Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers – Not the Book (grades 3-8)

by Mary Howard

We were delighted to welcome first time guest hosts, Julie Wright and Barry Hoonan to our #G2great chat table on August 23, 2018. I was perched and ready with fingers resting happily on my computer keyboard well before official chat start time, eagerly anticipating a lively discussion around their amazing new book, What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers – Not the Book (grades 3-8) Corwin 2018. From the first “Welcome friends,” all that the words “lively discussion” entail burst into life aka Twitter passion.

Our entire #G2Great family was excited about this chat, as evidenced by a rapid Twitter trending status. But in my case, enthusiasm was also on a personal level. Earlier this year, I was asked to consider writing the foreword for this upcoming book. I quickly flipped to the introduction  – and any doubt that may have been in my mind quickly dissolved into a resounding “YES” in those first pages. It didn’t take long to recognize that the message residing at the heart of this book was desperately needed. It felt as if Julie and Barry were reading my mind as they tackled two small group concerns that have plagued me for years:

  1. Small groups afford time for differentiated instruction at all grade levels. As students move up the grades, however, fewer teachers make room for these opportunities. Julie and Barry provide a flexible open-ended design that will help teachers at all grade levels envision what these more versatile small groups could look like, sound like and feel like.
  2. Small groups often focus on homogeneous guided reading groups based on reading levels. Heterogeneous options they describe are the missing piece that would break free of the constraints of narrow groupings. Guided reading is an effective structure when done selectively and in the right spirit, but Julie and Barry wisely broaden this perspective in ways that will maximize our small group power potential.

Julie and Barry support guided reading in the early grades or for striving readers across grades but they ask us to consider a small group design that will alleviate some of the control and limitations often associated with guided reading. A more expansive small group view would offer an instructional design where we can “engage, inspire, and foster collaboration with students” beyond homogeneous settings with critical additions that could even inform homogeneous experiences. They describe that redesign in this way:

“Students’ curiosity and interest are more trustworthy and energizing drivers of grouping decisions than anything else. When we harness the power of the social and personal, it becomes far easier for us to teach into their academic needs as readers.”

Julie and Barry propose responsive small groups that address both the instructional and emotional needs of children and thus are created for a variety of reasons in a variety of ways while acknowledging the tremendous role curiosity and interest play in this grouping process. They are not asking us to abandon other practices but to increase the scope of our small group lens so that the passions students carry in their back pockets can become a grouping informant to explore other options. In other words, we are not closing the door to familiar structures like guided reading, but rather wisely opening that door even wider to welcome the passion fueled groupings that have previously gone untapped.

Across the pages of their wonderful book, they describe these options so vividly that teachers can pull from a treasure chest of thirty-one grouping possibilities listed at the front of the book according to the specific needs of students. But as Julie reminds us in the tweet below, that number multiplies exponentially if we can have the courage to invite the passions and interests of students to the small group decision-making table.

When I’m honored to write a #G2Great post on a book, my goal is to honor the book and author/s while drawing from  the chat experience. To do this, I first look to the book for inspiration by exploring a few tidbits of wonder as I did above. Then I look to the chat for social media tidbits of wonder from our author/s to extend the book. A book/chat merger helps me mine for big picture messages. Perusing our #G2Great chat WAKE for patterns wasn’t an easy task since Barry and Julie each tweeted thirty-three brilliant ideas. While tweet awesomeness challenged my mining process, patterns began to emerge as a starting point to bring their combined book-twitter wisdom to life. To maintain my focus on these patterns, I decided to use a pair of tweets per point with more selected tweets at the end.

And so, Eight Small Group Redesign points that tapped me on my Julie-Barry inspired shoulders:

Small Group Redesign # 1: Explore Directional Signposts

Our first question about the role of kidwatching in small groups initiated a frenzy of chat enthusiasm that exploded across the twittersphere. Kidwatching activates a directional GPS system that inspires us to breathe deeply, slow down and step back. This sense of presence makes us privy to precious in-the-moment opportunities where the engaging work children do on their own points the way to next step possibilities. Julie emphasized that noticings help us to move beyond numbers that may blur our view of students in the throes of  learning. Her focus on curiosities, passions, habits and needs illustrate critical features of learning that go unnoticed without intentional looking. Barry reminds us that this is a celebration rather than a critique. I loved his “all eyes on deck” reference focused squarely on what is “right” about the teaching-learning process in this celebratory child gazing. Changing our stance from teacher to observer with a teacher-learner mindset encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open for instructional inroads that could beckon us forward.

Small Group Redesign # 2: Plant Varied Small Group Seedlings

From the moment I began reading this wonderful book, I could imagine teachers inspired to plant new small groups seeds that would become beautiful blossoms across the learning year. Julie asks us to envision small groups as a vehicle for nourishing these seeds as we shift from teaching students how to read and supporting their unique journey to becoming readers. Typically, teachers are asked to create leveled small groups at the beginning of the year but Barry suggests beginning instead with heterongeous groups that will help us to get to know students as readers and set the stage for future groupings. Relinquishing teacher control initially for the purpose of understanding learners reminds me of the Roaming in the Known phase of Reading Recovery. Once we know what inspires and motivates our learners, this fuels our efforts to nurture becoming across varied settings.

Small Group Redesign # 3: Be a Strategic Decision-Maker

When the choices that we make about small groups are made solely on isolated numbers, even if those numbers may be relevant, we may alleviate the opportunity to form groups informed by the day-to-day learning experiences that can enrich our grouping efforts both within and beyond those settings.  Julie refers to strategic decision-making as “flipping” the traditional model focused on content and begin by using our students’ interests and curiosities to generate learning goals. Barry implores us to make ‘strategic choices’ based on what we are noticing within those experiences in the learning day. These opportunities could then become “invitations” for a wide range of smaller settings where we can offer a gentle nudge across contexts when we recognize a need for such opportunities. In this way, small groups become student-centered invitational experiences that widen our view what is possible.

Small Group Redesign # 4: Invite Conversational Explorations

One of the hallmarks of effective grouping experiences is that students’ voices rise above our own. Yet too often the opposite seems to be the case. Julie highlights the give and take aspect of talk as a way to invite students to make sense of their thinking in the company of supportive others in a non threatening context of smaller groups. This “smarter together” stance where multiple voices can merge respectfully into one will allow us to use talk to meander our way to collective understanding. Barry asks us to use talk as a conduit that will help new thinking “materialize” through these conversations so that we can lift that thinking into the discussion air and “put new ideas into the world.” I love his point that this inspired talk is not an end zone that we seek to reach but a pathway where we can form and reform ideas in the course of inspired shared dialogue in varied settings.

Small Group Redesign # 5: Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate

I can’t think of a more critical small group purpose than using those experiences as a way to celebrate students within and beyond the small group and as a motivation for forming new learning opportunities. Julie encourages us to ask our students about their reading choices as a gentle nudge toward using their preferences in working toward learning goals. This is essential considering we elevate goals done in the spirit of interests. She further emphasizes the value of partnerships where texts can be used as a conduit in collaborative explorations that deepen and fine-tune initial thinking. Barry highlights this celebratory spirit by acknowledging and supporting their reading identities through student driven choices. The fact that his students expressed surprise when he celebrated graphic novels as a relevant choice illustrates the potential danger when we negate certain texts as unworthy rather than leaning joyfully into them. Barry clearly leans in with gusto.

Small Group Redesign # 6: Build a Student-Centered Bridge

It would be hard to argue that student independence is the ultimate goal of small group endeavors and our student-centered bridge will support this shift in responsibility. When teachers maintain control for small group learning rather than relinquishing those reins to students, this transfer of independence from teacher to student is unlikely. As Julie so eloquently reminds, we must embrace this handover of responsibility by supporting their increasing control. We look to students for signs that point the way and then trust them as they move across a bridge leading to student agency. Barry illustrates that the rituals we put in place at the beginning of the year can help us to support and strengthen this goal across the year. We increase the likelihood of this transfer of responsibility when we put students in the small group driver’s seat as they become familiarized with routines and then have the courage to step back so that they can assume ownership of this process.

Small Group Redesign # 7: Generate a Text Treasure Trove

One of the topics that I found myself returning to again and again in the book and the chat was the idea of text curation. These text collections are a varied gathering of options for reading based on student interests used both within and beyond small group experiences. Julie reminds us that these teacher vs student curations are not an either/or proposition but that we must always strive to include students in this process. This may reflect student created displays of topics, genre, authors or learning goals coupled with advertisements to inspire new small groups, with a range range of text options welcomed. Barry emphasizes the role of texts, students and teachers in this curation process, but again asks us to keep our sights on relinquishing curation responsibility to students. When students do this gathering for themselves and their peers, those collections will represent their interests, passions and curious wonderings as they own this process. As a result, we are afforded the gift of understanding them as learners by virtue of the very collections they curate.

Small Group Redesign # 8: Assess/Act/Assess – Repeat

Each of these eight points work in tandem rather than in isolation and this final point in no different. Assessment is not something we do and then move on but what we do across the year as we inform, form, reform– all the while gather new assessment informants for this small group work. Julie extends this perspective by asking us to broaden our view of what assessment can look like, sound like and feel like. A wide range of multiple sources of formative data support our next step thinking by allowing us to see students from all sides. I included Barry’s reference to the use of student photographs since I see this as a powerful concrete visual assessment tool that can become a springboard to promote questions and ponderings. The back and forth discussion that can rise from this pictorial view of learning affords assessment information that might otherwise be invisible since the photo captures learning in action and the dialogue it inspires allows us to relive those experiences.

I would like to extend a very personal heartfelt thank you to Julie and Barry – not only for writing this incredible book but for trusting me to write a foreword that would do their book justice. On behalf of myself and co-moderators, Fran, Jenn and Amy, we are deeply grateful for their generous sharing of small group wisdom with our #G2Great family of enthusiastic learners. As a result, I can envision a wide repertoire of student-centered flexible small group designs that will “engage, inspire, and foster collaboration.” I know that this wonderful book will empower teachers to step out of the existing small group boxes that have existed for too long so that they could imagine what is possible when we are willing to break free of the ties that bind so that students can do the same.

As I close this post, I am drawn back to the opening of their book and the very page that made me utter an exuberant YES to writing the foreword. In the introduction, they shared student photographs and asked us to describe what we see and then added these words,

“We hope you see joy. The joy in looking across pages. The joy in reading something you find interesting. The joy in sharing texts with friends. The joy in finding a comfy spot to read.” (Page xix)

We see it my friends. We definitely see it!

More Julie-Barry Inspired Tweet Wisdom

Helpful Grouping References Shared by Julie


Julie Wright Website

Corwin Book Link: What Are You Grouping For?

Corwin webinar with Julie and Barry





“Sparks in the Dark”

By Fran McVeigh

The Sparks in the Dark chat with authors Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney was trending on August 16, 2018 by the second question. No doubt about it. A chat based on a book with a foreword by Penny Kittle captured many minds and hearts and then exploded across the Twitterverse for one hour. The wakelet was collected. I was carefully perusing the conversations, seeking out tweets to curate while capturing additional sparks. What tweets would garner my attention and showcase the chat? What ideas would continue to fan the sparks and create a blaze across the #G2Great community? I kept returning to the book subtitle. Book subtitles say so much about a book. “Lessons, Ideas and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us.” What to collect? What to display? What to hold tightly to? How to write a blog post to capture the chat and the text, the words and ideas of the authors, the passion of Sparks in the Dark?

In order to rise to this challenge, I resorted to the dictionary for guidance in understanding the subtitle. Definitions are a common beginning for me. So what does “illuminate” mean? “To light up” And what about “ALL”? From my own reading: Teachers, Administrators, Students, Families, and Communities … Everyone. Wow! Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in ALL of Us. What an important goal!

How could this text be used?
A study group could use this book to assess their current status in literacy. Personally.  Collectively. Each of the chapters offers “Things to Think About and Tweet” that include #SparksInTheDark so the conversations could be out in the world on Twitter. Internal and external conversations could spark additional applications.

No, this book does not offer fancy surveys to give you data that makes you feel good and affirms that “Yes, you are doing the right thing.” Instead, Sparks in the Dark will provide you with conversation starting points to grow the strength and fortitude of all readers and writers in your building. Rich conversations that will encourage you to dig into personal and collective values, attitudes, beliefs and habits. Or after conversations you might develop your own questions that you want to answer with a survey or some other form of data collection. Administrators will grow as they explore Todd’s leadership stories across multiple campuses and teachers will grow as they unravel the threads in Travis’s path to creating lifelong readers and writers. It’s not a book for the faint of heart.

Do you read on a regular basis? Do you write on a regular basis? If you don’t like to read or write, stop right now. This book is not for you. But if you don’t like to read or write, I would encourage you to examine why you are teaching students. Why are you working with our most precious resource, the children of our world, if you don’t have a passion for reading and writing? (Chapter 2 Disturbing the Universe and/or Chapter 7 Critical Conversations)

Why did Travis and Todd write this book?

“In writing this book, we sought to encourage, challenge, inspire, question and shift your thinking when it comes to reading and writing and instruction overall. We hope we have shown you glimpses of our hearts and our classrooms and schools as examples of what is truly possible when you start to believe in what was once thought as improbable.” Sparks in the Dark, 2018

Conversations, tweets, and quotes from the book fell under several important concepts: Personal, Priority, Powerful, Persistence, Patience, Perspective and Pedagogy.

What is one book that you have read recently that touched you deeply in some way? That opening question was answered in many ways that you can see for yourself in the wakelet.  “Touched you deeply” means not just a book to complete a task, or to record on a log, but a book that evoked a powerful personal response. Is that a priority for you? How would we know? What would be the evidence? Todd posted this example of public posts in a school building for students or teachers.


Books need to be present in every classroom, in every hallway, in every nook and cranny. Free up the space and the resources to make ALL books easily accessible and important-not just the books in the ELA classrooms or the library. Building staff might decide on a long-range goal and plan to increase classroom libraries and access for students and families.


Readers and Writers change because of their literacy responses. Those “personal” responses above can become even more powerful when we collaboratively celebrate by sharing the initial difficulties, the continuing struggle, the messiness and back and forth nature of seeking meaning that ends in the ultimate joy of our reading and writing. Building staff might choose to study their own reading and writing journeys.


Time will be both your friend and your enemy. Staff meetings need to include literacy work that moves teacher understanding forward. Whether you try Todd’s “choose a read aloud with another staff member” or you deepen your work with students and make sure they are all included in the texts in the classrooms! Naysayers will need more positive interactions in order to see the necessity for change, but your persistence will eventually pay off. Similarly, students are not all necessarily going to be overjoyed to take on more work that is required of them when they learn and think deeply about topics that that they choose. Change takes time at all levels.


Find others in your building to join your literacy group or seek out like-minded individuals on Twitter, Voxer, or Facebook to continue to grow collaboratively. Enlist the aid of your students. Advocate for student needs. Give students voice and choice so they are empowered to think and advocate for themselves as well.  Building staff might identify and discuss the “beacons of light” that illuminate and sustain your learning.


Opening our minds and our hearts to new situations in books and in the world brings us closer together and increases our own understanding. This also helps us more easily grapple with change and find similarities in current work and desired states. Change is not easy but it’s within our grasp if we build a solid base. Honoring beginning steps with “I used to …, but now I …” can be a rich faculty discussion.


Teachers improve their craft by reading and exploring new resources. You might want to review some titles under A2 in the wakelet to see what others are reading. But a deep understanding of reading and writing comes from those who work to improve their knowledge and skills in order to outgrow their own reader and writer selves. This means lifelong learning for all as a professional responsibility. A common building expectation to constantly share faculty reader and/or writer notebooks. That’s more than just one tiny spark. That should be a blaze visible from miles away without Google Earth!

What begins as a spark, fueled by passion becomes a flame. Perhaps a beacon. Reading is important. Writing is important. Education is important.  Many other factors can and are part of those flames as previously included: Personal, Priority, Powerful, Persistence, Patience, Perspective and Pedagogy. In Sparks in the Dark, Travis and Todd say

“…my role as an educator – no matter my subject specialty – is to use the tools of reading and writing to develop all of my students and staff.” (Sparks in the Dark, 2018)

Travis also says that “Quality reading instruction does not begin with literature, it begins with students.” Students, not standards, assessments, or programs. Students, books, and the subsequent reading and writing that calls them to be better human beings.

How do you begin with students to fuel your sparks and continuously fan your own flames?

What other resources do you employ – books, professional resources, or communities of learners?

How do you prevent “book deserts” on your campuses?

Additional Resources:
Wakelet   Link
Podcast    Link
Book         Link
Blogs – Travis Crowder link           Todd Nesloney link

Reconsidering Our Professional Resources

by, Jenn Hayhurst

On Thursday, August 9, 2018 members of #G2Great’s PLN had an important conversation, Reconsidering Our Professional Resources: Calling Publishers and Marketers to Task. We’ve all seen them, those glossy brochures promising student success so long as “their plan of action” is followed with fidelity.  Nonsense! This is what I know for sure, success begins by believing in teachers. Smart, resilient, talented teachers; these are the professionals who have the power to make a meaningful impact. This blog as well as our weekly #G2Great chat exist to extend a platform that amplifies teacher voice. What was the message we sent out to the publishing world?

Listen to what we really need…

Thinking Outside the Box

Undoubtedly, there is an unlimited array of resource options at our disposal. Consumer choice is great and yet it can also be overwhelming. Boxed programs offer solutions but the truth is we have to think outside the box! Taking a more expansive view includes gathering the perspective and wisdom of other educators. There are are more opportunities to exercise personal agency than ever before, social media has given us access to each other. Now we can grow our Professional Learning Networks (PLN). We can support professional organizations nationally and locally. We can be ambassadors for professional learning.  

Get the Whole Picture

Educating children is complex, so when a  publisher or marketer, offers rigid solutions we need to get out the yellow caution tape, the orange cones, and flashing red lights because this is a professional danger zone.  We need to do our own research on their research!  We need to gather an array of formative assessments to look at how our students are performing inside our classrooms so we can inform any outside purchases. The most important thing to remember is to trust that we are the experts when it comes to our students. Once we know them, we know what resources we need to look for to inform our practice. 

Start off on the Right Foot

A dynamic faculty is more than having good teachers and administrators. A dynamic faculty has a shared vision. Once you have a vision making decisions about professional resources becomes easier. Two tweets stood out to me because they both speak to identity and vision. Roman (@NowakRo) knows himself he is a reflective educator who  values design thinking and collaborative work. Gravity (@drgravitygLLC) is a an author / researcher but I suspect the title she likes the most is… teacher who builds teams for collaborative work and shared vision. Know who you are, articulate what you value, and collaborate this needs to happen prior to purchasing anything. 


Raising the Bar

What does your curriculum ask of you?  Curriculum that is a living document, that is informed by real practice, requires more from us.  A go-to professional resource that maximizes the quality of teacher practices has to be relevant to decision making for day-to-day teaching. When research teams like those from Teachers College Reading Writing Project (@TCRWP) create resources you can be assured they are vetted in the field.  The work they recommend is born from their think tank and is work they are actually doing so it will be relevant. This kind of work is constantly changing and growing because it keeps pace with teacher learning and discovery.  

Everyone: On the Right Page

It is imperative to initiate collective conversations before money exchanges hands for professional resources because if we don’t listen to the stakeholders there will be no ownership. If there is no ownership initiatives  will fail.  Collective conversations are always at the heart of growth, and I think this is the best way to begin the design process for supporting a child-centered perspective. 

Don’t Miss the Mark

Authenticity is the antidote to basal programs and scripts  Authenticity can be realized when teachers have ownership over what they will learn and when schools invest in teacher education and learning. We are not so very different from our students. we are all at different points in our understanding for literacy instruction. As a result we all have different needs and our ongoing education education needs to match wherever we are in that continuum. So long as our learning rests squarely on students and their developing literacy learning we can’t go wrong. 

Cut to the Chase

We are living in the 21st Century of course technology has an important place in the classroom. However, it can be misused as electronic worksheets.  It should be our goal to enhance our practice through technology; while being careful that it  does not substitute or diminish  excellent teaching.  For one thing, teachers not tools make the decisions. For another, accessing print resources and digital texts to build rich classroom libraries  is an imperative. Students, teachers, and texts are the heart of the classroom. 

It’s ironic that we are asked time and time again to  look for answers outside of the classroom when what is really needed is to take a closer look inside our classrooms. When we asked teachers what they need, they told us. In the end, I think Mary said it best, “To do more great work, you need to make not one but two choices. What will you say yes to? What will you say no to?”  Good to Great Teaching Focusing on the Literacy Work That MattersThis is how we really put publishers to task so we may keep our students where they belong, at the center.

Writers Read Better: 50+ Paired Lessons That Turn Writing Craft Work into Powerful Genre Reading

by Mary Howard

On August 2, 2018, we had the great pleasure to welcome Colleen Cruz back to our #G2Great chat as second time guest host. Our first chat on 3/30/17 celebrated her wonderful book, The Unstoppable Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom. (Heinemann, 2015). Of course, we didn’t hesitate to begin planning for a repeat visit as soon as we heard about Colleen’s amazing new book, Writers Read Better: 50+ Paired Lessons That Turn Writing Craft Work into Powerful Genre Reading (Corwin, 2018). We were thrilled to spotlight this powerful new perspective for nonfiction writing.

Colleen’s newest book explores writing and reading in such a brilliantly unique way. I quickly realized that it was important to look at this incredible information through Colleen’s very wise eyes. This week I am taking a departure from our typical chat post by sharing an interview with Colleen. I couldn’t type fast enough to capture her thinking and I am so pleased to share her exact words with you here:

Your book fills an important void in the literacy world by celebrating the reading/writing connection with a twist. Why did you decide to write about this particular topic? 

I’ve been playing with the idea behind this book for several years. Those ideas began with a game I frequently play with my friends who are also writers (Colleen wrote about this in the introduction of her book on page 16). I would read a headline and then they would guess how the lead was going to go. I noticed that my friends who were writers were far better at playing the game than those who were not. This made me really think about the idea that writers really do read better. I often think about this idea as a reader and a writer. When I’m in the middle of a book, I’m so much more aware of the moves that writers are making because I am also a writer. I notice how they use craft and structure and purpose and I can spot fake news in a minute since I can see how they are trying to manipulate the reader as a writer. I feel like this book is very much an idea that I’ve been playing with for a long time and a colleague of mine had been begging me to write about the ideas that led to this book. I wanted to write about the very process that I use in my own life and work and to put those ideas in a book to help teachers move toward this thinking. I think this book is needed because it’s a shift in our thinking. Teachers typically think about writing about reading or mentor texts so the ideas in this book are asking us to think of writing as a way to service reading and that felt so important. I didn’t write this book sooner because it felt so obscure so I wanted to really think about how I approach this in my own life to make it clear to teachers through this book. The main reason I wrote this book is that I know how it has impacted me as a writer.  As writers, we are a thousand times stronger readers than those who are not writers.  There are so many things that teachers haven’t tapped into yet and so I wanted to support this thinking.

How can we encourage teachers to embrace writing as an entry point that would also increase reading understanding? Where can teachers begin to do this important work?

I think that this depends on the priorities and needs of each teacher. Sometimes our needs aren’t always our priorities and so we have to take that into consideration to begin this work. One place I see teachers as most interested in doing that work are those who feel pressed for time – for example, middle school teachers who are compartmentalized. They are limited in the amount of time they have so approaching reading through writing makes the work more efficient and streamlined. For many teachers, the typical strategies they are using in reading to teach comprehension, decoding or engagement just aren’t working. They feel at a loss for what they can do to move those students forward when what they are doing isn’t addressing their needs. Sometimes the best way to support those kids is for them to be on the other side of a desk and assume the role of writer. Helping them to approach reading through writing gives them a meaningful purpose and empowers them as both a writer and reader. Writing gives them the behind the scenes tricks to see how texts work. When kids realize that they just wrote a piece about their dog, then they can begin to see that this will help them read a text about volcanoes. This gives us a different way into reading and it’s such a powerful process. Many teachers say that they’ve instinctively felt those connections between reading and writing and yet they haven’t looked at the ways that writing lifts reading. For those teachers, Writing About Reading is absolutely next step territory for them to explore this powerful process.

Reciprocity has long been an essential topic in literacy research. How does Writers Read Better explore the teaching of reading and writing from a different perspective?

When I first began writing, I was really surprised to learn that there were no books on this topic. I was aware that the research supporting this idea goes back as early as the 1950s. Lucy Calkins was one of the first to show that these connections existed and that often kids learn to write before they learn to read. So, this is not new research. What’s interesting to me is that Katie Wood Ray wrote about how reading supports writing in 1999 in her groundbreaking book Wondrous Words. I think a lot of people hadn’t really looked at this idea before but as soon as we read about it, it seemed so obvious. Because the ideas were so earth shaking, many teachers only think about reading coming before writing.

We as teachers tend to hold onto our thinking in one direction. I recently had an experience where I was looking at my computer screen in a video chat but it was showing the mirror image so I had a hard time knowing which hand to raise and which side of the book to hold up. A lot of teachers have used mentor texts as a way to use reading to support writing so looking at how writing supports reading may feel foreign. Many teachers believe that reading has to come first because that’s what they learned and so it feels more natural. But if teachers were to truly look at the research they could see that we can support the first independent exploration of a text in reading by exploring that thinking on paper first through writing.  I think many of us just hadn’t thought of it that way before so now we are considering a different way of looking at our teaching. For most teachers, once they’ve explored this idea they think, “Of course!” They begin to realize for the first time that it’s been there all along, like when you look at the dashboard and see the gas tank image. It’s always been there but we just haven’t noticed it before. Now we can begin to think about reading and writing in a unique way. Helping teachers maneuver this different way of thinking is the crux of my entire book. For some reason, they may be having a hard time wrapping their heads around how writing can help reading. And even though it may be what we learned first, we can change our perspective by looking from a different angle.

You created incredible lesson samples in the book. What thinking were you hoping to support by sharing these lessons?

I don’t write “lessons” so I didn’t intend to write lessons in this book. But as I started thinking about the book, I realized that in order for teachers to be able to do this work, they would actually need to see it in action. The lessons are meant as flexible ideas, so a “One thing you can do is…” kind of thinking. This helps teachers see what this could actually look like in practice. I tried to make the lessons as streamlined as possible such as creating the lesson steps at the beginning. A teacher who knows how reading and writing workshop works could just read the lesson steps and create their own lesson process while there are specific examples for those who need more support. I wanted the lessons to be written out the same way that I would do those lessons with children so that teachers could imagine one way the lessons might look. After Carl Anderson read the manuscript he said that he started playing a game with himself where he would wonder what the flip side of this reading skill was in writing. He said that it was helpful to see an example of a flip side of writing using reading. I intentionally did not include every writing skill in this book because this is not a writing for writing sake but a writing for reading sake book. The paired aspect of the lessons is the essential piece, so the only lessons in the book are lessons that support reading. You can find wonderful informational writing lessons in gorgeous books like Craft Lesson by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi or Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study. This isn’t a book just about writing, but the interplay between reading and writing. Any lessons you would purely teach for reading or for writing aren’t in the book. Pairing the lessons helps to give the message that the lessons are supporting the reciprocal skills for both reading and writing.

What looks different when a teacher is a teacher of literacy rather than a teacher of reading and a teacher of writing?

The message that I am after is that I’m not teaching a subject but am teaching you how to be a literate human being. Some teachers say, “I’m a writing teacher so I have to teach grammar, thesis statements and show not tell” or “I’m a reading teacher so I have to teach decoding, prediction, and interpretation.” They may teach both of those subjects in the day and yet they still think of them differently. When they’re in reading workshop, they’re only thinking about reading. When they’re in writing workshop, they’re only thinking about writing. My goal is to change that thinking. I do think that the digital revolution has helped this thinking. The digital revolution underlined the notion that literacy is a dialogue. We don’t just send our ideas off like a message in a bottle. Our readers read but our readers also write. This provides an amazing interplay as a reader and a writer. This idea also has huge implications in terms of things like social justice and the way we live in our world now. When we take in information like a sign in the subway, it’s not enough to take that in passively but to think about what it means in our world. So, when you’re teaching literacy you’re teaching active reading and active writing in response to it.

What do you hope this book will accomplish in the education field and inspire these changes in our teaching?

Well I have a hope and a worry for this book so I want to start with the worry. My first book, Independent Writing, was published in 2004 (Heinemann). When that book came out my hope was that teachers would open up new opportunities for kids to write and to engage in more independent projects. Unfortunately, that book was ahead of its time and many still consider it revolutionary that kids could actually run their own writing projects. My fear is that Writing About Reading will sit on the shelf as an idea that is ahead of its time even though it stands on the shoulders of esoteric research. My fear is that it might not change the way that teacher teach and that they will still see their role as teaching reading and writing vs. teaching literacy. My hope is that when teachers are teaching writing they will begin to see the connections to reading and how they can use writing to support reading and when teaching reading they will think about what could come comes before this or after this. I hope that they will begin to wonder if there is a reciprocal skill that they can explore. If we are willing to look outside of the way we think about of reading and writing then we can begin to explore writing in science, socials studies, math and across the learning day. When students are watching a music video or commercial, I would hope that they will also think about something they have written so that they can see the interrelationships between word choice, language and meaning. My hope is that teachers will start to change the way that they look at their teaching and that they will always think about the other side or ancillary skill and recognize multiple sides for another way of thinking. It’s like moving our teaching from 2-D to 3-D thinking.

Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

I hope that teachers know that the book is designed to make their lives easier and more fun. This is a book with a lot of fun and joy and I made a real effort to make it accessible to different learning needs with many unique access points that lean on 21stcentury ideas – not just digital tools but the mindset of the information revolution that we will need to engage in critical thinking as both producer and consumer. The biggest thing that I hope is that it makes the readers of the book understand that they can go off the rails and invent their own lessons that are playful accessible and interconnected.

I’d like to personally express my deep gratitude to Colleen both for writing this wonderful book and for taking the time to give us an insider’s view of her thinking process. Colleen has met her promise in the introduction to create a book that would capitalize on the “magic”. In Colleen’s words:

“No matter how you teach, whatever your curriculum is, or how much time you have, you will find something in this book that will not only help bring more energy and connectivity to your literacy instruction, but also maximize our time and your students’ ability to transfer literacy skills.”

Let the “magic” begin!