Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making

by Mary Howard

On 4/20/17 #G2Great was honored to open our welcome door to guest hosts Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton as we explored their co-collaboration gem, What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (Heinemann 2012). From the opening tweet, it was evident that our #G2Great family wanted to be privy to what readers do. With our dynamic writing duo leading the way, we launched into a joyful exploratory venture Twitter style.

As I thought about the inspired chat dialogue, I realized that the same thing that motivated Dorothy and Vicki to write their book drove our collective enthusiasm. Through writing, they sought to understand the thinking students do in the course of their reading, motivated to ‘stalk the invisible’ for reasons reflected in a quote we shared at the beginning of the chat.

What Readers Really Do reads like a reflective diary of their efforts to confront this conflict. As the pages of their book unfold, we come to understand how they resolved their conflict through a thoughtful negotiation to new thinking that would ultimately change the way they approached reading. Through our shared conversational collaboration, we grew increasingly confident that their journey to new thinking would help us negotiate our own.

Since the book was motivated by troubling worries that may thwart our efforts to move toward new thinking, this seemed like a worthy place to start. Our first question asked teachers to name challenges they confront. Although challenges varied from texts to topics to mandates, each of these could be bundled under the umbrella of TIME! (This pesky challenge reared its ugly head on another #G2Great chat blog with Colleen Cruz)

Two early tweets from Dorothy and Vicki set the stage for tackling this issue by shifting our perspective from time as a challenge to time as an incentive. We still acknowledge time constraints we all face but adjust how we view time. We tackle this challenge by insisting on expending our precious available time in the most authentic and productive ways in spite of the inevitable challenges.

As I reflect on our remarkable #G2Great hour of wisdom with Dorothy and Vicki about what readers really do, the initial question becomes two-pronged:

What do readers really do and how can teachers create an environment that invites and nurtures readers to do those things with or without our support?

With this questions at the forefront of my mind, I perused tweets from Dorothy and Vicki and found that eight Big Ideas began to emerge. It is important to emphasize that each point is distinctive and yet inseparably interconnected. These Big Ideas can help us respond to the above question in ways that will move our collaboration from Twitter into the classroom:

Big Idea 1: Build a thinking bridge through modeling

In order to build a thinking bridge to independence, we begin by sharing the thinking that takes place as we read. By making our thinking public we are able to stalk our own invisible in order to make the invisible visible. Dorothy’s inclusion of the words “authentic” and “joyful” should be a reminder to us all to celebrate the authentic joyful spirit or reading and avoid reducing how we interact to student reading through a recipe of thoughtless sameness.

Big Idea 2: Start with the end in mind

An essential theme running throughout the book and tweets is the idea that we teach this thinking process so that students will eventually take ownership of that process. When our primary goal is to build identity and agency, we know that we must keep this goal in our sights from the beginning. We do this by offering support in the early stages but we are prepared to watch for the signs that will allow us to fade our support into the background as students assume increasing control of their own thinking.

Big Idea 3: Focus on building strategic knowledge

Making room for students to assume control of their own thinking is not about asking them to replicate our thinking. Rather, our thinking offers a supportive scaffold to help them construct their own meaning as they apply this process. This means that naming a strategy is far less relevant than helping them to be more intentional and strategic each time they engage in the thinking process. Over time and through practice, they will begin to internalize this thinking.

Big Idea 4: Be present in the teachable moment

In order to support the thinking students engage in, we must be willing to stalk their invisible in action. To do this, we must be present in students’ learning moments on a day-to-day basis so we can notice and celebrate the thinking that often happens when we least expect it. We adjust our stance from teacher to observer so that we can use our observations as stepping stones that will lead them to powerful new thinking opportunities in a wide range of varied text opportunities.

Big Idea 5: Celebrate the road to discovery

Teachers who are aware of their own thinking recognize that this process is a messy one. We know that the road to discovery can be littered with confusion, uncertainty, and possibility. Such a journey takes time so we must be willing to create experiences where students have time to linger a bit longer even when riddled with confusion, uncertainty, and possibility. This path Dorothy calls ‘huh’ to ‘oh’ is recursive rather than linear and so we support the unexpected twists and turns of thinking that can lead them from one discovery to another.

Big Idea 6: Use your noticings as next steps

We support this messy process as we become expert kidwatchers. Certainly our role as kidwatcher begins by noticing what students are doing as they read but we know that we must make them cognizant of our noticings. This allows us to support their efforts by exploring how we can use their reading to move them from where they are to where they could be. While increasing awareness of their own thinking as they read is an important part of this process, we know that awareness of NOW thinking must lead to purposeful NEXT thinking.

Big Idea 7: Gently nudge to new understandings

Noticing student thinking can help them take ownership of their own thinking if we are responsive to this process. We recognize that our responsibility is not to teach students to be compliant disseminators of knowledge by responding to preconceived answers but to pose genuine ponderings to help them to move to deeper thinking. Once we acknowledge their thinking we must then help them understand how they arrived at that thinking in the first place. This combined understanding moves them closer to agency, ownership, and independence.

Big Idea 8: Support a meandering path to meaning

When we acknowledge thinking as a process we must also acknowledge all that this implies. The dictionary defines process as a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. We do not view their thinking in terms of a product to be gathered at the end of reading but as a process to be supported each step along the way. Vicki celebrates this view by referring to thinking as a  process of drafting and revising. We expect thinking to grow or even change and so we nurture the winding path to understanding.


After the chat ended, a final tweet with Dorothy afforded me an opportunity to make a shameless book plug.

At #G2Great we see ourselves as professional cheerleaders committed to doing our best work for students. In the past few months, we have celebrated authors who share our passionate commitment to students. We spotlight their books at #G2great because we know their words have the potential to transform every classroom into the learning spaces our children deserve.

And thus my shameless plug. We don’t just celebrate new books at #G2Great because we worry that amazing books like What Readers Really Do may be missed simply based on a 2012 publication date. We are on a mission to put books, old and new, into teachers hands because the advice of amazing authors is truly “forever young.” But rather than taking my word for it, download a free chapter of this exquisite book also available as an ebook.

Thank you Dorothy and Vicki. Your words exemplify forever young and will continue to inspire us to do this important thinking work with our students now and in the future!

More thoughts from our #G2Great friends


What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (Heinemann)

Demystifying “the Process of Meaning Making” and Close Reading (Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris on What Readers Really Do)

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach by Vicki Vinton (Heinemann)

Readers Front and Center by Dorothy Barnhouse (Stenhouse)


Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low Stakes Writing with Ralph Fletcher

by Amy Brennan

On April 13, 2017 #G2Great welcomed Ralph Fletcher as a guest host to share ideas from his newest book, Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. In his book, Ralph invites us to take on what I believe to be the most important lens when it comes to writing. Ralph guides us by suggesting, “We must strive to see the writing curriculum through their eyes, as they experience it, from their points of view.” All too often we view the teaching of writing through our own perspective, making instructional decisions through that lens. If we stop and switch the lens to view the learning environment from our students’ eyes we can clearly see the essentials that lead to real growth in writing. Student-centered classrooms where students have autonomy and choice in writing open up opportunities for students to write about what is personal to them and the topics or issues that they are passionate about.

We began the chat with a discussion around critical characteristics of a student-centered writing classroom. Ralph reminded us of the importance of low stakes writing, and when you have the lens of the student, you realize how critically important it is to have students engage in writing in an environment where students do not feel high stakes pressure. They need to feel safe to take the risks that a writer takes as they play with language and grow their writing. Providing students with choice and time in order to engage in writing connected to their passions and interests creates the environment where students will experience the most growth.

When Ralph led us through a discussion around choice, he pointed out so many aspects of choice in writing that extend beyond the just choice of topic. Check out his tweets below and be inspired to create ways in your classroom to open up opportunities for increased autonomy.

I am especially intrigued by Ralph’s idea of inserting open cycles of writing in between our units of study. These open cycles provide students with a wider option of choice than what we generally allow and are beyond the topic choice. There is value to working in a shared unit of study, as a community studying a particular type of writing and learning together, however there is something so simple and appealing about dropping in an open-cycle between units. In this open cycle students choose topic, genre, audience and really everything in the writing process. Ralph urges us to see this is truly the way writers grow. Below you can see some of Ralph’s tweets on this topic and you can think a little bit more about why and how you might institute open cycles in your classroom.   


Stating with your core values, sustained writing – everyday. This essential ingredient is the one we must hold closest to us and never stray from. The time we dedicate to writing provides the time for students to engage in the writing process and grow as writers. Ralph tweeted that everything else after this is negotiable. This tweet really helped to send the message home. In this new book you will want to learn more about his new idea of “greenbelt writing,” a type of informal writing that is raw, unmanicured and uncurated. It is through this writing environment that Ralph shows us that students can demonstrate not only tremendous, but JOY in writing.

Ralph Fletcher Links

Joy Write (Heinemann)

The Heinemann Podcast: Ralph Fletcher on The Writing Workshop

The Heinemann Podcast: Joy Write with Ralph Fletcher

The Writer’s Desk: Ralph’s Blog

Feedback That Moves Writers Forward With Guest Host Patty McGee

by Jenn Hayhurst

On Thursday, April 6, 2017 #G2Great began a conversation with Patty McGee about her new book Feedback That Moves Writers Forward from Corwin Press. Teachers enthusiastically delved into the topic and the conversation sparkled with brilliance and optimism. I think @TeachWriteEDU  captured the #G2Great experience beautifully with her tweet:

I am filled with complete gratitude because as @TeachWriteEDU put it, “there is so much goodness here…” this chat spurred me to think about some  questions we all can ask ourselves.

How does feedback influence our writing identities?

Formative feedback and identity are essential to growing as a writer. Feedback is like a continuous story that we tell our students to extend meaning making. Feedback maximizes a learning stance from a position of strength. Feedback is an invitation for students to know that we hear them, we see them, and that together we are authoring their unique writing identities. This is big work. This may be how students decide what writing will mean to them. How will it will fit into their lives? Through feedback we strive and to help each student to find an original voice and influence:

With Patty in the lead, we all focused on how specific feedback builds a writer’s identity with our students:  

In Patty’s book she recounts an experience she had during a workshop with the incredible Ralph Fletcher: “In a writing workshop by the inspiring Ralph Fletcher a few years back, Ralph asked the audience of hundreds of teachers to raise their hands if they considered themselves readers. Most hands went up. Including my own. He then asked, ‘How many of you consider yourselves writers, or even like to write?’ I looked around, oddly comforted by the fact that I was not the only teacher who seemed to be doing their best to fake the love of writing for students.” (p 5)

What experiences formed your writer’s identity?

As I thought about these question, my thoughts turned back to the story of my childhood that had a lasting impact on my own writing identity…

Yellow sunlight streamed in through giant panes of glass, warming us as we sat around the kitchen table. Coffee cups steamed darkly in contrast to the brightly painted porcelain cow creamer. Her mouth, forever frozen, in an open circle of surprise. There I was drinking actual coffee with my father! No longer just a gawky twelve year old girl. No, now I am a writer. I am one of two writers, drinking coffee, and thinking deeply. My dad leaned over my paper, loosely holding pencil in hand and laughing at the funny parts. A swell of emotion filled me and I became light headed. I don’t know if came from the caffeine or the pure elation at his response to my writing. That experience marked the beginning of a lifelong love with writing… and coffee.  

A Call To Action – A #G2Great Community of Writers: What’s your story?

We invite you to reflect on the experiences that have shaped your writing identity.  Blog about it, so that we may leave each other feedback that elevates our practice. If you leave your links in our Comment Boxes we can continue to examine who we are as writers and practice giving feedback that pushes writers forward. We can generate writing experiences for ourselves so we may lift the level of writing for our students.

Patty McGee Links

Patty’s Websites:


Patty’s Book: Feedback That Moves Writers Forward (Corwin)

Help Students Reflect and Set Goals for Powerful Learning by Patty McGee (Corwin Connect)

The Power of NOT Answering Content-Specific Questions (Corwin Connect)

Three Moves to Awaken Dormant Writers by Patty McGee (Corwin Connect)

ILA Blog Post Part 1: Looking for a Fresh, New Design for PD? Try a Residency

ILA Blog Post Part 2: Looking for a Fresh, New Design for PD? Try a Residency

The Unstoppable Writing Teacher

by Mary Howard

Since our #G2Great chat launch on January 8, 2015, I have come to know each member of our remarkable #G2Great family as an unstoppable force. These passionate educators demonstrate their steadfast commitment to teaching each week, refusing to let anything stand in the way of professional excellence. On March 30, 2017, #G2Great explored unstoppable with guest host Colleen Cruz, author of the incredible book, The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom. (Heinemann, 2015)

The dictionary defines unstoppable with descriptors that any teacher would be proud to possess including indomitable; unbeatable; invincible; inexorable; uncontrollable; irrepressible. Certainly these are all professionally desirable characteristics, but it was two particular descriptors that spoke to me personally:

I have been privileged to know many unstoppable educators over the years and I am convinced that inextinguishable flames of educators ON FIRE is the fuel that drives them to move along a pathway in a life-long professional journey to unstoppable.

In the foreword to Colleen’s book, Lucy Calkins asks us to name our fears as we linger in ‘uncertainty and doubt’ where hidden opportunities reside. Calkins is the very definition of unstoppable, so we began by asking our #G2Great family to identify their fears in the form of challenges that can thwart our efforts to become the unstoppable writing teachers our children deserve.

Colleen led this discussion by highlighting a challenge that was reiterated in one form or another in tweet after tweet.

With so few precious minutes allotted in each day and so much to accomplish in those precious minutes, TIME was the clear challenge winner. Not surprisingly, our winner seems to have a trickle-down effect that directly or indirectly impacts many challenges that plague teachers:

But we only identify challenges so that we can discover hidden opportunities that elevate our work and enrich the writing lives of students. Challenges we face in the teaching of writing can feel overwhelming, but Colleen reminds us what matters most in a Heinemann video, Writing as a Tool for Thinking:

We can’t solve all the problems we’re faced with in writing instruction but we can choose how to respond to them. And our responses will make all the difference.”

As I look back on #G2Great tweets, seven essential stepping stones began to emerge that could help us as we maneuver our way from challenges to opportunities on our journey to becoming unstoppable writing teachers:

Follow Your Passions

Teachers who make writing a daily priority would be first agree that choice is a critical factor for developing as writers at any age. Colleen reminds us that all writers gravitate toward topics that reflect their passions. Through our passions we stand to learn a great deal both about our topic of choice and the process of writing. Unstoppable writing teachers on fire know that choice feeds burning embers of desire in ways that inspire us to put words on paper in the first place. Choice honors writing as a personal venture.

Acknowledge the Inevitable Struggle

Once again, Colleen speaks about writing from personal experience. Any writer would tell you – even one working on book 10 – that writing is a struggle into the unknown. If we want our writers to be willing to lean into that struggle and emerge victorious, we must first acknowledge that it exists both from their perspective and our own. We share how we meet this struggle in our own writing and then support students as they move through the muck and the mire that every writer knows exists. When we show our student writers how we face and move past the struggle in those moments when it rears its ugly head (and it will), we are showing them what it means to be “totally a writer.”

Make the Writing Process Visible

It is simply not possible to teach writing well without an insider’s perspective. This means that as professionals we immerse ourselves in the very process we are teaching by making our own writing a daily priority. With that first hand view of writing and the struggle that comes hand in hand with our commitment to writing, we can then make each aspect of what it means to be a writer public at all stages. Making our own thinking visible gives students a front row seat to what we do as writers so that we can then offer them opportunities to apply this thinking in their own writing – first with support but then ultimately on their own. This is the SHOW don’t tell spirit at its finest.

Put Writers in the Writing Driver’s Seat

Colleen’s tweet was a celebration of students as teachers from Jenn Hayhurst and Jill DeRosa. We model the process of writing and offer support to build a strong foundation of understanding, but then we step back so students can put their new learning into action without us. This stepping back gives our writers room to assume a lead role as we encourage independent problem solving. We have the courage to let students spend more time in the writers driving seat than out of it so that they will have the real life opportunities to meet the inevitable struggles that come with writing as they assume increasing control of their own writing life.

Know the Writer in Front of You

Since we can’t teach writers we don’t know, we draw from a wide range of formative assessment practices. These day-to-day opportunities fill us with the knowledge about our student writers we can then use to support them in the course of their own writing. Colleen highlights kidwatching as a powerful knowledge gathering process. Once we step back and put our student writers in the driver’s seat, we then have the freedom to enjoy the view as students actively engage in writing – both within and beyond the struggle. With this freedom to become an observer comes understandings that will inform our next step efforts.

Create an Instructional ZOOM LENS

While whole class writing instruction is one component of a powerful balanced writing design, we must also create varied structures that will allow us to meet the needs of unique learners. This differentiated support affords us time and space to meet those unique needs. To accommodate these support opportunities we need instructional frameworks in place, making side-by-side and small group support designs essential. These targeted support opportunities allow us to address the specific challenges writers face in their own writing as each writing opportunity is a springboard to support the writer in front of us.

Build a Supportive Bridge

Colleen’s exchange with Tara Smith reflects that unstoppable writing teachers support students on their journey to becoming unstoppable writers. Colleen reminds us that this risk-taking only happen within a safe learning environment where writing risks are both invited and honored. This supportive environment of risk-taking in great volumes, benefits both the teacher and student on their personal journey to unstoppable.


As I close my reflection on an amazing #G2great chat with  guest host Colleen Cruz, my initial definition of unstoppable comes back into focus. These seven stepping stones to unstoppable bring to mind classrooms where both teachers and students are ON FIRE and those flames are inextinguishable when we make it a priority to celebrate the writing and writer from all sides – ours and theirs.

Thank you for supporting our personal journey to UNSTOPPABLE, Colleen!


Twitter account


The Unstoppable Writing Teacher (Heinemann)

Independent Writing: One Teacher—Thirty-Two Needs, Topics, and Plans (Heinemann)

Writing as a Tool for Thinking (Heinemann post by Colleen)

Writing is Really Hard (Heinemann post from Colleen)

Where the Meaning Is (Fran Haley’s post on Unstoppable Writing Teacher