are about working hard and learning. Still others may question the level of rigor or the relevance associated with this seemingly carefree whimsy and equate it with merely babysitting the students.


While there are many more notable quotes about play than the four below, these seem particularly noteworthy.

  • “Play is the work of the child.” Maria Montessori
  • “Play is the highest form of research.” Albert Einstein
  • “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung
  • “The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.” Erik H. Erikson


Though there is research demonstrating the importance of play, logical understanding of play, and pure admiration for it, there are still those who react as if play is not a significant part of child development which impacts so many areas.


Consider academic, emotional, social, and physical development. Each of these areas impacts the others and retains its own set of milestones, prerequisites, and skill sets. In play, students work on these areas simultaneously and, because each experience of play is unique, students continuously develop and learn. They do not need a lecture or a worksheet to develop these areas–they need experience.


We know that best practice for an effective learning environment includes the need for meaningful engagement with information as well as interactions that occur within the context of the children’s daily experiences and development. For young children, and it could be argued older children as well, this engagement occurs through play. The phrase “hands-on, mind-on” is often used to describe interactive learning experiences that connect movement and physical experience to mental and learning experience. This is exactly what play is and what play does.


To understand and use children’s natural capacity for play as an effective classroom tool, it is important to also consider the stages of play.

  • Solitary
    • infancy to toddler years
    • plays alone; limited interaction with other children
    • separate toys
  • Spectator/Onlooker
    • begins during toddler years
    • observes others but does not play with them
  • Parallel
    • toddler years
    • plays side by side; lack of group involvement
    • similar toys
  •  Associate
    • toddler through preschool years
    • plays with similar goals; no formal organization
    • rules not set; may play with similar toys; may trade toys
  •  Cooperative
    • late preschool years
    • organized by group goals
    • typically at least one leader


By understanding the developing areas of a child along with the stages of play, educators are able to carefully plan purposeful and intentional play-based experiences that support student development aligned to Prekindergarten objectives. Children will benefit from play whether the experience has had enhanced opportunities provided through an intentional planning process or not. As educators, we can intentionally plan for and provide those enhanced opportunities so that our students’ growth, development, and success is even more robust. This is the difference between learning that occurs in a classroom where students are simply playing and learning that occurs in a classroom where students are playing in an environment designed for the purpose of mastering learning objectives. It is important to maintain a balance between free play and purposeful play, remembering that each kind of play serves a positive purpose for students.


Next time you set your sights on a weekend of recreational play in your adult life, consider the skills and interactions you use as second-nature and without even realizing it. Don’t just concentrate on your “work” too much—you might just forget to have fun!




Children’s Health. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2015, from

Professional Learning by Blog

Monday, April 20th, 2015

AUTHOR: Janet Hester, Secondary ELAR Education Specialist


Click image to be taken to full infographic.

Click image to be taken to full infographic.


Since I started having kids, and again when I started my master’s program, my personal professional reading life has changed drastically. I no longer felt I had the time to keep abreast of all the latest professional publications in our ELAR world. If a particular book kept coming up in conversation or at workshops, I would definitely try to skim through some pages–but invariably, the book would be at best skimmed, maybe a particular chapter read with full attention.

I found I needed professional information that I could access while rocking my babies to sleep. I found I often only had time to read an article or a post—snatching 10 minutes here or 5 minutes there. I found my reading time became super precious, and I needed to be able to pick and choose reading more efficiently and with greater focus. I think we all go through these times in our lives. We still need to feed our brains, but periodically we just don’t have the time to devote to long-form reading.

During the last four years of my life, my professional reading needs have been met through education blogs.

Web 2.0 is all about everyday people’s active online participation and interaction. This web is more personal, more immediate, and somehow also more relatable, because all of us little people who haven’t quite yet reached rock star status can now have a say in our professional world. Bloggers might put themselves out there with trepidation—but they do it within their professional reality. Jessica Lifshitz (2015), a fifth grade literacy teacher, declares in her blog’s masthead: “As I begin a year of transformation, I am attempting to break down the four walls of my classroom to reach out to others and connect about the incredible world of education.”

Many of our teacher colleagues are writing about everything in education and posting to their blogs. According to, the leading free blog platform in the world, their users produce 59.1 million new posts each month. Couple that with 60.3 million new comments on those posts. Imagine all the career teachers, publishing while they wait for students to finish an essay after school, publishing while they scarf down their school cafeteria salad, publishing from their phones on the train in to work. So much content out there—composed for us. With some savvy, a teacher could quickly find blog posts that suggest a new mentor text or a new literature circle process, or that helps him navigate the state’s latest education bills discussed at the capitol.

How to get started? How not to drown in all the content?

I will use a term Donalyn Miller (2014) uses in her book Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. Miller recommends widely reading young adult literature to be a mentor reader and resource for students, but she also acknowledges that no one teacher can read everything. And if we can’t read everything, she suggests that we find “epicenter readers” to help round out our knowledge. Epicenter readers “know a lot about books, and feel confident in selecting books to read.” (p.120) These epicenter readers could be your school librarian, your college best friend who just reads a ton of YA, and, of course, students in your classroom. We see here the type of tweet an epicenter reader might share that would benefit teachers looking for new books.

John Schumaker, whose tweet we see here, is a school library director at Brook Forest Elementary in Oak Brook, Illinois. He also happens to be a 2014 Newbery Committee member. His tweets, blog posts, Goodreads reviews, and Pinterest pins provide a plethora of timely, quality resources for educators. He is the consummate “epicenter reader.”




This very same concept applies to our online professional reading lives. Through our use of social media, we can easily find our epicenter readers, and rely on them to suggest must reads for us. In fact, Miller (2014) hypothesizes that:

If I had to start over rebuilding my Twitter friends’ list, Goodreads account, or blog feed, Teri and John [her epicenter readers] would lead me back to hundreds of reading colleagues in less than a month. Savvy about books and publishing trends and generous with their resources and time, they feed a vibrant reading community online and influence many children through their teachers, librarians, and parents. You don’t need a contact list full of names to find a reading community. All you need is one person who shares your love for books. (p.123)


Or blogs.


Thus, blog reading takes many forms. See the graphic below for just a few.




I just learned about Andrea Zellner, a voracious reader who has been functioning as one of my colleague’s, Laura Lee Stroud’s, epicenter readers. I am now following her and found this intriguing share. I’ve often used this six-word story in training,and it always grabs teachers. What new information could I add to this activity?




Epicenter readers do their thing on Facebook, too. Take the following share from my friend and colleague, Sharon Laidlaw-Almaguer. She is a full-release mentor to new teachers at Austin ISD. By posting the relevant and interesting articles she finds, I am learning by leaps and bounds. Together, and with other education and ELAR friends in our Facebook circle, we are building a professional learning community, nestled conveniently in our Facebook feed.




And what about your own blog writing? Have you thought of writing a blog to practice your craft? To identify with students as they process their writing? To sound off on your own particular niche, triumphs, and challenges? Your voice has a place out there! In one case study, researchers found that writing a blog gave one teacher a platform to “tell stories of herself and her classroom, reflect on her practice, work through dilemmas, solicit feedback, and display competence” (Luehmann, 2008). No better time to start than now.





Lifshitz, J. (2015, March 1). Crawling Out of the Classroom. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from

Luehmann, A. (2008). Using Blogging in Support of Teacher Professional Identity Development: A Case Study. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(3), 287-337. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from

Miller, D., & Kelley, S. (2014). Wild Readers Share Books and Reading with Other Readers. In Reading in the wild: The book whisperer’s keys to cultivating lifelong reading habits. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Zellner, A. (2015, March 31). Epicenter Readers [Telephone interview].