Posts Tagged ‘English Language Arts and Reading’

Reuse, Recycle: Word Clouds in the Classroom

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Author: Dana Ellis, Educational Specialist: Instructional Coach

Teachers are naturally resourceful. With limited budgets, they have to be. A search engine query for educational projects using recycled materials will produce an abundance of links and images from preschool art projects to high school physics contraptions. Teacher ingenuity is not restricted to paper towel rolls and plastic water bottles. In the face of tightened technology budgets, teachers are wrestling with ways to repurpose free technology-based applications in order to maximize hands-on learning while reducing district expenditures and time spent learning implementation.  It is no surprise, therefore, that talented, imaginative educators have transformed digital word cloud generators into tools for use in highly engaging content lessons. What is astonishing, however, is just how diverse educational applications of this simple tool can be. Below are just a few of the ways educators are using this easy-to-learn technology in cross content classrooms.

  1. Revising Student Essays. Students copy and paste their essays into one of the word cloud generators, turning off the common words feature. Since the word cloud will enlarge words based on frequency, students can then analyze the larger words against their essays. Students revise essays to include more precision and variety in word usage, and to reduce undesirable redundancy. As a follow-up assessment, students repeat the exercise and compare the revised essay word clouds with the originals.
  1. Content Main Ideas. The teacher groups students and assigns a textbook section or content based mentor text for reading. Within the groups, students jigsaw the material into smaller portions of text. For each sub-section, individual students read and decide on the 5 most important words or concepts of that section. When the individual students come back together to discuss the entire text, student groups pare down the individual lists created to one compiled set of 3 main idea words that represent the entire text selection. After class discussion of the text, students select one final word from the list of three to represent the main idea of the material. Student groups enter all the words from each round into a word cloud generator. As culmination for a unit, students can use the word clouds to review unit themes and ideas or write a unit reflection of main ideas.
  1. Self-Assessment. As an anticipation guide, the teacher creates a word cloud of major lesson or unit concepts. At the conclusion of a lesson or unit, students write an explanation of the concepts covered in a paragraph or two. This writing is then copied and pasted into a word cloud generator, excluding common words in the advanced features. Students examine the resulting images while comparing and contrasting their word clouds to the anticipation visual.
  1. Plot Prediction. The teacher copies and pastes a literary text (or synopsis for longer works) into a word cloud generator to create a story cloud. Either prior to reading the piece or at a strategic point in the reading, students analyze the story cloud and make predictions about the story plot and/or characters. The teacher has students discuss their ideas in small groups, providing justification based on the visual provided.
  1. Vocabulary Review. In partners, students take turns reviewing content based vocabulary from a list of academic words or flashcards. If a student knows the word and can provide a correct definition, the student types the word into a word cloud generator once and sets the card aside (or places a checkmark beside it on a list). If the student is unable to provide correct information, the word is typed twice and the card is left in the pile (or word left unchecked). Students continue through the list back and forth until all words have been addressed for both students. Students may either generate the word cloud at this point, or continue in a second round, using the same format. The larger words in the word cloud will remind students which words or concepts require more review.
  1. Utilize Shapes to Reinforce Learning. Using one of the word cloud generators which allows the user to select the shape of the resulting image, create geometric anchor charts. The teacher assigns each group a geometric shape. Students create word lists explaining the characteristics of their assigned shape, associated formulas, and real-life examples of the shape. After the lists are complete, students select the corresponding shape for the image. The teacher can then print large versions of student work for the classroom and/or smaller versions for student notebooks.

These are just a few of hundreds of classroom applications for this tool. To see more, check the resources in the  reference section of this article. To experiment with some of the more popular generators and discover even more educational uses, visit the following websites:







Happy recycling!



Dunn, Jeff. “45 Interesting Ways To Use Wordle In The Classroom.” 45 Interesting Ways To Use Wordle In The Classroom. N.p., 15 July 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Gorman, Michael. “Word Clouds: 125 Ways… And Counting… To Use Wordle In The Classroom.” 21 St Century Educational Technology and Learning. N.p., 06 Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Lepi, Katie. “5 Ways To Use Word Cloud Generators In The Classroom.” 5 Ways To Use Word Cloud Generators In The Classroom. Edudemic, 25 June 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Tafazoli, Dara. “Wordling: Using Word Clouds in Teaching English Language.” Wordling: Using Word Clouds in Teaching English Language. Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. p 53-58.

Dialogic Talk Enriching Our Students’ Reading Metacognition and Close Reading: The Need to Teach Metacognition

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Author: Janet Hester, Secondary ELAR Specialist

We know that we must accelerate our students’ rate of literacy growth to close achievement gaps. We know that our emergent readers and writers need targeted literacy intervention in their Reading classes—and also in their general ed English classes. We also know that we must actively work toward engaging our most vulnerable students.

So then, what are the small things we all might tweak in our general ed and intervention classes to enrich literacy experiences? To create academic prompts that add zest and flavor to our students’ interactions with text?

One simple practice we might neglect is the Think Aloud: a teacher modeling the act of reading for students by slowing down the reading and pointing out the moves strong readers make to comprehend and interpret text. Think Alouds are necessary for emergent readers in in grades K-12.  Region 13’s Distinguished Speaker, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels pointed to study after study in the What Works Clearinghouse that demonstrate the efficacy of these hallmark instructional moves—teachers showing and demonstrating to emergent readers the power of reading strategies: making personal connections, questioning, marking confusing text, visualizing, rereading, employing context clues to understand vocabulary. Daniels’ Region 13 Halloween discussion reminded teachers of the need to explicitly demonstrate “slowing down,” “making notes and leaving tracks,” “reading two times, three times,” “noticing, posing questions, pursuing meaning,” and “being a critical, skeptical consumer of text.”

Students need instruction in the metacognition of reading comprehension just as much as they need instruction in ferreting out unsubstantiated opinions in English I, or finding fallacies in persuasive works in 7th grade. In fact, one might argue that students cannot execute the heavy lifting of grade-level standards until they learn to how to negotiate on-level texts using the metacognitive strategies.  Think Alouds that demonstrate reading metacognition are important instructional work.

But then, how do we transfer skills of metacognition to student application? And how and when do we teach our grade-level standards in our general ed classrooms?

It turns out, many teachers are discovering that they can implement strategies that instill habits of mind that allow students to do the work: to practice the metacognition of comprehension and interpretation AND practice grade-level standards. And . . . their students are engaged by the talk surrounding this work. Their buzz is all over Facebook and Twitter professional accounts. Excited teachers are talking about their students’ literacy growth.

@KyleneBeers I’m loving my students thinking using notice and note #NoticeAndNote

— Holly G.-Daly (@genovaLHSH) November 6, 2014

New Habits of Mind that Inspire Dialogic Talk

These teachers are reading the latest from Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, authors of Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, which explores the habits of mind described above. (They are both scheduled to speak at the service center on January 14th; we are so excited to host these energizing speakers!) Beers and Probst open their book, and a webinar they recently posted on Heinemann’s website, with a discussion of monologic versus dialogic talk in classrooms. Monologic talk, as defined in Notice & Note, is “authoritative and presumes that the goal of the listener is to agree with or learn from the speaker” (pg. 28). As in Probst’s webinar example, “What were the causes of the Civil War, as evident in the chapter you read last night?” (Beers and Probst, 2014).

Such talk sounds unappealing. Think about our classrooms. Our colleagues’ classrooms. Do we lapse into this monologic talk as we “lecture, explain, impart” (Beers and Probst, 2012, pg. 28)? Beers maintains that these types of questions and responses do not help students create meaning. They are not authentic in that they do not place the student in a true give and take of understanding.

The other type of talk Beers and Probst discuss is 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, pg. 28).

I loosely transcribed a clip of student talk from the Beers and Probst webinar that demonstrates dialogic talk. Below is an exchange between five 8th grade students discussing the responses to the prompt: What were the Contrasts and Contradictions, or surprises, you discovered while reading the Langston Hughes short story, “Thank You, Ma’am”? Some snatches of this “first draft” conversation:

“Nowadays people won’t be so considerate. They say, ok, he tried to steal my pocketbook, they try to steal from me, why should I try to be nice to them? Or they might try to lock you up or try to kill you. But she did something different. That’s why this passage surprised me. They acting in a different way than we see in real life.”

“I wonder why he didn’t run when he had the chance . . .”

“I want to know, why did he try to take her pocketbook for only for some shoes? What was so special about the shoes that he wanted them so bad? Did he think that other kids he thought were better than him have them? So he needed to have them?”

“Why would he snatch someone else’s purse? . . . You gotta think about the other person . . . I don’t understand why he would do that.”

“Maybe he wanted them shoes because he never had that. He never had a pair of new shoes. Maybe he always got his brother’s old shoes.”

“But you gotta think about it. Does he have a mom? Does he live with his mom and dad?”

“I still wonder why did she took him in?”

“What was so good about him that she took him in? You see a lot of poor people all around; I don’t take them in my house.”

“Right. And why did she care so much about his appearance?”

“Maybe she had a son. But something happened to her son. So she felt, you know, bad. So she took him in for that point in time and tried to show him right and wrong. Teach him he shouldn’t be taking people’s stuff.”

“Maybe she grew up the same way and she didn’t want him to be like her.”

“She wants him to be better than she was.”

“She said she did some things wrong in her life. She said it.” (Beers and Probst, 2014)

This discussion is a joy to watch and read. When you view the webinar, you see these students unencumbered by a list of teacher-generated questions, even by a teacher. All they were given was one simple prompt: “What surprised you?” They make eye contact, they listen to one another, and they build ideas off of each other’s contributions. All five contribute. And as a group, they are autonomous in teasing out meaning, and even interpreting, the text.

Beers and Probst argue in Notice & Note that dialogic talk stems from habits of mind that teachers may instill in classroom reading. First we teach habits of mind in reading—then students enter text with a framework for understanding any new text. Affective filters go down, they are less intimidated by text, they are more engaged by text, and they have something to say about text.

 Beers and Probst surveyed literature and looked for features that shed light on character development, internal conflict, and theme. The researchers found six “signposts,” or noticeable points in literary texts: Contrasts and Contradictions (which envelopes the “surprise” prompt from the webinar group conversation), Aha Moment, Tough Questions, Words of the Wiser, Again and Again, and Memory Moment. These signposts should be taught one by one. Once a student notices a signposts she should practice answering an accompanying question that will help shed light on character, conflict, or theme.

For example, Contrasts and Contradictions would be taught methodically using a whole-class text. Students would be prompted to find places where characters say or do something that’s the opposite of what one would expect from that character. Then students would stop and ask the accompanying question to Contrasts and Contradictions, “Why is the character doing that?”

Follow this link to the blog post from Left to Our Devices, wherein Tiffany Ortega describes her journey of classroom implementation of the signposts. Like the Notice and Note Book Club on Facebook for regular notices about instructional moves and successful texts in real classrooms. Search Pinterest for templates of classroom materials to edit for your own use. The signposts have infiltrated social media channels as teachers catch on to their potential.


Implications for Texas Teachers

Reading with signposts is a habit of mind, and allows readers to read for a purpose. The signposts are actually hallmarks of literature that appear in our very own TEKS. Check out the number of student expectation correlations to just one of the signposts, Contrasts and Contradictions.

And of course, when we think of Student Expectations with the overlapping requirement of teaching through the lens of Figure 19, the almighty inference standard, we see how the Contrasts and Contradictions signpost can touch any of the genres, even expository and persuasive texts.

Beers and Probst maintain that teachers might certainly teach the metacognitive moves of strong readers: visualizing, predicting, connecting, etc. But they suggest that by teaching the signposts, we are wrapping in the teaching of metacognition. For instance, students naturally make predictions when they ponder a characters’ contrasts and contradictions. They naturally make connections to their own lives when discussing the characters’ surprises.

Teaching signposts spirals in the metacognitive reading process, the practice of slloooowwwwiiing down reading to make the moves of deeper comprehension. And teaching signposts has the extra bonus of comprehending through the lens of author’s craft. Students are continually asking about the author’s purpose in including an Aha! Moment or a Tough Question. By happy coincidence, we are also hitting so many of our student expectations.  The habits of mind are not a layer added on top of our work in teaching the standards—it’s a way through teaching the standards.

And let’s not forget about our perennial concern of student engagement. Using signposts, students have something tangible to bring to partner and small group discussion. They talk and construct their own meaning of the text. They read from an inquiry stance. They make insights. They revisit the text and analyze at all new levels through dialogic talk.

That sounds fantastic.

These strategies speak to me. I would love to visit a class that is using the signposts in Notice & Note, so please let me know if you wouldn’t mind a visitor. And please begin making plans to visit the service center on January 14th to learn from Kylene Beers and Bob Probst themselves!



Beers, K., & Probst, B. (2012). Notice & note: Strategies for close reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Beers, K. and Bob Probst. (2014, October 26). Kylene Beers and Bob Probst Present: Talking about Texts: What Matters Most. Retrieved from

Heinemann | Notice and Note. (2014, January 1). Retrieved November 5, 2014, from

Ortega, T. (2014, May 11). Notice and Note. Retrieved November 5, 2014, from

Addressing the Background Knowledge Deficit in the Language Arts Classroom

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Authors: Lenicia Kinney Gordon and Janet Hester, Literacy Specialists

Let’s face it. The ones we worry about come to us with less than half of the experiences, words, and home-support for acquisition of these foundations of our other students. Furthermore, the “other” students are actually the minority for many of our districts, campuses, and classrooms.

So, what do we do? How can we make up for lost time to give our students the support they need to access a reservoir of schema in order to make connections to new information and think at deeper levels, read at higher levels, and write on grade level when they do not walk through our doors with a  reservoir of schema?

Through our reading of the literature, hearing the sentinel statements from experts in the field at conferences such as IRA, TCTELA, Region 13 Distinguished Speaker Series, and through our own direct work with teachers and districts, we think there are things we can do:

1)      Use rich mentor texts to engage students, motivate students, connect students, and to EXPLICITLY teach skills through them.

2)      Teach kids how to access their stories and EXPLICTLY show them that not only DO they have rich stories but that these stories are worth telling and should be told.


Mentor Texts

Mentor texts can be anything from excerpts to entire pieces of professionally published work (both from hardcopy sources and Internet-based sources) to student writing samples which can be found in your classroom, on the TEA website and at the Lead4ward website to name a few.

Mentor texts can be used to explicitly teach aspects of author’s craft, making inferences, literary elements, and features of the expository or narrative form, etc.  For these specific skills, it is best to choose short, high-interest, exemplar texts of the skill on which you are teaching. Students should be given multiple opportunities to read, re-read, discuss, and write about these mentor texts. Through multiple touches of these rich texts, the students begin to adopt them as part of their own reservoir of schema. We build background knowledge by building positive and consistent experiences around text. (Longer texts, where you want students to begin building stamina and practicing the skills taught through the short mentor texts, can be championed in the arena of independent reading.) For more information about how to use mentor texts, check out the books and works of Gretchen Bernabei, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, Stephanie Harvey, and  Jeff Anderson.

For more information on a running a successful, standards-based, and a deliberate independent reading program consider the work of Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer, and of Lisa Donahue, Independent Reading Inside the Box.

Here is how two educators successfully grounded their reading and writing instruction in the use of mentor texts: “Using Mentor Texts to Coach Expository Writing in Small Groups”

BONUS HINT: Read Aloud to your students EVERY DAY….and yes, in high school, too!


Creating a student “bank” of true stories

One idea, which has been described by many leaders in the field – Joyce Armstrong Carroll, Peter Stillman, Tina Angelo of Houston-based Writers in the Schools (WITS), and many others – is called a Memory Blueprint.


Image courtesy of Katey Schultz


Ms. Angelo has said, “This writing activity based on our memories really embodies the basic philosophy of Writers in the Schools (WITS) . Valuing the child and his/her personal stories is central to the WITS approach to teaching creative writing. Each of the 80+ writers that go into classrooms to work with Houston-area students encourages them to write from their memories, thus giving them voice and ownership of their writing.  Also, we have a sister organization in Austin (Badgerdog) that works within the Austin Public Library system. The Program Director is Cecily Sailer who can be reached at”  This strategy not only contributes to brainstorming for creative writing but also provides a bank for specific details and examples in informational writing.


1)      Draw an approximate floor plan of a place where you have lived.

2)      Label each room according to what it was, what it was used for, or who primarily used it.

3)      On another sheet of paper, draw columns for each room and write appropriate headings.

4)      Quickly list objects, events, and memories as individual words or phrases as they occur to you.

5)      When you have listed as much as you can, circle the words or phrases that grab your attention.

6)      Draw lines between any items that seem to connect with each other.

7)      Choose a single item or a connected pair.  Freewrite about images, memories, or emotions—whatever is triggered by the word or connected pair.

8)      This drawing can be revisited and “harvested” again and again for seed essays to be used for both narrative and expository writing.


“It is the act of writing, reading, and remembering our own homes—the smells from the kitchen, the whispers from the bedroom, the sliver of light at the bottom of a closed door—that brings us together.  It is what brings us home.”  Sharon Sloan Fiffer (1995)


Students actually do, in fact, have schema….even if it is the simplest story of grandma walking you to school and the things you see, hear, and smell along the way, or a description of how it feels to be in your uncle’s garage, or your dad’s barber shop, or watch your mother make dinner…Students may not realize how rich their life experiences really are; we have to explicitly show them.

For more ideas about activities to inspire kids to realize the rich bank of memories and experiences they have, look to the work of Gretchen Bernabei, Kelly Gallagher, Jeff Anderson, and Lucy Calkins.

Naturally, we cannot provide students with all the experiences that their more fortunate counterparts already have in the bank, but there is still so much we can add to their understanding of the world through connecting them to great writing and helping them recognize their own stories. This is a way we can support them in becoming the readers and writers they have every right to be.


For more information about sources of texts and resources, please feel free to contact us!




Thank you to Katey Schultz for permission to use her Memory Blueprint image.  Katey’s blog can be found at


The Genius of Genius Hour

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Author:  Leslie Barrett, Specialist:  Technology & Library Media Services

Image courtesy of


Genius Hour is an education trend that is getting a considerable amount of buzz lately.  It is a concept inspired by Google’s 20 percent time, a policy that affords Google engineers 20 percent of their work time (one day per week) to pursue “passion projects” related to their official job duties.  This encouragement of choice and innovation has resulted in the development of many of Google’s products, including Gmail and Google News.

Translated to a classroom setting, Genius Hour is a small chunk of time – the hour part is arbitrary – where students are allowed to investigate any topic of their choice.  While the topic does not have to be related to any specific content area, there are guidelines and checkpoints that teachers and students should adhere to in order to maximize the educational benefit of the experience.

While student choice is key, topics must be presented to and approved by the teacher.  This helps provide structure for students in crafting a topic that will result in deep exploration, and not just questions that can be answered by a quick Google search.  It also sets the tone that although this project will be fun, there are still expectations around topic acceptability and student learning.

Students are expected to present their investigation findings at the conclusion of their research.  This accountability piece communicates that Genius Hour projects are not just goof-off free time, but a project to be taken seriously.  Additionally, presentations give students experience communicating to an audience and designing a presentation with an authentic audience in mind.  It also creates a platform to inspire new ideas and thinking about future projects among classmates.

Genius Hour project timeframes can vary based on individual teachers’ schedules.  Some teachers choose to do projects with prescribed timeframes (i.e., a 6 week cycle), while other teachers find it better to allow each individual project to conclude naturally.  Even the “hour” designation of Genius Hour is just a suggestion.  Some teachers, particularly secondary teachers who are subject to finite class periods, allow one class period a week to be devoted to Genius Hour projects.  Some teachers incorporate Genius Hour time as part of daily activity options when students are finished with their assigned class work.  Other teachers, particularly at the elementary level, may choose to implement Genius Hour in lieu of Fun Friday activities that have little academic value.  The key is to mold the idea to what works in individual classrooms.

A key component of Genius Hour projects is regular teacher-student check in conferences.  This is how teachers help students stay on track, and how they can address misconceptions or guide learning.  Teachers can offer mini workshops during Genius Hour time to help groups of students who are struggling with similar issues.

Through the course of Genius Hour topic exploration, students are developing a myriad of skills in an authentic, student-directed learning environment.  The most obvious is information fluency.  Students are driven by a need to locate accurate and reliable information about a topic that is meaningful to them.  Students will need to organize and summarize the information they are locating, and it’s a perfect platform to reinforce the digital citizenship skills of avoiding plagiarism, fair use, giving attribution and citing sources.  While investigating information students are naturally applying the reading and writing skills being taught in the content areas.  As they learn more about specific topics of interest they are expanding and internalizing content knowledge in various areas.  In preparation for their final product students are synthesizing the information they have uncovered and reassembling it in a new and creative way to showcase new understanding.

With so many educational advantages, it’s easy to see why many teachers are making room for students to explore their passions through Genius Hour activities.  To learn more please access the following links:

Eight Pillars of Innovation by Susan Wojcicki, Google Think Insights

The Google Way:  Give Engineers Room by Bharat Mediratta, NY Times Job Market

Why Did the Poet Do That?—The Case for Teaching Author’s Craft

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Authors: Janet Hester and Lenicia Gordon, Literacy Specialists

We know that we are growing beyond the old classroom paradigm of drilling printed lists of terminology and moving toward providing authentic reading and writing experiences for our students.  Contemporary research affirms the need for students to be interested in their reading and writing tasks. Student choice of reading text is critical for engagement. An authentic purpose for reading is paramount. An onus to write and a responsibility to communicate will promote true participation in learning the skills of writing.  Students are no longer interested in jumping through hoops. But they will create their own diversions—if we could only harness their individual interests.

Yes, we all agree on the need for authenticity and student ownership of knowledge. But then it seems TEKS and STAAR mandates box us in—how can we teach the power and art of language when we are beholden to the State of Texas?


TEA Agrees with Best Practices

It turns out that our mandates and best practice are not far apart at all. In fact, if we only looked closely at our state curriculum and assessments, took a deep breath, believed in our students’ ability, took another deep breath, and trusted that daily reading and writing would improve their language skills, the kids might just be all right.


TEKS Ask Students to Read Like Writers




The TEKS reveal that students should be reading like writers and writing like—well—true writers.

For example, the student expectations in poetry ask students to “analyze how poets use sound effect to reinforce meaning” and “analyze the importance of graphical elements on the meaning of a poem” in the 5th and 7th grade, respectively. Now, harkening to those old classrooms, it would be tempting as a teacher to get caught up in the technical definitions of “sound effects” or “graphical elements”: to create a vocabulary list of these terms, drill our students, and arrest student learning at a Depth of Knowledge Level 1 or a Bloom’s Category of Remembering.

Yet, we are charged with teaching more than the terms, and we must extend student learning to include analyzing the effect of the terms. We should be teaching students the power of words and asking our students to analyze all the trouble a writer goes through to communicate.


STAAR Asks Students to Read Like Writers

Beyond the language of the TEKS themselves, released STAAR reading items from 2011 and 2013 elucidate this responsibility.

See an example of a 2013 English I released question:


A student answering this question correctly needn’t recite all the technical information she knows about analogies in poems; she must instead be familiar with interpreting poetic meaning. This item is dual-coded as 3/Fig.19(B), or as the overarching Knowledge and Skills statement of poetry (3) and the reading comprehension skill Figure 19(B). The skills assessed, according to the dual-coding, are to “make inferences . . . about the . . . elements of poetry” and “make complex inferences about text,” from the poetry Knowledge and Skills statement and  Figure 19(B) comprehension standard. For this question in particular, making inferences about the elements of poetry means interpreting what the analogy means in the context of the poem—reading the poem as a poet and determining the author’s intent of the analogy (not the technical terminology of “analogy”).




Here’s another example from the Grade 7 2013 Released items:



Again, the question does not assess the level of understanding of the term, imagery, but of the term’s use. It assumes understanding of the term itself. This question is dual-coded as well, as 8/Fig. 19 (D), or the overarching Knowledge and Skills statement of Sensory Language (8) and the reading comprehension skill, Figure 19(D). The skills assessed, according to the dual-coding, are to “make inferences . . . about how an author’s sensory language creates imagery in literary text” and “make complex inferences about text.”   Essentially, to answer this question, students must read poetic language and determine the intended purpose of the imagery used.  Students should be reading poems and learning how to ask themselves this question, again and again, “Why did the writer do that?”  Students should be reading like poets. In other words, in order to understand why poets and authors do what they do, students must be charged with making these same types of deliberate decisions in their own writing…..


The Learning Model—Reading and Writing Like Writers

So, how does a student get comfortable with reading poetry like a poet? Not by memorizing terms. We’ve written about this process before, and we will do so again. Jeff Anderson has written extensively in 10 Things Every Writer Should Know about flooding students with text so that they might inductively learn author’s craft and strategies.

  1. Teachers should flood students with text by exposing them to massive classroom libraries.  Newspapers.  Magazines and blogs. Students should be reading text of their choice. There should be so much text, kids have no option but to find that book about bulldogs—their own personal passion—and settle down to read.
  2. After reading independently, teachers should pull powerful mentor texts and engage the class in reading and discover for themselves the characteristics of the genre. There should be a controlled groundswell of Noticing these characteristics. The teacher should scribe these noticings on class anchor charts for easy reference throughout the year.
  3. Then, the teacher should divert the groundswell by creating opportunities for partner, small group and class discussion. By Interacting, students should discover the text features of expository text, and realize that they serve a function for the reader. The writer placed them there on purpose.
  4. The students should then Name those characteristics as the academic term and as their own definition.
  5. Teachers should provide students with opportunities to Experiment using those characteristics in their own writing and revision processes.
  6. Reflecting and metacognition—students should reflect upon the knowledge they learned and how it fits into their own schema. Allowing time for reflection allows students to make the learning about reading and writing their own.

This method may be used over and over again, so that students develop a habit of reading and noticing, become experts at interacting with the text, develop an intuition for naming strategies they encounter, and, finally, become proficient in employing these strategies as a writer of the genre.  See the diagram below.




To understand author’s craft in any genre, students must see examples of the genre, discover their own examples, and ask the question over and over, “Why did the writer do that?”  Ultimately, writing their own arguments, explanations, and poetry worthy of interpretation will extend the learning.

As it turns out, the TEKS and STAAR’s interpretations of the TEKS call for students to be able to interpret the effect of writers using their tools. And STAAR assesses this zealously, with the help of the dual-coding of Knowledge and Skills statements and Figure 19.  This is a good thing. It means we do not have to teach static lists of terms. The state charges us with teaching authentic reading and writing. How fortunate, because this is precisely what is best for students.

Word on the Street: Bigger Is Not Better…..when it comes to Mentor Texts for Literacy Skill Instruction

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Authors: Lenicia Gordon, Susan Diaz, and Janet Hester

Most contemporary researchers in literacy agree on at least this one fact:  Short, complex texts are the most effective and most critical foundation of the modern lesson cycle in high impact reading and writing instruction.  This is not to say that there is not a place for our favorite novels and short stories but when honing in on specific reading skills like understanding an author’s craft or purpose, making inferences, summarizing or making connections between texts, short rich texts (purposefully chosen for illustrative properties of the chosen skill to be taught) are the keystone.  This same paradigm is true for writing instruction as well.

The use of mentor texts and mini-lessons for skills, strategies, and revision is the common thread of advice from literacy experts we have been reading and engaging with this past year.  The other clear message is the importance of truly engaging all four processes: reading, speaking, listening, and writing embedded in each lesson cycle.

Steve Graham and Dolores Perin boil it down to three simple actions – Read, Emulate, Analyze when referring to anchoring learning about writing through the immersion in quality mentor texts – in their report “Writing Next for The Alliance for Excellent Education”.  To download the entire free PDF guide, “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School”, visit Kelly Gallagher reiterates the importance of this three step process and adds that teachers need to “model, model, model!”  He also believes students need to be immersed in opportunities to read and analyze great fiction and write fiction.  The pendulum swing away from fiction and towards only nonfiction is a mistake in his mind that needs to be returned to balance.

Here are his five practical guiding questions which he suggests educators ask themselves before designing a reading lesson:

1)      What support do my students need before they begin reading a text?

2)      What strategies will assist them to read the text with purpose and clarity?

3)      How can I encourage a second-draft reading to facilitate deeper meaning?

4)      Which collaborative activities will help deepen their comprehension?

5)      How can I help students see the relevance this text plays in their world?

(Gallagher, Kelly. Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2004)

Jeff Anderson likens the process to the scientific method (Observe, Question, Hypothesize, Test, and Conclude). Anderson’s Analysis Process involves five steps: Noticing, Interacting, Naming, Experimenting, and Reflecting. In the Noticing phase, students read the mentor text independently and use annotating techniques to mark anything in the text they like or find interesting that the writer is doing. The next phase is called Interacting.  The teacher guides the students’ noticings to the focused skill of the writing lesson: for example, the thesis or imagery, etc. The Naming phase is when the teacher will bring in academic vocabulary and make broad generalizations about the genre of the writing: for example, cause/effect structure or “it’s called foreshadowing when an author does that”. Experimenting is a time for kids to play with language, patterns, and structures in their own writing that is connected to the instructional objective or skill.  Finally, the class Reflects. Students need a moment to consider if adding the element improves or detracts from the meaning of their essay and explain why they think so.  They can do their reflections through a quickwrite such as an exit ticket or a think/pair/share. (Anderson, Jeff. Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2011)

Fountas and Pinnell outline the reading process through the study of genre with the foundation still being mentor text study, as such, a) Interactive read-aloud, b) Readers’ workshop, which includes book talks, a mini-lesson, conferences, independent reading, guided reading, literature discussion (book clubs), writing about reading, and group share, c) Writers’ workshop, which includes writers’ talks, a mini-lesson, conferences, independent writing, guided writing, and group share.

For an overview of their Six Step process to teaching an inquiry-based genre study check out this one-page reference sheet: Genre Study: Steps in the Inquiry Process:

(Fountas, Irene C., and Gay Su Pinnell. Genre Study: Teaching with Fiction and Nonfiction Books: Grades K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012.)

Stephanie Harvey contributes to this short mentor text movement by adding her twist, STOP, THINK, and REACT (Remember) when referring to the instructional process. “We teach kids to think so they can acquire and actively use knowledge.” Her primary “take home points” are: a) We need to be providing kids at ALL reading levels with COMPLEX texts and that this means complicated ideas, not necessarily lexile level. b) Annotating text is critical to close reading and close VIEWING of nonfiction features deepens understanding of expository texts. c) Students need to, “Stop, Think, and React (REMEMBER)…..STR!” and be provided ample opportunities to practice this with quality complex mentor texts. d) Students should skip the things they don’t understand in the FIRST read and make sense of what they DO know. Then in the SECOND read, they should focus on the things they don’t know and then try and understand. (Notes from 2013 IRA Conference, San Antonio, TX – Harvey, Stephanie, and Anne Goudvis. Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2007)

Harvey “Smokey” Daniels points out the critical importance of pairing students to read, discuss and analyze texts and providing them compelling higher order questions to guide their discussions. Smokey reiterates the value of what students learn from each other through guided discourse.  They provide each other background and context, as well as the opportunity to engage in the entire literacy process of reading, writing, speaking, and listening so that they truly internalize content, strategies, and metacognition.  He shared some specific reading strategies such as finding the “Golden Nugget Sentence” in a selection among many others. “Smokey” Daniels will be presenting during our Distinguished Speakers Series here at Region 13 on Friday, December 6th! (Notes from 2013 IRA Conference, San Antonio, TX  – Daniels, Harvey, and Marilyn Bizar. Teaching the Best Practice Way: Methods That Matter, K-12. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2005.)

Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger suggest many strategies for using POETRY to support READING skills and CONTENT learning across the curriculum.  Sara and Michael are leaders in the writing to learn movement in literacy instruction. They support ideas like using Haikus as a way to SUMMMARIZE content information. Due to the fact that Haiku requires such precise and carefully chosen words, it would be an excellent way to summarize, for example, a lesson about Abraham Lincoln, the food web, attributes of a geometric solid, etc.  They posit that poetry can support learning across the curriculum using poetic structures of Found Poems, Questioning Poems, Summary Poems, Refrain Poems, and List Poems. (Notes from 2013 IRA Conference, San Antonio, TX – Holbrook, Sara, and Michael Salinger. Outspoken!: How to Improve Writing and Speaking Skills through Poetry Performance. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006.)

*Some of these distinguished speakers will be presenting at Region 13 in the near future. Visit our website to register!


Jeff Anderson-November 8th

Harvey “Smokey” Daniels- December 6th

Kelly Gallagher-January 10th


Exploring Integration in Elementary Curriculum, Part 4

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Author:  Lori Reemts, Education Specialist: Elementary Generalist


As this series on exploring integration winds down, it is a great time to recap three major areas as well as add a few closing remarks addressing the question “So now what?”  Thinking back to the first installment , we began by creating a common working definition of integration and what that can and cannot mean in terms of classroom instruction. We all want it; we all feel we need it if for no other reason than to address time constraints, but we aren’t all in agreement of what “it” even is.  When considering the three areas of curriculum (written, taught and assessed) the greatest opportunity for true integration can be found within the taught curriculum. What happens in the classroom is key.  Even with the most beautifully written curriculum, connections and true integration simply cannot take place until what is written comes to life through purposeful instruction.  Instructional integration provides the points of intersection, the rich discussion and the multiple opportunities to use knowledge and skill throughout the entire learning day.


The second installment then shifted our focus to defining some of the opportunities found within the standards.  Direct (explicit) Support and taking advantage of Purposeful Awareness during instruction provides students more than one discrete opportunity to experience something and often provides multiple contexts in which to do so.  Examples of direct support, such as concepts found within the Social Studies Geography strands and the Science Earth Science strands, can be found throughout all of our standards.  Keeping vocabulary and concepts alive through various contexts is a major benefit of using Purposeful Awareness.  This can be seen, for example, with the term “consumer.” Though the foundational concept is the same, the application within a science lesson on organisms and environments is slightly different than that of a social studies economics lesson.  Knowing and referring to the standards as the starting point of any lesson design is the best way to take full advantage of these two techniques.


The third installment highlighted transferrable skills.  Our standards are full of skills that we hope each of our students develop and utilize to be successful in whatever path they take. In essence, these “transferrable skills” comprise the core of we are told to highlight on our professional resumes and the like.  However, it seems they can become lost in all of the standards and even more so when the learning day is segmented.  By identifying these skills across content areas we can better teach them, practice them and help students become aware that they are indeed using them.  The skills themselves are important as they are where that added layer of rigor and application come from, but they also serve as vehicles to obtain the very content knowledge we need students to comprehend within each discipline.


Finally, the question “So now what?” comes to mind.  We are now set to take the first steps in the journey to transform and integrate our instruction through these points of intersection but…just what do we do when armed with this information now?  Over time this type of thinking and approach can become quite second nature, but it takes quite a bit of purpose at first. If we do not plan for the connection, the question, the link, the use of vocabulary in another context and the relationship between the standards, they simple do not occur. The frantic pace of the day, the fire drill, the lack of sleep or the unexpected question or result can derail the best of intentions.  Once a point, or multiple points of intersection, has occurred there are decisions that must be made.  Is this the best place to start at this time? Do I have a resource to do this? What do I need to gather?  Is there someone, such as our librarian, who can assist me?  Take the thinking and begin linking it to the tangibles that exist and can exist within a classroom lesson, discussion, and experience.  Be purposeful. Start realistically for yourself.  Manageable pieces lead to a much more satisfying and organic end result.  Begin with just two content areas or one or two skill areas.  Perhaps even begin with one content area finding points of intersection WITHIN that given content. How does this unit connect to the unit we did 6 weeks ago?  Engage in this thinking with your students and don’t be afraid to think out loud or let them do so before it is time to “answer.”  Knowing that there is more time spent up front, it is important to keep the end in mind and realize that the time will be made up two or three times over in the long run, not to mention it is what is best for learning.


Interested in a more detailed discussion or information?  Contact Lori Reemts, Elementary Generalist.

Exploring Integration in Elementary Curriculum, Part 3

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Author: Lori Reemts, Education Specialist: Elementary Generalist


In the first two installments, this series visited integration by creating a working definition and common language to guide the reader through the series with the intended understanding.  Descriptions and examples were given to identify both Direct (Explicit) Support and Purposeful Awareness.  These prove to be excellent starting points when seeking points of intersection between disciplines.  This article, now the third in the series, promises to explore the idea of skill building.

As educators we long for our students to be able to apply thinking and learning across and within content areas. We provide experiences within each content area and hope for the moment when the light bulb shines brightly signaling the student experienced some sort of revelation or connection.  We hope that our students continue to build crucial skills in order to be successful not only within their school career but also, more importantly, as adults with knowledge and skills that merge seamlessly enabling them to gain new insight, solve a problem, or make an informed decision.   These areas of success come from the application of transferrable skills rather than any spelling list or set of facts about a science concept.  These transferrable skills are both our hope and joy and our nemesis as educators because these can prove to be quite difficult to identify, teach, and foster within our students.  The new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) employ such skills to the extent possible through a multiple choice format.  Students must be able to access information previously learned and situations previously experienced and apply this learning to new and novel situations.  These exams are designed to assess a variety of skills along with content specific knowledge.

We have become quite adept at identifying various examples, vocabulary lists, strategies, and techniques within different content areas assessed through STAAR but not as adept in the skill areas assessed through STAAR, not to mention those content areas not assessed through the state program.  The very thing we long for most in our students – the development of real skills – sometimes falls by the wayside if for no other reason than because they are more difficult to identify and teach.  These skills can be found within most any student expectation by reading the verb but this is often still singularly associated with a particular content-focused student expectation.  Every discipline, including Health and Technology Applications, has a focus on skills built within it. It is in our best interest, and more importantly our students’ best interest, to focus on these sets of skills. By learning, practicing, and applying these skill sets students are then far more equipped to access the very content we are struggling to get them to remember and apply.

One example is related to data. Students are bombarded with input on a daily basis; much of which is subconsciously stored for later.  However, there are also times when we purposefully seek data.  There are many reasons that a person may need to gather some information, evaluate the source and the information, manage the information, and somehow make sense of it in order to follow this acquisition with application of some form or fashion, such as planning, communicating, or making an informed and thoughtful decision. Consider the following student expectations:



These skills found within each of the content areas all deal with data collection / information management. In total, there are at least 23 Student Expectations between these 6 areas of study that relate directly to the skills of obtaining data, evaluating the source and the data itself, and somehow managing the information. While the context is different because of the different disciplines, the core skill remains intact.


Just as using Direct (explicit) Support and Purposeful Awareness can serve as starting points to locate potential points of intersection, so can a skill set.  By unifying “how” students work within different contexts throughout the day, a classroom teacher can actually capitalize on the potential to connect through skills.  Students not only have more practice on the identified and planned-for skill, but also they are able to see it in a variety of situations, identify what they are doing, and use the skill to make connections within and across content areas.


Take a moment to look through the Student Expectations for each content area and you will see skill sets that naturally merge with skills sets from other content areas. They essentially group themselves into manageable categories making at least the identification of these thinking skills far more obvious than they would be as they exist separately.   After a scan, you will see skills related to:

  • Planning & Development; Problem-Solving & Decision-Making
  • Tools and Technology, including text features
  • Data Collection and Information Management
  • Analysis, Inference, Justification, and Making Conclusions
  • Communication
  • Making Connections


As this spring semester progresses, we are working on a tool enabling teachers, administrators, parents, and even students to identify skills that group themselves into broader ideas and applications.  It is sometimes amazing to see what is actually built into our state standards, right before our eyes, which can so easily turn into missed opportunities.  Interested in seeing what this looks like completed?  Keep an eye on The Scoop for more information later in the semester.
In the meantime, take some time to consider making connections and points of intersection for your students through the sheer application of a skill within different contexts throughout the entire learning day.  Both you and your students will benefit!

Writing Across the Content Areas

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Author: Susan Diaz, Education Specialist, Secondary ELAR


“If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write.” –The College Board and the National Commission on Writing

I hear that students might be learning in classes other than just English/Language Arts!  Ergo, if this rumor is true, students need to write in ALL their subjects.  Still skeptical?  The Michigan Department of Education says… “Writing is used to initiate discussion, reinforce content and model the method of inquiry common to the field.  Writing can help students discover new knowledge–to sort through previous understandings, draw conclusions and uncover new ideas as they write.”  And in the report, “The Neglected R”, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges argues that writing has been pushed to the side in the school reform movement over the past twenty years and must now receive the attention it deserves. The National Commission on Writing goes on to talk about how students have difficulty producing writing at the high levels of skill, maturity, and sophistication that is required in our complex, modern economy.  Basically, if we want our students to be college AND/OR career ready, they must be proficient writers.  The Commission’s solution to this dilemma?  Double the amount of writing by incorporating it in all content areas.

We’re not asking you to know the ins and outs of dangling participles or the STAAR rubric.  We’re talking about giving students the time to practice and hone their writing.  It’s kind of like driving a car or playing a sport—the more you do it, the better you get!

There are lots of easy ways to incorporate writing into your classrooms.  It could be as simple as an Entry Slip that asks them to summarize their homework reading or recall learning from yesterday’s class.   Giving students a few minutes to write at the beginning of class allows them to collect their thoughts and activate prior knowledge.  It also helps students see that learning is connected from day to day rather than a series of isolated events.  You can end class with an Exit Ticket asking students to write a letter to a classmate who was absent explaining what was learned that day or students can reflect on their participation in class for the day.  The Exit Slip helps students summarize their learning for the day and gives them closure.  The simple step of adding in Entry Slips and Exit Tickets to our lesson cycle can make a profound impact on student learning—it is the E in engage and the E in evaluate that frames our teaching and solidifies knowledge for kids.  Give it a try!