Stop, Write, and Discuss

Stop, Write, and Discuss

Literacy strategies to transform instruction and deepen learning

Social studies instruction requires students to understand complex concepts, read dense primary source documents, and critically consider various perspectives. As a social studies and English language arts teacher, I have found that integrating writing and discussion literacy strategies into social studies can transform the classroom environment and help students navigate complex concepts.

Stopping to write and discuss content allows students to begin processing what they know before continuing to receive more information. Students also develop a more complete understanding of the content and increase their critical thinking skills when they are given consistent opportunities to write and talk about content.

Taking time to write and discuss may feel like an extra step in an already busy schedule, but taking a few minutes to implement these strategies can propel the curriculum forward because students initially develop a deeper understanding of the content.

Stop and Write

When students encounter complex texts, having them stop for a moment to write allows them to take a break from receiving new information and process what they have learned. As students write about content, they naturally discover their own level of comfort with the concept. The writing strategies can be used on their own or as a step toward another activity. Improving writing skills isn't the primary goal of this strategy but is often a positive secondary outcome.

Considerations for Implementation

  • Think of it as writing to learn instead of writing for a grade.
  • It is often helpful for students to share their writing, which motivates students and allows them to hear the ideas of their classmates, ask and answer questions, and promote continued critical thinking.
  • It can provide students an idea of their own strengths and weaknesses while giving the teacher data to drive instruction.
  • There are appropriate times for students to represent their ideas with pictures, phrases, or symbols.
  • It allows the teacher to hold every child accountable for their response to complex questions.
  • As students are writing, the teacher can glance at students' work to monitor their progress.

Implementing Writing Strategies

Begin by providing students with an open-ended prompt about the content. Student writing could include questions, opinions, connections, and predictions. I present this to students as time to think about what they are learning, not an assessment of their knowledge. I give them 1-4 minutes to continuously write about the topic.

The benefit of asking students to write without stopping is that they won't have a chance to second guess themselves and will get more of their ideas on paper. There are times when it is more appropriate to encourage "think time" and give them a few minutes to write without making time part of the assignment. It all depends on the content and the students.

After the time for writing is complete, students can be given an opportunity to process their writing using the Post-Writing Activities below or move on to the next part of the lesson.

Post-Writing Activities

  • Students use their writing to create a more concise statement by taking out unnecessary information and synthesizing their ideas.
  • Students mark any new ideas they thought of while writing and jot down lingering questions.
  • At the end of a unit students look back at all their writing and create a document with information to review.
  • Students close their eyes and raise hands if they included certain things in their writing to provide the teacher with a quick formative assessment.
  • Students pick the most important sentence, phrase, picture, or word from their writing and share with a friend.
  • Students read their writing and jot down anything they still need to learn to completely answer the question given.
  • Students pass their written response to a partner, read the partner's response and then respond to it in written form on their paper. This can be done once as a partner activity or the papers can be passed in a circle between groups of 4-5 students, each time students continue to add to the ideas written by the person before them.
  • Follow up with a discussion strategy.

Stop and Discuss

Many students benefit from writing their ideas before sharing them, while other students find it easier to develop their ideas while talking about them. Conversations between students provide an opportunity for them to speak, listen, and focus on critical thinking skills while developing a better understanding of the content. Engaging students in these types of conversations allows them time to process ideas, holds them accountable for supporting their opinions with facts, introduces them to new ideas, creates an authentic opportunity to use academic language, and teaches collaboration and communication.

Considerations for Implementation

  • Students should consistently refer to the text to support their ideas during the discussion.
  • Providing students with time to talk about their ideas may seem like an invitation for students to socialize, but if time limits and expectations are set, it can actually reduce the amount of unrelated conversation students have during class.
  • Some students will need conversation starters when they begin to engage in collaborative conversations.
  • Most of the small group discussion strategies require very little advance preparation other than constructing questions and setting up protocols for discussion. At any point in a lesson a teacher can stop and have students discuss. The majority of the "work" will be at the beginning of the year as students learn different discussion strategies.

Discussion Strategies

  • Timed Partner Discussion: Start with a specific question or idea that students should discuss. Set a time for each student to talk, depending on age or topic, around 1-2 minutes. Instruct students to talk for the entire time, trying to share as many ideas that they can within that time. While they are talking, their partner should be actively listening and taking brief notes on what they hear. When the time is up, the other student is given a little less time to talk and then they are instructed to share only ideas that their partner did not share. The activity can stop there or continue by allowing students to collaborate and come up with a summary of their discussion.
  • Discussion Line: Students sit or stand in two lines facing each other. The teacher poses a question that is open ended and requires critical thinking. Students spend a few minutes discussing the question with their partner using evidence from the text. After a few minutes, the students rotate so they are facing a new partner. They then discuss the same question with their new partner. At this point, depending on the complexity of the question, students can rotate to another partner and continue discussing the same question or be given another question to discuss. This strategy gives students consistent fresh perspective and gives them a chance to move around a little.
  • Discussion Stations: Set up enough stations around the room to have groups of 3-4 students. Each station should include a critical thinking question. Students move with their groups to discuss each question jotting down notes individually or collectively. The teacher will set a time limit for each station based on the question, text, and age of students. This can be set up so students visit all stations or only certain stations based on interest or as a differentiation strategy. Students can also share ideas with all of the groups by writing down some of their big ideas as they visit each station for other groups to read.

Student Voice

The potential success of implementing writing and discussion literacy strategies in social studies is described below by two of my students.

"When you talk about something it helps you find out if you understand it … and lets you hear new ideas that you hadn't thought of before … when I write out something it helps me remember and understand it better." Sophia, 7th Grade

"When you speak something out loud that you have been reading it will stay in your memory … you hear perspectives that are different from you own when talking to others about something you read … Writing about things you learn in social studies lets you find new ways to think about what you read and decide if you know enough to answer the question." Annabelle, 7th Grade

Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School (NC), where she also serves as English Department Chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.

Published April 2018.

Author: Kasey Short
Number of views (2156)/Comments (1)/
Moving from Telling Our Stories to Inviting Stories

Moving from Telling Our Stories to Inviting Stories

The importance of getting beyond writing that argues, informs, or narrates

From kindergarten through twelfth grade, students learn to make an argument, convey information, and narrate a series of events (NGA Center for Best Practices & CCSSO, 2010). Every year, it's just those three types of writing. Of course, young people should learn to argue, inform, and narrate: they'll argue, inform, and narrate in every profession, college course, and community. But why did we pick arguing, informing, and narrating as the only three important functions of writing?

Let's imagine shifting our emphasis from arguing a single perspective to unifying multiple perspectives, from distributing information to asking for it, and from narrating our own stories to inviting stories from others. What could these types of writing look like?

From "I Believe" to "We Believe"

If success in college courses and in the workplace aren't reasons enough for students to learn argumentation skills, maybe what passes for political discourse is. People shout at each other on TV and social media, often resorting to personal attacks and reaction gifs. Teaching kids to argue a point using scientific or historical evidence feels like a civic imperative.

Still, those who start flame wars are sharing authentic feelings, hoping others will listen and understand. Can our students practice something besides judgment—whether it's the positive kind (a high-five, a "like") or the negative (an insult, a one-upping comment)? When they have strong beliefs and emotions, can our students do more with writing than assert their rightness?

Let's look at an argumentation writing prompt: "Should our school assign seats during lunch?" You can probably imagine papers arguing against assigning lunch seats: students would have the freedom to choose seats, develop friendships, and feel comfortable between classes. And you can imagine papers arguing for assigned lunch seats: students would get to know classmates beyond their friendship cliques, no one would be excluded, and adults could more easily identify students who have eating disorders or food insecurity.

But what if, instead, we asked students to find common values among those who'd argue for and against assigning seats at lunch? Instead of staking out and defending a position, students would explore why their peers, teachers, and parents care about lunch seating. They might discover that those advocating free seating and those who'd assign seats want students to have friends, feel connected, relax, and eat a nourishing lunch.

To identify common values among people who disagree, students would have to listen to people on both sides. What problems are they trying to solve by, say, assigning seats at lunch? What are their hopes and fears? What kind of community are they trying to build? These are values questions, and given the opportunity, students might discover similar values underlying opposing positions.

A good argument acknowledges alternative views, but dismisses or qualifies them to advance the writer's own view. But students writing to unify would introduce multiple perspectives, not to assert which one is "right" or "best," but to discover what the people holding these perspectives have in common, and to suggest ways they could work together and move forward.

From "What I Know" to "What Can I Learn?"

Could there be a place for writing that asks questions alongside writing that gives answers? Imagine that given a writing-to-inform prompt, "Explain the relationship between two symbiotic organisms," a student decides to write about tree frogs and bromeliads. Even if you know nothing about the organisms, you can probably imagine the essay. First, the student describes the tree frog and bromeliad, then she explains how the frog affects the bromeliad, then she explains how the bromeliad affects the frog, and she concludes with why symbiotic relationships matter.

Now imagine the student is given the prompt, "Ask questions about the relationship between two symbiotic organisms." We can imagine all sorts of questions the student might ask about bromeliads and tree frogs. How do the frogs and bromeliads find each other? Do other kinds of frogs have symbiotic relationships with plants? Do they need each other? What could people learn from the tree frog? From the bromeliad? From the relationship? Is it only under certain conditions? Will climate change influence this relationship? Or will the relationship between tree frogs and bromeliads help them survive and adapt as the climate changes? How can we survive and adapt as the climate changes? How will our relationships impact us positively and negatively? Again, what can we learn from the frog-bromeliad relationship?

Asking questions sometimes sends us in circles, like how I circled back to the question about what people can learn from the frog-bromeliad relationship. Questions might engender more questions in ways we don't anticipate or understand. How do we make order out of that chaos—at least to the extent that our reader can understand what we're asking and wonder along with us? I doubt the classic five-paragraph structure will lend itself to the rambling, associative, creative, and curious writing-to-ask prompt. What do you think?

From "Here's My Story" to "Please Tell Your Story"

If there's room in the curriculum for students to hear stories from literature, science, and history, surely there's room for them to tell their own. Still, in narrative writing, we're once again asking students to privilege their own perspectives and miss opportunities to seek other people's. What if, in addition to telling stories, students also invite others to tell stories?

Let's take another typical prompt: "Write about a time when you showed courage." We can imagine all kinds of stories, from traveling alone to standing up to a bully to starting school in a second language to losing a parent. What if, in addition to telling their own courage stories, each student invited someone to tell about a time they showed courage? Perhaps a student would write to a grandparent who survived a war, or a classmate who delivered a speech to the entire school, or a teacher who took a job in a second language, respectfully inviting them to share these experiences.

In order to write such a letter, students would still think about what courage means, and they'd still tell their own stories—of noticing and appreciating another person's experience, and seeking further understanding. Students might imagine multiple potential recipients of their letters within their families, among their peers, and in their communities. Or they could "invite" fictional characters or historical actors to tell their stories. Even if the students don't or can't expect a response—or if they simply don't send their invitations—they'd still pay attention to how other people carry stories.

Students who consider sending their letters might feel anxious imagining the recipients actually reading them. We can help students reframe this anxiety: "What if your hesitation means you care about this person's feelings? What if your nervousness is telling you this story matters? If that's the case, what do you want to do? What would be the easiest move for you? What would be the most satisfying? And what would be easiest for the other person? What would be most satisfying for them?"

Moving Forward

Why do we think young people in an increasingly divided nation need to learn argumentative, informative, and narrative writing, and nothing else? If we only ask students to defend what they think, say what they know, and tell their stories, do we encourage them to focus too much on themselves? If we sometimes introduce other purposes of writing—to unify, ask, and invite—would we encourage students to be more open to diverse perspectives, curious about the world, humble about their own ideas, and empathetic toward others?

Writing to argue, inform, and narrate is potentially audienceless. I might be shouting into the void. If I do have an audience, I might be more interested in proving myself right, advancing my own views, and hearing my own voice than in creating a relationship. But if I seek common ground with you, ask you questions, or invite you to tell a story, doesn't there have to be a you? I might address you without knowing who you are, or "you" might not be alive or even real, but still I imagine how you'll receive and respond to my words.

Writing to argue, inform, or narrate is also outcome-driven: I'm trying to get you to agree with me, know what I know, or hear my story. If I achieve these outcomes, I've done my work as a writer. The end. But writing to unify, ask, and invite are process-driven. When I finish writing, it's not the end. I've only just started a correspondence, a collaboration with you. I've sent out a call. What will your response be?

Writing assignments privilege learning to: Let's also try teaching our students to:
ARGUE: I believe…

Take a position on the proposal that our school should assign seats during lunch.

Which character do you think has the lead role in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Should the United States ban hydraulic fracturing?
UNIFY: We believe…

Find common values among those who would argue for and against assigning seats during lunch.

Define "lead role" such that readers might consider different characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream to have the lead role.

Who wants to promote hydraulic fracturing, who wants to ban it, and what concerns do the groups share?
INFORM: Here's what I know.

Explain the symbiotic relationship between two organisms.

Explain how the United States Constitution is based on the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Describe the steps of how to do something you're good at.
ASK: What can I learn?

Ask questions about the symbiotic relationship between two organisms.

Ask questions about how the United States Constitution is based on the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Ask questions about how to expand or improve at something you're good at.
NARRATE: Here's my story.

Write a story about a time when you had courage.

Retell Jean Toomer's story "Becky," from Becky's point of view.

Describe how you learned to do something you're good at.
INVITE: Would you tell your story?

Write a letter to someone, identifying a time when you think they must have had courage and asking them to tell you the story.

Write to the fictional Becky, asking her to share her story.

Identify something someone else is good at and write about why you'd like them to teach you.
These types of writing encourage students to be:
  • Closed
  • Certain
  • Authoritative
  • Self-focused
These types of writing encourage students to be:
  • Open
  • Curious
  • Humble
  • Empathetic


National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers.
(2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from on August 5, 2017.

Lauren Porosoff has been teaching for 18 years and consults on designing curriculum and professional development that empowers students and teachers. She is the author of Curriculum at Your Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and EMPOWER Your Students (Solution Tree, 2017).

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Lauren Porosoff
Number of views (2056)/Comments (2)/
Tags: Writing
Changing the Narrative

Changing the Narrative

Literacy as sustaining practice in every classroom

Régine recently decided to plant a flower garden. A friend, who was also a master gardener, volunteered to help. Immediately, this friend began talking about how plants create "themes" in a garden. Would there be a theme of color, height, or texture? That's when Régine nearly gave up before even starting. She didn't want a theme, she wanted flowers. When Régine asked her sister for advice, the response was perfect: "How about the theme of plants that stay alive?"

Creating Common Ground

To us, Régine's experience in the garden became a metaphor for why a "culture of literacy" creates anxiety for many teachers. While we all work to improve student learning, what becomes problematic is when academic "themes" or initiatives distract from our own class goals or curriculum. Although literacy instruction has always existed in content area classrooms, it has not necessarily been recognized as such.

In "Reading as Reasoning," Edward Thorndike noted that "it is in their outside reading of stories and in their study of geography, history, and the like that many school children really learn to read." Unfortunately, what Thorndike observed in 1917 has been replaced with another view suggesting that content area teachers are not doing enough to support the literacy development of their students. We should abandon that narrative, which is one of blame, and replace it with dialogue that shows how the disciplines offer a sustainable approach to literacy instruction.

Most teachers recognize that using meaningful reading, writing, and discussion strategies improves thinking and learning. Yet, when there is discussion of embedding literacy instruction in school culture, teachers often think that this requires significant knowledge of early reading instruction (phonics, syllables, fluency, etc.) It may, but, more importantly, often it does not!

How we think about literacy has expanded considerably over the years so it now reflects the listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills necessary for the effective, even elegant, communication and construction of knowledge in any field. Likewise, our ideas of what constitutes "text" have also developed to include maps, images, blueprints, performance, and other media. These new ways of thinking about text position teachers to use the unique materials and resources of their own disciplines to support literacy instruction. So, our concerns about implementing seemingly contrived reading and writing activities in our classrooms may be a thing of the past.

Innovative and creative instruction using texts that are more unexpected may be one way to keep things "alive." For example, clips from the movie Money Ball have helped us illustrate the need to approach problems flexibly and demonstrate the importance of knowing which data are most helpful when making decisions. It's not a matter of data being available, but rather having the data that's needed. In another class, we ask students to analyze several pieces of artwork that depict life in the Middle Ages to create a story of the time period—one that is shaped and supported by the art—before diving into textbooks and other challenging sources.

Sowing in Rocky Soil

We ask teachers and administrators to rethink how they define a culture of literacy. If it's packaged as another initiative to improve reading and writing scores on mandated testing, it's not surprising when efforts to embed one type of literacy instruction in all classrooms meets resistance. This resistance can become entrenched when certain issues are not addressed: time, a disconnect between content and "strategy of the month" models, and whether teachers feel they have the adequate preparation to take on this work. Thus, a singular approach to literacy instruction is unsustainable.

The Intellectual Greening of Our Classrooms

What we need is a renewal of literacy practices across the curriculum that returns teachers to their comfort zones of content expertise. This is not about complacency; it's about starting from what we're already good at. In this way, the emphasis shifts from targeting basic reading skills to one where teachers model how mathematicians, scientists, or historians contribute to their respective fields by using the language and methods that are distinct from other subjects—an approach embraced by many literacy researchers. With this in mind, two core beliefs guide our work in middle school: (1) content knowledge is valuable and (2) share what you value.

Content Knowledge is Valuable
Knowing what something is should be as important as knowing what it's not. In the era of Common Core State Standards, teachers may feel the need to leapfrog over literal knowledge so they can focus on questions considered to require higher level thinking. Yet, no inference or analysis can stand up to scrutiny if there's a wobbly understanding of the facts. And, yes, there are facts; it's how we order, reveal, and interpret them that create a narrative. Based on this narrative, we make decisions and act for good or ill.

Our interactions with students over time create another narrative, one that tracks their learning and engagement. Class activities need to be dynamic so they motivate students to take on challenging texts and concepts. For example, one reading activity involves having each student articulate one piece of newly learned information—ideally from a reading, video, or experiment—in one sentence or even just a phrase that can be revised, further developed, or corrected by other members of the class (including the teacher). In most cases, this information will include discipline-specific vocabulary that reinforces students' awareness and understanding of it. Scribing the facts so all can see makes this process easier. While some facts might be duplicated, the goal is to develop a more comprehensive overview of a topic by having numerous and different statements. You can also see whether students have been distracted by an incredible statistic or an edgy detail that's not really pertinent. Rather than putting students or the teacher on the spot, this sort of activity shows that learning requires community, collaboration, and the need to revisit a text. Finally, developing a written summary together supports content-based writing instruction, especially with transitions and academic language, until students are more adept writers.

Share What You Value
Some of our colleagues have argued that the internet makes the need to establish information in long-term memory obsolete. While the web can provide nearly instantaneous access to the content students might include in projects and papers, seeing and having does not make an expert. Information may be a prerequisite for knowledge, and students need to engage with the information they collect (or are given) every day in every classroom if they are to become knowledgeable.

Not Just Alive, but Thriving

One discussion-based activity that has worked well with our middle school students is called an "Exercise in Credibility." It allows us to learn what students believe is pertinent in relation to their understanding of topics, issues, and circumstances. It's straightforward and quick but reveals a lot about what students know, as well as their misconceptions. For example, a health teacher might pose the following query: "Being immunized for certain diseases means that you: _____." Typical student responses to this stem might include:

"won't get sick."
"might have a bad reaction."
"can show the school you're healthy."
"won't spread germs that are bad."

These stems quickly supply the teacher with information that shows students' understanding of facts related to different topics within a subject and what those facts could suggest or mean. We have found that stems specifically addressing content have led to discussions of how evidence is needed to support claims. Finally, this "Exercise in Credibility" is nearly limitless in its adaptation to multiple subjects. It can also help students argue effectively. For instance, in a social studies class, students might read Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address and respond to: "An effective leader is/does …" In math, a teacher can prompt: "To solve for x in 2 + 3x = 8, you must …" In physical education, a teacher can check students' knowledge of what different positions require after watching a soccer match: "Being a striker means …" Of course, these are just starting points. Teachers can make stems as sophisticated or text-based as they wish.

We do recognize that knowing something, however, doesn't mean you can put the information into practice. As Joe himself points out, "I know what a curve ball is but couldn't hit it and definitely can't throw one!" So, our primary goal with this user-friendly strategy is to jump-start thinking, discussion, and writing especially among students who are hesitant to participate.

Reaping What You Sow

Creating a vibrant literacy culture stems from knowing and valuing how each discipline can contribute to a student's overall development. Only then do we facilitate content area study, enable students to more fully participate in the classroom, and allow them multiple ways of demonstrating learning over time. Like soaking seeds the night before planting, subject-specific literacy practices prime students to learn more material, more quickly, and with the lasting understanding that sustains them.

Regine Randall, Ph.D., is coordinator of graduate reading at Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Joseph Marangell is the social studies instructional leader for East Haven Public Schools in East Haven, Connecticut.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Regine Randall, Joseph Marangell
Number of views (1485)/Comments (1)/
Educating Students for the Future through a Strong Reading Program

Educating Students for the Future through a Strong Reading Program

Reading programs help identify and provide intervention for struggling readers

Most of us go into education because we care about children and about the world. We want to help our children be the best they can be and reach their fullest potential. Reading is the most basic skill that we help our students develop. Knowing how to read helps students be successful and provides a means of entertainment. When we teach our children to read well and to love reading, we open doors for them through which they can gain knowledge, understand the world, become lifelong learners, and go places they may never physically visit. Reading helps develop critical thinking, creative problem solving techniques, and an understanding of other people and cultures.

Research reveals that adolescents who struggle with reading typically bring a frustration and failure in reading with them to the middle school level. They do not reach middle school and suddenly develop a reading block. As middle school teachers who often do not get training in teaching reading, we need to work with primary grade teachers and develop inventive ways to address their needs. In this collegial effort, we will help them overcome their struggles and frustrations. Some key ways that we can help them is to develop learning clubs and literature circles and to implement a program that will help track their progress. By tracking their progress, we can identify their struggles and provide intervention.

Learning Clubs

Learning clubs help students by placing them with peers who will help them. This is very much like peer tutoring but takes place in a structured group that studies specific topics. When we use learning clubs, it is important to balance teacher direction and facilitation so students are working together to solve problems, discover new information, or gain a deeper understanding of concepts. It is not unusual to hear students exclaim, "Oh, I get it now!" or "Wow, that is so cool!"

Learning clubs are helpful in content areas such as social studies and science. One way that we used learning clubs was to implement a program that required students to produce a quality project. Because quality projects require working across the curriculum, it is important to make sure students with various abilities are grouped together. Students use their research skills to find information on the topic, writing skills to formulate the content of the project to meet project guidelines, art skills to illustrate and make models of the topic, technology skills to develop web pages or slide presentations, communication skills to share their information in a way that ensures that all members of the group understand the final product, and social skills so they can work together as a unit.

Literature Circles

Literature circles are primarily helpful in language arts, however, they can be useful in other content areas when novels are appropriate to help develop a real life understanding of content. Adolescents can read novels to help them understand human conditions and relationships that are part of their culture and world. Novels help them identify with emotions they are feeling and develop an understanding of the impact emotions have on society. We read novels that portray struggles that adolescents may have and provide time for them to discuss the struggles in their literature circle followed by whole-class discussion. Because they realize that what they are thinking and feeling is not so different from many others, the feelings of isolation that plague adolescents are minimized.

Literature circles can be organized in a couple of ways. Students can choose a book that they want to read with their group, much like a book club. This approach gives students a sense of ownership in the process. When our school does this, we provide a list of possible books to expedite the selection process. Students often read a novel that they would not have chosen on their own and are amazed at how much they enjoyed reading the book. As they read and discuss the book, "I didn't think of that, but it makes a lot of sense" is a common reaction. Sharing the novel with peers through discussion and analysis often leads them to exclaim "That was the best book I've ever read!" as they conclude the novel.

Intervention for Struggling Readers

One of the biggest impediments for learning clubs and literature circles is the struggling adolescent reader. According to research, cognitive engagement is important for adolescents who struggle with reading. Early intervention is not always enough. According to Moreau (2014), many students need intensive instruction throughout their educational career to prevent them from falling further and further behind. If teachers are willing and able to help them, struggling middle school students want to be engaged and improve. One way to help these students is to use a system that identifies their weaknesses and provides intervention.

In one example, a highly intelligent middle school student did very well in sixth grade, but in seventh grade he began to slip behind and exhibit uncharacteristically low performance. His teachers consulted a reading specialist who offered to interview him. As part of the interview, she had the student read a passage to her. Noticing that he skipped words and entire lines, she questioned him about the text. He told her that while reading, the words "just disappeared." He noticed them under the line he was reading, but when he got to the line they were in, the words were gone. She recommended that he see an eye specialist who diagnosed him with sight tracking deficit. His teachers had never heard of the condition, but the eye specialist had seen it before and knew how to work with the student to provide intervention that helped correct the problem.

Some students struggle because they have poor phonetic development or comprehension skills. These adolescents are at high risk for giving up and failing to complete high school. Having a program that can identify struggles and track progress helps these students become more confident readers, increasing the likelihood that they will be successful in high school and beyond.


Research indicates that because struggling readers read less they continue to fall further and further behind. According to Moreau (2014), this will follow them into adulthood. If we can teach them to read across many interests, they have a better chance at becoming a lifelong reader.

The students we have in our classrooms today will be the leaders of tomorrow. All of them have gifts and talents that can make the world a better place. Reading is one way for them to develop and use their gifts and talents as it builds their knowledge and self-esteem. As teachers, we can impact the future by helping struggling adolescent readers overcome the obstacles they encounter. As they overcome their struggles, they gain the confidence they need to share their knowledge, just as they share their insights in learning clubs and literature circles. What a joy it is to watch an adolescent flourish as they conquer their struggles and unmask their brilliance, gifts, and talents!


Moreau, L. (2014). Who's really struggling? Middle school teachers' perceptions of struggling readers. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 37(10),1-17.

Catherine A. Sharbel is a middle school science teacher at Holy Rosary Academy, Nashville, Tennessee.

Deborah Hayes, Ed.D. teaches at Carson-Newman University, Jefferson City, Tennessee.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Catherine A. Sharbel, Deborah Hayes
Number of views (898)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Reading
Exploring Web Comics

Exploring Web Comics

Examples of web comics and the implications to student readers

Some teachers may suggest that no text can replace the classics, the perennial list of books that English teachers seem to love and endearingly pass on to students year after year. However, the list of what belongs in the canon is in perpetual debate as "new classics" are discovered. Do we add Suzanne Collins? What about Walk Two Moons? Does Neil Gaiman make the cut?

Adding some mud to the waters of what makes a worthy text, online and picture-based reading offers a wide range of options. Web communities gather around fanfiction, as well as other topics of interest. Social media continues to be explored by students and teachers. Other students read comics fanatically, and still others participate in Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) and actually act out the events of stories they enjoy.

PitchBlank Comics defines graphic novels as "extended comics with limitless possibilities which have been steadily growing in popularity inspiring TV shows and movies." Comic book creator Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics, makes the case that graphic novels have their own art and kind of logic and language. Comic books seem to be making their way into classroom and school libraries more and more, and these texts exist in both print and electronic formats. Web comics take the picture and word experience of a graphic novel and transport them to online forums, allowing greater access to the stories they have to tell.

To participate in the learning process, students are expected to engage in school-based reading, usually involving print. However, not all text experiences are the same. Some reading practices involve traditional eye-to-paper textbooks, some require understanding of digital processing and navigation, and other forms of reading operate with texts plus images. Reading these days, it seems, is not just one simple practice with one approach, and it can all begin to sound fairly complicated. How do we possibly teach students the proper way to move through and function in all of these literacy experiences? Perhaps one answer is to be aware of some of the titles on the web that are readily available for students to practice with and engage in.


Mark Waid's web comic Insufferable plays with the idea of being an online comic book. When clicking to open the first issue, the reader is greeted with the static-filled and strained image of a character's face. This character addresses the audience with clear text, even though the image is distorted, and the words "Tap, Tap" indicate that the character is aware of a screen, a similar phenomenon to what the reader is encountering. A subsequent click reveals a more clarified image. In this way, the image, text, and medium work together simultaneously to act like a seamless narrative, while conveying a sense of self-awareness.

Frank Serafini, in his book Teaching the Visual, talks about the aspects of graphic novels and comic books, like the space between panels, and how these features create meaning. The gutter, or space, can translate to time that has passed, or changes in perspective. This works in a way that is similar to the breaks between chapters or some paragraphs in stories or novels. Serafini also discusses using still images to connect to moving images.

In the case of a graphic novel, the reader's eye may first travel to the words on the page to take in the written thoughts and narrative, or the reader may first focus on the images. Many readers who are not acquainted with comic books may find themselves reading the words first. The images may themselves be simple or complex, depending on the level of detail the author chose to include. Images may exist in color, which carries a whole array of possible meanings, or they may be rendered in black and white. These choices of color may also indicate time. In the case of a web comic, images and words sometimes appear in a sequence, calibrated to the order the author intended the audience to see them.

A reader, for instance, may click once and be presented with an initial image and set of words. A subsequent click may add a response or extension to the original phrase. Aside from right to left directionality and title page to last chapter reading practice, this brand of step-by-step revelation and understanding is not generally encountered in traditional prose texts. This interplay of the hidden and revealed can be employed to create a sense of tension, suspense, or even humor. In the case of a nonfiction text, large amounts of information can be broken down in similar fashion to the complementary nature of textbook features, such as graphs and charts found in science texts.

Insufferable makes use of this convention. On page 10 of the first issue, one panel is revealed, followed in successive clicks with additional panels to progressively unveil the action. The page number changes as the reader clicks through, and there is a similar "uncovering" experience on page 21 of the same issue. Scott McCloud also provided a timeline comic example with Zot! The reader navigates the web comic by dragging the cursor down and a thin blue line connects each frame of the comic. Some panels are smaller, while others are more extended. The reading experience has a similar sense of progress, since the reading is dependent on the movement of the cursor to access the full scope of the story.

Undead Alice

Many graphic novels and comic books appeal to mature readers; that being said, titles like Undead Alice may be suggested for older students. This particular web comic draws on a variety of media to create its message.

Web comics typically use images and words in complementary ways to deliver content, rather than pair inharmonious types of text to elicit emotions. The story a reader uncovers in a web comic is one story, composed of a number of words and images, and potentially includes sounds and film-like images.

Undead Alice uses images, text, and sound to tell its story. The reader must click on a double set of arrows to begin the text, which moves on its own in some instances, and in others depends on the interaction of the reader. The images contained in Inanimate Alice help create mood, tone, and convey a sequence of events, just like any traditional story would.

Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, details the ways graphic novels and comics send their messages, discussing the "invisible art" of the picture and text. The reader, according to McCloud, must participate and infer about the events of the narrative, as well as possible time boundaries, as the reader's eye moves from panel to panel.

Even the font a comics creator chooses can communicate an aspect of mood. In Undead Alice, images wipe on to the screen, some highly visible and some distorted. There is not one particular type of image that is found; photos, diagrams, and shadows work together, while text exists in combination with sound.

The Abominable Charles Christopher

On a decidedly lighter note, another web comic example is The Abominable Charles Christopher. Author Karl Kerschl has worked on a number of high interest character-based comic books, such as Gotham Academy and Teen Titans, two DC Comics, as well as Assassin's Creed, based on the popular video game. This text actually works more like a traditional comic strip than the other web comics explored so far, and some issues are largely wordless. These mostly wordless examples are ripe for opportunity; students can provide captions, word balloons, or write about what they think is happening in the comic strip, citing evidence from the text to support their responses. Wordless picture books are another source of this kind of student work.

The main character of The Abominable Charles Christopher is a young sasquatch, and the comic strip follows his adventures in the forest. Kerschl has been posting sections of the story since 2007 and, as of this writing, the comic strip has continued with updated work. A variety of creatures, including birds, bees, and deer serve as supporting characters for Charles Christopher's story.


Hopefully, these descriptions show that web comics work on a variety of levels. There is a potential appeal for readers of graphic novels and comic books, as well as an appeal to middle school students interested in digital media. A little exploring on the part of a thoughtful teacher will render many different results, and a process of weeding through will help educators determine which texts are appropriate for their students and which are not. Ultimately, students can build dialogue around the complex nature of the readings and potential connections can be made to those classic works that normally may elicit a groan from reluctant readers.

Reading these days, after all, can take on a variety of forms and work in a variety of ways, depending on genre.

Jason D. DeHart taught language arts for eight years. He is currently working on his PhD in literacy studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He teaches graduate courses in reading and writing across the curriculum and research methods at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Jason D. DeHart
Number of views (737)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Reading
Creating Independent Readers

Creating Independent Readers

Independent reading assignments do not make students independent readers. Here are ways you can foster students on the journey to being independent readers

The words "independent reading" should bring celebration, right? Somehow, a confluence of amazing events has occurred that has brought a student to a point in life where she is reading! However, indulge me on the topic, and let me draw your attention to a tiny little difference that is worth a column of discussion: independent reading, as an assigned, teacher-directed activity is very different than a child who is an independent reader. A truly independent reader is one who chooses not only what to read, but also which strategies to use, how to respond to the reading, and the autonomy to decide if a particular choice is worthy of continuing. This is opposed to the independent reading, which is done on your own (but frequently with a hovering authority figure nearby).

Most teachers would agree, and research supports, that reading on your own is a part of the journey towards becoming an independent reader. However, by the time many students reach middle school, with years of forged reading logs lying in wake, teaching reading can be a daunting task, and often one that teachers don't feel qualified for, as we are mostly not specifically trained for it. Despite these obstacles, there are several ways to foster independent readers. Here are a few that any teacher can try:

Choice in What to Read

The more choices a student has, the more authentic the reading experience will be. Students should be provided opportunity to choose what they read. If a student wants to read all of the Harry Potter series, far be it from me to stop him. The great benefit of the internet is that a quick Google search of "non-fiction about Harry Potter" yields a wide variety of ideas for exploration and extension on topics such as the science of Harry Potter, witchcraft, boarding school culture, and fashion. Offer students a menu of non-fiction options, but don't necessarily force it on the child. The more interesting and enticing the selections are, the more likely they'll want to delve into them.

Choice in Strategies

Direct instruction of reading strategies, preferably using authentic text that are used across the curriculum, will help students understand that not only are reading strategies portable, but also effective in helping them in all subject areas. Too often, kiddos compartmentalize and only use reading strategies when they are in an ELA class. We should give students as many strategies as possible because all readers aren't the same. I don't enjoy any strategy that artificially disrupts the flow of reading. I personally prefer pre-reading activities like "skim and scan" for unfamiliar words ahead of time. However, this might not be effective for others. Forcing students to use a specific reading strategy, particularly if a student is already a proficient reader, can turn students off to reading altogether. This, in fact, is the number one reason students in my classes say that they no longer enjoy reading.

Choice in How to Respond

This one is always tricky, but unless you are specifically interested in teaching students how to write an essay, that might be the least effective way to engage students in reading. This is not to say that my students don't write literary responses—they do—but it is to suggest that there isn't a necessity to do so. If students want to create a podcast, make a webpage, write a series of poems, or stage a recorded conversation that they then send to me, I encourage them to do so. After all, how many of us take quizzes on our reading to see if we "got it"? Instead, we engage in book clubs, have conversations with our friends, or write fan fiction.

Reading instruction has its place, obviously, but I'm challenging you to look at planning to create independent readers instead of assigning independent reading assignments.

Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher and the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Amber Chandler
Number of views (1136)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Reading
During Reading Response: Double-Entry Journals

During Reading Response: Double-Entry Journals

This technique encourages students to read closely and discover and record text evidence

Much of the writing we assign students is public writing: writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase comprehension of texts in all disciplines. In a 2010 report by the Carnegie Corporation, the #1 core instructional practice effective in improving student reading is to "have students write about the texts they read." Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the fourth in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

After teaching readers to write their thoughts as they read, and by using response starters, it is advantageous to teach them to respond in double-entry journals. A double-entry journal, also known as a dialectical journal, is basically a T-chart. On the left, readers choose something they find provocative or notable from the text—a sentence, phrase, quote, fact, term, a new word, or, in a novel, a character, a setting, or a plot element. On the right, readers record their personal responses—questions, inferences, insights, connections, predictions, evaluations, reflections—to the text. This works as well in fiction and nonfiction, in English/language arts (ELA), and in disciplinary classes. The two columns can be headed with such terms as From the Book—From My Brain or The Text Says—I Say or as simple as Text—Thoughts. Figure 1 shows two journal entries from The Giver.

Figure 1

The advantage of a double-entry journal is that the teacher can see exactly what the reader is responding to and, in discussions, readers can remember exactly what they were referring to. This is especially effective when students are independently reading different texts.

Double-Entry Journals in the Disciplines

Double-entry journals can be employed in any discipline. Figure 2 shows the beginning of a student's double-entry journal based on the National Geographic article "Guardians of the Grizzly."

Figure 2

In social studies class, John, an eighth grader, responded to a chapter in the History Alive! The United States textbook. He labeled the type of response he made: a question, a prediction, and a text-to-text connection, a metacognitive exercise in which students could ascertain if they were utilizing a variety of reading strategies in their reading and responding. See his responses in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Besides ELA, science, social studies, and health classes, double entry-journals can be employed to track thoughts as students review math problems. In Figure 4 a student begins to think about a problem. In Figure 5 a student shows how she solved a problem and her thinking while working on it.

Figure 4
Figure 5

Teachers can design their own forms—from simple to more complex—to elicit the type of information and response desired. Some examples are included in Figures 6-8.

Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8

If the class is reading a whole-class text, teachers may want to provide general topics on the left (see Figures 6 and 7) or have students fill in a particular quote or fact in the upcoming reading on which they want students to reflect. It is as interesting to observe what readers choose to respond to as how they respond, and it is important to teach readers to read not only critically but independently.

Introducing Double-Entry Journals

As with introducing any new strategy in the classroom, the teacher should first connect learning to previous learning. Teachers can refer to Response Starters (AMLE Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4) to remind students how to journal their reflections rather than merely writing retellings. The teacher can also refer to Marginal Notes (AMLE Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 1), a response strategy that can serve as an introduction to double-entry journals. The facts or information underlined for marginal notes are what the reader would copy into the left column of their dialectical journal, and the corresponding marginal note or code would be translated into language and expanded by employing a response starter.

Teachers should model completing a double-entry journal with think-alouds in front of students, responding to a text with which the students are familiar, such as "Casey at the Bat," a poem frequently known to middle school students and quickly read and discussed, or, in content areas, a text recently read (see Figure 9).

Figure 9

The students next rehearse a double-entry response in pairs as a guided practice with the remainder of the same poem or text or another simple poem or short article and then they are ready to respond to their whole-class, small group, or independent reading.

Double-Entry Journals for Book or Text Club Discussions

Double-entry response journals are particularly effective for book club discussions. Assigning readers jobs—Discussion Leader, Illustrator, Character Critic, Quote Monger, Vocabulary Finder, etc.—can lead readers to reading merely for the purpose of their jobs, employing narrow reading strategies and little analytical thinking about what they read. It also presents a problem when significant job-holders, such as the Discussion Leaders, are absent. Designing response journals tailored to elicit critical thinking and employing multiple reading strategies produces deep conversations in book club meetings.

When reading novels about the events of 9/11, students brought their completed journals (a choice of Figure 10 or 11) to their book club meetings and easily held 20-minute conversations, referring frequently to their journals.

Figure 10
Figure 11

In response to his first reading of Eleven by Tom Rogers, Paxton wrote,

"You didn't say which rules."

Alex has a sharp tongue and A-Dawg does not like to be told what to do. This may also be another reason for not having a dog since it falls under responsibilities for communication and listening to his parents.

Reading Nine, Ten by Nora Raleigh Baskin, Sara copies the quote from the teacher in the novel,

"This has nothing to do with us."

How could a teacher say that when the plane hit the Towers? It does have to do with them. It had to do with all Americans, especially the people in New York.

Also a member of the Nine, Ten book club, Lourdes reacted to the introduction of Naheed:

That's so weird, isn't it?" "What's weird? "Her." Naheed was used to it. Being looked at. She was used to being asked if she was wearing a costume."

Sergio and the red-headed boy are pointing at Naheed. She is wearing a cloth over her head.

In the story Naheed is stared at and questioned because she is a Muslim. I feel bad for her because everyone should be treated equally.

Maddy's book club read Just a Drop of Water by Kelly O'Malley Cerra, and she notes the quote on page 238 that led to the title:

"Even one small drop of water can make a ripple in a giant ocean."

To me, this means that the smallest person can make the biggest effect on something.

When readers shared what they responded, other book club members chimed in with their observations, and conversations stayed on topic as each added their ideas to what a member had noted.


Double-entry response is valuable because it requires that readers notice and respond to specifics in a text—an idea, fact, quote, character, or even an author's craft. This strategy encourages students to read closely and helps them create more effective essays and arguments by discovering and recording text evidence. In this way, students will become proficient at reading to develop a thesis rather than reading to support a thesis. Double-entry response is effective for formative assessment because teachers can ascertain what stood out as important to readers and how critically readers were thinking as they read.

Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Georgia Southern University in Savannah. Lesley has published four professional books for educators: The Write to Read: Response Journals that Increase Comprehension; Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed—The Sentences They Saved; No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect; and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. She is Editor of Connections, the journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. The ideas in this column were based on The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin Press, 2009).

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (741)/Comments (0)/
Reader Response in All Disciplines

Reader Response in All Disciplines

Scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching reader response strategies before, during, and after reading

Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase their comprehension of texts in all disciplines. The 2000 report of the National Reading Panel states, "Teaching students to use…writing to organize their ideas about what they are reading is a proven procedure that enhances comprehension of the text." Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, a report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation (2010), listed that the #1 core instructional practice effective in improving student reading is to "have students write about the texts they read." Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the third in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

During Reading Response: Using Marginal Notes

During-reading response is defined as response students write while they are reading a text. Effective responses should demonstrate that readers are exploring, questioning, and challenging text; visualizing; and making connections, inferences, and predictions to construct meaning from text. However, response should not disrupt or sabotage the reading. Therefore, marginal notes work well for all students, especially reluctant writers, and takes little time away from the reading and discussion of a text. Marginal notes work especially well with informational texts of all types in all disciplines.

The reasons to employ reader response are twofold: for teachers to be able to see what and how students are reading and to guide readers to interact with text and, in that way, increase their comprehension. When readers are trained to mark marginal notes as they read, it fulfills both purposes.

When students read informational text, reading is most interactive and effective when readers consider the facts or statements they are reading:

I knew this (activating prior knowledge)
This is a new idea or a surprising fact (noting something new or novel to consider)
This is shocking (an idea that might go against what would normally be believed or accepted)
I have a question about this or this is confusing to me (noting where additional information or clarification is wanted or needed)
This may be important (noting details that seem important or appear that they may become important to understanding the text as a whole)
I agree with this (noting when something makes sense or fits what is already known)
I disagree with this (possibly based on something previously learned or read through other venues)
I want to know more about this (a topic for further research or reading)
I can make a connection (between the text and experiences the reader has had; between the text and another print, literary, audial, or visual text; or between the text and something going on in the world)

The teacher, or the class together, can assign logos—simple, easy-to-draw, and easy to remember symbols—to each statement, such as

As students read an informational text, they highlight or underline a fact or detail and note a logo in the margin.

Introducing Marginal Notes

It is most effective to introduce readers to the concept of marginal notes by introducing and employing three logos with a text, such as an article, and when the students are familiar with those three, adding two more and then two more, until they are employing all logos as marginal notes to show their thinking. To begin, the easiest logos as marginal notes are

To introduce the concept, the teacher should share an article she has read, highlighting certain statements. The teacher demonstrates what she is thinking when she reads the statement or fact and chooses what logo she is placing in the margin.

The teacher then can progress to a Guided Practice; the students read an article and stop at the same place, underlining the statement, and placing the appropriate logo in the margin. For example, the teacher projected an article from Scholastic magazine. The article began with a statement that the teacher highlighted, "You have probably heard—or even sung—America's national anthem at a baseball game." The teacher stated that she would mark the logo that showed her thinking and the students were to highlight that same statement in their copies of the article and each write the logo that showed their thinking.

The teacher explained that she knows that the national anthem is played at baseball games so she placed a √ in the margin. Some students who did not play or watch baseball wrote down an ! because, to them, this was a new fact. One student said he knew the anthem was played on televised games but wondered if it was played at all games; he wrote down a ?. Another student wondered if the national anthem was always sung or sometimes just the music was played, and therefore, he wrote down a ? also.

As an independent practice, an article was distributed and students were asked to read the article; highlight 10 facts, details, or statements; and mark the logos that show their thinking in the margins. Teachers may ask students to highlight one fact or statement per paragraph or three from the first third of the text, three from the second third, and three from the last third to be certain that students read the entire article. The number of facts can be altered for different students for differentiation.

A seventh grade science class read an article on climate change:

An eighth grade ELA class reading the novel Of Mice and Men also read an article about "Growing Up on the Steinbeck and Hamilton Ranches in the 1920s and 1930s." Three of the six students marked the last sentence as * to show a detail they each thought to be important.

In response to facts in an article about Kristallnacht in a social studies class, the students who marked the most statements as "√ I knew that," explained that they had read novels on the Holocaust in ELA classes or on their own.

Marginal Notes as Formative Assessment

While the students are reading and making their marginal notes, the teacher can walk around and quickly glance at the margins of papers, getting a feeling about how well the students know the material— if most of the material is already known, if all the material is new, or if they are questioning the material or are confused by it. The logos should be written in the margins (hence, "marginal" notes) so the teacher can walk around and see what types of reactions students are having to the articles and to what areas in the article they are reacting, and also so the students can quickly find them for discussion purposes.

This is a quick formative assessment allowing the teacher to note if he needs to provide more background knowledge before the text is discussed, or, on the other hand, if most students are jotting down many checkmarks, the teacher may inquire why so many students know about the subject and might find that they studied this topic in another grade or read a novel about this topic in the former grade. The teacher can then adjust his teaching. If there are a lot of questions, this text might lead to additional reading.

Using Marginal Notes to Generate Class Discussions

After students have independently read the text and marked notes in the margins, they first go back and cross out any question marks for questions that were answered by the end of the text. They can then be instructed to move into small groups and discuss what they knew, what they each learned, and what questions they still have as a group; groups can analyze if they had more questions or more new information or more "already-knowns." They use their marginal notes as a basis for their discussion and to build and extend their conversations, discussions that can go in multiple, diverse directions.

It is much easier to generate a discussion when students have their notes in front of them and, looking at the logos, they can remember where they had questions and what facts were new to them. They can explain why they placed a check near a fact. Their notes give them something concrete to discuss. If students have questions in common that the text didn't answer, they can form inquiry groups based on their questions and collaboratively conduct an inquiry.

After small-group discussion, students can individually choose one underlined fact and copy it in their journals and explain and expand their thinking about that fact.

Teachers have found classes to be more engaged with reading informative texts and deeper, more expansive discussions to be generated with more student participation when using the marked-up texts. Students enjoy comparing what they thought while they were reading with others. In this way, marginal notes lead to increased comprehension of text.

Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah. Lesley has published four professional books for educators and is editor of Connections, the journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. The ideas in this column were based on The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin Press, 2009).

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2018.

Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (1732)/Comments (0)/
Duct Tape and Pom-Poms

Duct Tape and Pom-Poms

Engaging middle school learners in metaphoric thinking through self-expressive prompts

Everyday Leadership Object Prompt A
Please take a few minutes to think about characteristics of leaders you know and respect. Then choose an object from the table that represents a quality or characteristic you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates why you chose the object and how it represents a leadership quality you value.

"I chose the duct tape because it reminds me of someone who is willing to solve problems. It might not always look pretty, but if it works, then who cares? Usually, duct tape is something you have around, so it doesn't cost a lot of extra money to solve the problem at least temporarily. You can buy time to look at other ways to solve the problem more permanently. I admire leaders who problem solve, not just spend all their time talking about the problem. My grampy is like that, he's a fixer, and I think he's a great leader in our family."
—Josiah, a 7th grade student

"Pom-poms. Pom-poms, because I think a leader needs to be like a cheerleader. They need to cheer others on and encourage them to get involved. Our cheering coach tells us that our role is to get as many people in the stands involved in the game as possible. I think that's what good leaders do. They want as many people to be involved as they can get. Plus, good leaders are positive and encouraging."
—Emma, a 7th grade student

Every time I engage middle school learners in a symbolic representation activity such as the one briefly described above, I am wowed by their insightful answers, especially compared to the answers I typically get if I alternatively word the prompt like this:

Everyday Leadership Prompt B
Please list qualities or characteristics you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates one of the leadership qualities you value.

Purposefully Planning Questions/Prompts

Planning a few well-designed questions or prompts (such as prompt A) to elicit higher-order thinking as well as to promote varied skills of the middle school learner has the potential to vastly improve student learning. I first learned of questioning in style through the work of Silver, Strong, and Perini and their application of Carl Jung's work. They introduced the idea of mastery, interpersonal, understanding, and self-expressive learners and asserted the need to pose questions, prompts, and learning tasks from the various quadrants. I since have come to see the work not so much from a learning style perspective but from that of different thinking skills. Dr. Robert Marzano and Dr. John Hattie's work on high-impact teaching and learning strategies has provoked me to re-examine the quadrants from a thinking and doing perspective. Figure 1 depicts the types of thinking learners are asked to do in each of the quadrants, the kinds of questions posed, and the high-impact strategies associated with each (as represented by the effect sizes from Marzano and Hattie's research). Note that typically, the larger the decimal, the greater the impact on student learning.

Figure 1. Different Types of Prompts

Purposefully planning prompts that engage learners in different types of thinking improves engagement by a wider majority of young adolescents. In addition, purposefully posing questions or prompts to all students in the various quadrants encourages all learners to develop thinking and processing skills across the styles.

Analyzing My Questions, Prompts, and Learning Tasks

When I first learned of the application of Carl Jung's work to questioning and prompts, I decided to analyze my units of study and associated tasks and questions through this lens. I was startled to discover that I did not provide many, or often any, opportunities for self-expressive thinking within my integrative units. I asked lots of "what," "why," "how come," and "so what" questions but rarely asked "what if" questions. Rarely, if at all, did I think to pose questions that asked students to think metaphorically or to consider "what if" possibilities or to express their knowledge using alternate analogies or modes of articulating their thinking. Sure, I encouraged learners to demonstrate their understanding through a variety of creative means, such as multi-media presentations, written papers, songs, oral presentations, and drawings, but I did not weave ongoing opportunities for them to practice thinking metaphorically during the learning. I clearly missed opportunities for my self-expressive learners to share their unique ways of thinking about and linking concepts and ideas, and just as important, I missed ongoing opportunities to help all students develop their metaphoric thinking skills across varied content and curricula.

As a result of new knowledge and an analysis of my own teaching practices, I began a mission to provide more opportunities for my learners to develop skills around metaphoric and divergent thinking.

Developing Metaphoric Thinking

Like any other worthy learning task, modeling and scaffolding are requirements for success. I often begin a symbolic or metaphoric thinking prompt with a sentence starter for those who need it.

________ (object) reminds me of _______ (quality or characteristic)

because __________.

Learners share their thinking with a partner and, whenever possible, do a "whip" around the room, where they share with the larger community of learners. This activity allows some of my learners who may not be engaged with other types of prompts to shine. The whip around also provides multiple models of metaphoric and divergent thinking for all learners.

In addition to scaffolding, modeling, and interpersonal engagement, symbolic/object representation activities such as the one I have described provide a tangible object for those who need to interact with something in a tactile way.

In order to encourage metaphoric thinking beyond the object prompt, I regularly provide self-expressive exit tickets or reflection prompt choices. Other times, learners are invited to explore "what if" questions or to provide an alternate way of thinking about the topic.

Self-Expressive Reflection Example
Was today's work session more like a soccer match, watching a beautiful sunset, riding a bike, writing a poem, climbing a mountain, or playing a video game? Please explain your thinking.

Benefits and Results

Without exception, every time I have engaged learners in this type of thinking task, an emotional reaction occurs in the learning environment. "Oh, that's so clever." "I never would have made that connection." Those engaged in the metaphoric activity recognize that this is different thinking and are impressed by the connections their peers make. The connections made are most often ones that the learners would have never thought about if they had not engaged in the learning task.

The more learners practice metaphoric thinking through the use of objects and symbols, the more common it becomes for them to engage in this type of thinking without objects being present. Examples in classroom discussions and in writing change. Learners begin to use analogies to explain relationships, connections, and abstract ideas. Language becomes more colorful, more vivid, and more engaging.

I encourage learners to listen and watch for examples of metaphoric thinking in the books they read, the movies they watch, the music they listen to, and the conversations they hear. One middle school colleague I am privileged to know has her students tweet examples; for those who do not tweet, she has a Twitter bulletin board where examples get posted.

This is not merely a literacy exercise in rich word choice, although I will be the first to acknowledge that the metaphors are often poetic and artistic in delivery and composition. This is divergent thinking coupled with comparative thinking—a sophisticated and challenging way of thinking about how unlikely items or ideas are similar. Comparative thinking is often a precursor to evaluative thinking and decision-making. Self-expressive questions and tasks push learners into deeper thinking beyond surface recall or surface level analysis, asking them to imagine or create something new.

Middle Level Educators and Symbolic Representation Activities

After having spent a decade in the middle school classroom, I had the privilege of becoming a middle school administrator and now a faculty member in an educational leadership program at a university. I carry two baskets of varied objects with me everywhere I go so I can engage educators in symbolic representation activities to promote metaphoric thinking. Their responses are stunning and insightful. They articulate how "hard" the task is and how it stretches their thinking. They are delighted by their peers' responses. They inevitably try the task with their own learners and come back to meetings or classes excited to share their experiences with young learners engaging in this type of thinking.

So, go ahead. Grab a basket or a recyclable shopping bag and begin filling it with an eclectic assortment of items or photos. Present it to your learners with an invitation for them to think metaphorically. Be prepared to be awed by their insightful responses.

Anita Stewart McCafferty, Ed.D. is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine and co-director of the Southern Maine Partnership.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.
Author: Anita Stewart McCafferty
Number of views (5779)/Comments (0)/
Authentic Audience, Wonderful Writing

Authentic Audience, Wonderful Writing

A teacher's guide to planning a high-interest, engaging writing project

Three years ago an eighth grade class of mine had a blog project called "Dear Terrorist" where students researched their topics and wrote letters to anyone considering (or participating in) a decision that could harm themselves or others. One girl wrote an open letter to anyone seriously considering suicide. A month later I got an email from a suicidal teen who claimed my student's letter had got her thinking and stopped her from killing herself! The message brought me to tears and made me think: This is about as authentic and meaningful as writing can get! I often use this example at the beginning of a writing project when I know the culminating goal is to produce a published work for an authentic audience. Though this life and death anecdote is exceptional, my experience in teaching writing through publishing has helped me develop some useful tent poles in leading students to create powerful writing.

Motivation First

Whether it's a persuasive letter, essay, memoir, or short story, I emphasize to students that their writing will be published (online and in print) with thousands of potential readers. Perhaps skeptical at first, they believe me when they see prior examples of writing and video projects. Blogs don't excite them all that much, but knowing that a book will be for sale on usually does. Realizing that they'll have a printed book and a "real" audience initially sparks their attention, yet students still require a deeper sense of purpose to truly motivate the substance of their writing. Typically, this means the writing topic should both pique their interest and somehow connect to the real world and to the interests of their intended audience whether fiction or non-fiction. For example, my most recent writing project with eighth graders was called The Letter Project. The purpose was to write a persuasive, essay-style letter to someone famous or influential who the student felt could affect positive change if nudged in the right direction. The idea was that if Donald Trump or Miley Cyrus didn't actually read their letters, then at least an online audience would get the message. Framing the project this way also allowed for considerable student choice and voice as they could pick any figure (from a celebrity icon to the Korean Minister of Education!) and discover their own persuasive style along the way.

Part of what helps motivate or inspire my students is that as their teacher, I too am writing for an audience. This can be replicated by other teachers and done on various levels. By doing the assignment yourself—a common and recommended practice—teachers can better understand the obstacles and pitfalls of the work and use it as a model (ideally open for critique and feedback as well). Thus, the teacher's audience becomes the student's and perhaps colleague's. I usually do this step, and it tends to pay dividends in student learning by showing students that writing is a process and needs continual refinement and by giving students a strong exemplar to work from. I must also admit another advantage that I personally have in the classroom: I have published a young adult novel that my students are familiar with (through me, not any bestseller lists!). Perhaps it helps motivate them if they view me as an authentic writer, but my author aura (if any ever existed) likely fades within the first week of class. In the long run, it's not my published work but the intrinsic motivating factors that move students forward with enthusiasm for the project.

It Starts with Reading

The best writers seem to agree: Good writing starts with good reading. Thus, in my class, a writing project begins with reading great models in the same genre. If we're writing short stories, we'll read and analyze Hemingway, Chekov, and Shirley Jackson; if memoirs, we look at excerpts of Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Malala, and Malcolm X. I also bring out former student work and something I've written for the students to critique and practice giving feedback. This portion of the prewriting process could last a few days or a few weeks. During this time, we ask questions about story elements, the author's voice, intention, audience, theme, characters, organization—all of the Common Core reading standards can be covered. Of course, all language arts teachers hit these standards throughout the year, but the difference is that the students are engaging these standards with a greater sense of purpose within the larger publishing project. They begin to ask: How will reading this make my writing better? Which author will I use as a model for my writing? What will my voice, theme, and organization be? How will it come across to the audience? These questions are not posted on my classroom wall. They emerge organically because all of the students know that their stories will be in a printed book that's sold on Amazon. It becomes a big deal, and some students even begin to see stars and dream of dollar signs! In most cases, the letter grade (extrinsic motivation) becomes secondary, and their pride in publishing a quality story (intrinsic) becomes the primary goal.

Bad First Drafts and Good Feedback

It's difficult to write and perhaps even harder to share your writing with a group of peers. So there has to be a protocol for giving feedback. I recommend dedicating a full class period to discussing bad first drafts. I begin with a warm up asking "What is difficult about writing?" After "pair-sharing," or however you prefer to spark discussion, we read and discuss Anne Lamott's Shitty First Drafts. If you teach young or sheltered kids, this brief excerpt can be photocopied and censored, but it usually initiates great conversations and reinforces the idea that good writing is crafted through revision and editing, not some mysterious inherent talent. Lamott's mindset gives students the courage to write and the idea that their first drafts will improve; they just need to stop thinking about it and write!

After students have had time to write their first draft, the writing workshops begin. Based on a common workshop seating arrangement, we move the desks into a large circle so all the students are facing each other. To relieve any tension or stress that students may have in sharing their work, I make anonymity an option, where I (or other volunteers) can read the work of other students. But before anyone starts sharing, I try to establish what Ron Berger calls the "Culture of Critique." I explain that writers don't want just any feedback; they want specific, quality feedback. While I encourage starting off with a positive comment, I clarify that saying "Good story, I liked it" might momentarily boost the writer's ego, but is not very helpful. On the other hand, commenting that a writing piece was "boring" or "sucked" isn't a critique; it's rude and hurtful. The emphasis is on giving helpful and specific feedback, which is what all writers want and need to improve. Then the class watches six minutes of video that has become akin to the Gospel in my classroom: "Critique and Feedback, The Story of Austin's Butterfly." Something about watching adorable second graders give quality feedback and commentary on student work gets middle and high schoolers to buy into the value of this critique method. It doesn't hurt that Austin's final draft turns out so remarkable! Ultimately, students see the value of quality feedback and are ready to critique knowing that the end goal is to create excellent, publishable writing. Student participation in the workshop increases not only because of authentic interest in the project, but also because they are familiar with the oral language and presentation strands of the Common Core standards and know that everything we do in class addresses these. Whole-class peer critique goes from being a dreaded and uncomfortable idea to a purposeful and valued part of the process.

The Peer Editing Funnel

Early in my teaching career, my mentor English teacher once told me that he never read a student's first draft. Flat out refused. I laughed, but he wasn't joking. He explained the funnel: workshop editing, peer editing, and gallery editing. The whole-class workshop editing helps get the big picture kinks out by sparking reflective questions that apply to all writers: Is the piece clear? Does it make sense? What is the theme? The intention? Is it effective? What's it missing? What needs to be cut? It might take two full class periods to get through every student, but keeping it down to five pieces of feedback per story and having students share only their first page makes it manageable and time efficient. The second round should be familiar to all English and humanities teachers: peer editing and revision. Students are given partners and they must closely check their peer's writing with a checklist and give detailed feedback. The last round of group editing is the gallery walk. Students print out their writing and post it on the wall. The class is instructed to pick a story to scan for final edits and quick fixes, then they rotate when cued. During the entire filtering process, I make sure to check in with each student individually or through commenting or suggesting changes on their shared Google doc. By the end of it all, students are usually impressed with how much their writing has improved through revision and editing—and most of it they've done through effective peer collaboration.

Early Finishers = Publishing Team

All teachers appreciate their self-starting, over-achieving students, but what do you do with them when they've finished light years ahead of everyone else? In this kind of writing project, they are assigned a leadership role in the publishing process. As part of the publishing team, they can become the chief editor, an editing team member, formatter, or cover designer. Perhaps they can even take on the role of event manager or lead marketer for a school library unveiling, book sharing event, or student exhibition. Once roles are allocated, I make sure that a few essentials are understood. First, a master Google Doc must be created for all the students to paste their final written work and for the editing team to scan as copy editors. Google Docs is an excellent tool for this task. Second, students in charge of design and formatting must acquaint themselves with the chosen online publishing platform like CreateSpace, Lulu, or Blurb, and watch related tutorials. Third, if students are keen on getting their books some real exposure, marketing teams can be formed to research and make a social media plan or plan local promotional events. By this phase, there is typically such a sense of purpose and an "authentic job" for each student that the project runs itself, and I can troubleshoot and help the struggling students with greater ease as we wrap it all up.


Aside from being authentic, this kind of writing project hits almost all the other education field buzzwords—differentiated instruction, peer collaboration, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning—while covering nearly all of the Common Core standards.

Students seem to genuinely enjoy collaborating and come to understand the value of editing. I won't pretend that every student ends up loving the writing process, but they definitely walk away respecting it, and have learned new strategies along the way. Lastly, I have described some of my favorite writing project plans, but there are many different options and websites that feature a long list of teachers' favorite authentic writing projects. It's amazing how much intrinsic motivation and inspiration comes to students who know that their work will be published online, printed, and ultimately reach an audience outside their school.


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Dominic Carrillo is an English language arts teacher at the Anglo-American School in Sofia, Bulgaria. He's the author of the YA novel The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.
Author: Dominic Carrillo
Number of views (4858)/Comments (1)/

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