Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing

by Mary Howard

On 9/26/19, our #G2great team happily welcomed Ralph Fletcher back as our guest host for the second time. Ralph first wowed us on 4/13/19 with Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact Low-Stakes Writing (Heinemann, 2017). When word of his new book hit the professional airwaves we all knew that we wanted to extend another invitation: Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing (Heinemann, 2019). We love it when our gut level instincts transform into a twitter chat blessing. 

Your #G2Great co-moderators had the honor of reading Ralph’s new book pre-publication, an opportunity that multiplied our excitement. I still recall opening Focus Lessons on my computer for the first time at 14,000 feet. The introduction drew me in as he likened the jumbo lens of his camera to the stories he crafts on his laptop. (p xi) It was the first time I’ve ever finished a book in one day, thanks to long flights and an unwavering enthusiasm for photography, writing, and Ralph Fletcher. I scurried across inspired pages at warp speed, rereading craft lessons on pages 32-76 twice. I was smitten!

Focus Lessons is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. First, Ralph shares photography lessons he has learned and then shows us his learning in a stunning visual playground where the fruits of his labor beckon a long gaze. But Ralph isn’t content to leave us sitting on the edge of our visual delight. He then leads us on a journey where photography and writing converge in glorious union. In his words, “It turns out that photography can illuminate the craft of writing and help us understand it in a whole new way.” (p xiv)

What better way to add to those understandings than through Ralph’s words? In a phone interview 9/23/19 I asked Ralph this question:

What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

As I’m learning about photography very much in the role of a student, it was really striking to me how much the instructors in photography were talking about things that seemed very much like writing: sense of detail; tension; story; point of view, angle. Time and time again, I said to myself, “They could be talking about writing. They are talking about writing.” I think that there’s a lot of common ground there and my hope is that my book will encourage language arts teachers to open the door and begin to look at the visual world, specifically photography, as a way to enrich our teaching of writing. The visual world of photography is a world that kids are very familiar with.

While I’d love to detail each photographer-writer inspired idea that Ralph generously shares in his book, I couldn’t possibly do his brilliance justice. I thought that instead I’d create my own visual gallery of the twitter inspired image-words merger so our #G2great chat can provide an added layer. This first tweet is a wonderful starting point. We find ourselves at a crossroads in education where the instructional pace has reached an all-time high. Facing the misguided attempt to squeeze as much as we can into precious limited minutes, Ralph wisely reminds us to savor the experience as we help students to imagine, capture and reflect on thinking at a deeper level. This was a big picture message across his book and our chat. 

With that stop time message at the forefront of our thinking, I’m going to use Ralph’s #G2Great tweets to create seven Twitter Focus Lessons that will both reinforce and extend his beautiful book:

Ralph Fletcher Twitter Focus Lesson #1 KNOW YOUR “WHY”

If any semblance of doubt was in the minds of our #G2great chat family that there is a connection between photography and writing, Ralph alleviated those thoughts as he clearly describes this connection. As I think about the mind-pictures that a photograph can inspire, Ralph also beautifully draws our attention to the decisions writers make that are closely related.

Ralph Fletcher Twitter Focus Lesson #2: RELINQUISH CONTROL

One of our questions invited teachers to contemplate challenges we might face. When the issue of permissions came up, Ralph encouraged us not to allow this to become a roadblock and highlights the impact when we make student ownership a priority. Just as we empower students to take control of their own learning, we can view images in the same way. Our thoughtful lessons begin this handover that will later support writing decisions. 

Ralph Fletcher Twitter Focus Lesson #3: EMBRACE PROCESS

Ralph illustrates the danger of surface level thinking while asking us to acknowledge the power potential of close viewing of images. Just as we encourage students to zoom in on their writing choices, we can also use images as mentor texts and then transfer this thinking to writing. The deep thinking of viewing can then become a pathway to the deep thinking we want when students put words on paper.

Ralph Fletcher Twitter Focus Lesson #4: LINGER IN THE MOMENT

Ralph asks us to embrace process and take advantage of opportunities to encourage students to ponder each step of photograph viewing across all stages. By encouraging “study” and asking questions we can help students put into words what will later be transferred to paper. This thinking time will then offer a forum to verbalize their ideas in ways that will lift this viewing process and ultimately translate into their writing. 

Ralph Fletcher Twitter Focus Lesson #5: INVITE BRIEF DESCRIPTORS

Ralph has a way of helping us identify things that we have done before in such a beautiful way. His description of using “micro-genres” that we find are common on twitter can be a wonderful first step to this viewing-writing connection. It occurs to me that this would offers a supportive scaffold to this merger as we invite written captions that will capture big ideas first. 

Ralph Fletcher Twitter Focus Lesson #6: LEAVE A PAPER TRAIL

Ralph’s twitter message is a perfect segue between taking a photograph and using that image as an entry point to writing or a reflection to deepen that writing. The combination of close viewing and words offers a way to leave a visual trail that can then support the writing. Supporting this shift between images, reflections and writing can become a beautiful thinking marriage.

Ralph Fletcher Twitter Focus Lesson #7: THE GENTLE NUDGE

It seemed very fitting that those first three words were all in capitals so that our attention would be drawn to his message. I can envision classrooms where this photographer-writer merger would become a lock-step view so his cautionary words are an important reminder. Just as we encourage writing that brings student passions to life, we do the same with images.

Now that I’ve shared our Twitter focus lessons, let’s return to Ralph’s words of wisdom in his second interview question.

What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

It’s really two things. First of all, I really do believe and I think it’s almost indisputable, that the world is becoming more visual. The visual world of photography is a world that kids are familiar with in that they’re taking pictures all the time. When we draw on that world and the language of that world, we’ll find that it’s a language that kids are familiar with too. We could find more accessible, more tangible and more concrete ways for describing some of the craft of writing so that kids will understand it in a new way. Another big idea in the book is that I really do think that I’m sort of known for championing the idea of the writers notebook. It’s pretty clear that our kids today are using their cell phones as writers notebooks. They’re using it to react to the world. They’re collecting things. And they’re doing this with real purpose and often for a real audience and sometimes just to be playful. These are all things that we really work hard to get kids to do in their own writers notebook. I think that we could start by changing the way that we see what kids are doing with all the photographs they’re taking. 

Since I opened our Twitter Focus Lessons with a big picture message, I’d like to close with one! In his tweet Ralph elevates our understandings with those three words: Photography IS writing. His description of photography as “writing with light” helps us to understand the tremendous benefits of this process in such a lovely way. 

The depth of thinking that Ralph is wisely proposing is illuminated by two examples he shared on #G2great. Take a moment to look at how the two versions of a single experience can change the way we think about those experiences and ultimately the writing that we might do. As I looked at the pictures together, I couldn’t help but envision this thinking transfer.

In this final tweet, Ralph brings us back to the link between a photograph and writing. Just as the photographer is creating a story, we can translate that visual story into a written story.

My Closing Thoughts

Through his detailed overlap between photography and writing, both in his book and in our #G2great chat, we do indeed begin to understand in a whole new way. This thoughtful overlap between images and words serves to lift our understandings about photography while deepening understandings about the writing process. Ralph beautifully describes this overlap as we learn what most of us have not been privy to until reading this book:

“The central metaphor of this book involves ways in which the craft of photography mirrors the craft of writing. Both activities involve the creative process. Both involve self-expression. Both allow an individual to represent a slide of the world and comment upon it. Both require craft/technique to be successful. As we will see, the language of photography – a language that is modern and tangible – has a great deal in common with the language of writing.” Page 29

And so as I close this post, I want to return to Ralph Fletcher’s words of wisdom as he responds to our third question.

What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

One thing I want teachers to keep in mind is that oftentimes language arts teachers, and I would include myself I this, tend to be text people. We really savor words, metaphors, and powerful language. Some of us, and again I would include myself in this, have been a little bit resistant or even maybe slightly hostile toward the visual world. If kids in our classrooms are sitting there drawing or doodling, we feel like they’re wasting time. As we move forward, language arts teachers will still value texts and words since that will never go away, but I think that the visual world can enrich what we’re already doing. I would hope that teachers could be receptive and open about that and say,Gee, I wonder if this could breathe some new life into my language arts program.

Thank you for helping us all breathe new life into our teaching, Ralph. We are so inspired to begin this beautiful photography-writing journey.

Some #G2Great chat inspiration for Focus Lessons


Checking In with Ralph Fletcher: On Writing & Photography (Interview with James Preller)

Heinemann Blog: Enhancing Writing Through Photography

Ralph Fletcher’s Website

Heinemann site to purchase Focus Lessons by Ralph Fletcher

Building (and Maintaining) Your Support System Now and Across the Year

by Jenn Hayhurst

Click here to visit the Wakelet

Think back to when you made the decision to become a teacher. Is being a teacher what you thought it would be? When I entered into my teaching career, I found it to be quite different than what I thought it would be. In many more ways, it is so much better. So far, I have experienced unexpected and wonderful learning that has developed my teaching in ways I could not have envisioned. My learning on the job has unlocked deep insights into students’ academic growth and social-emotional wellbeing that have changed my whole approach to education. Yet, on the flip side, I have also experienced all forms of struggle. Some days I am worn out to the bone physically. Other days I’m emotionally drained, and still others I am over-saturated intellectually. Sometimes I have a trifecta of struggle and experience all three! I know I am not alone, for so many of us teachers, this is the truth.

It is no wonder, that teachers need to fill their reserves with support. We need to be part of something bigger to celebrate our victories and make strategies for our failures. On September 19, 2019, we, the #G2Great team, dedicated a chat to discuss building and maintaining support systems.

A school is comprised of living environments that are constantly in a state of flux. Classroom needs change, students change, initiatives change, curriculums change. In these ever-changing and dynamic environments, educators need support systems. They need them so they may not only survive but thrive. A supportive community is a key asset for teachers everywhere. Being part of a caring group helps to stave off isolation. Having others to bounce off ideas and to commiserate with makes all the difference. Sometimes the relationships we forge over time have the power to go well beyond our classrooms and make deep and meaningful impacts on our lives.

To access Julie’s link to Kidwatching 2.0: Top 3 Moves for Real-time Assessment click here

What might a healthy support network offer? As usual, #G2Great PLN members had some good ideas to share on the subject. When it comes to support networks, some patterns emerged. Teachers are looking for communities that value learning, gratitude, and wonder. Learning together promotes deep bonds. Keeping our sights fixed on our students fills us with a sense of gratitude that may keep us student-centered. I believe a deep appreciation for wonder makes us more authentic and connected to what school ought to be.

I am a much better teacher today than I was when I started out. I am better because I surrounded myself with the brilliance of others. My support systems are comprised of many facets. Sometimes support comes from the generosity of the teachers that work alongside me. Sometimes I find support systems in books, professional journals, and (of course) social media company I keep. What if we all had access to these kinds of support system? I can imagine that there would be far less teacher burn-out and greater satisfaction and productivity. Sometimes we have to imagine these things first in order to make them our reality.

Letter Lessons and First Words: Phonics Foundations That Work with Heidi Anne Mesmer

by Valinda Kimmel

Thursday night, September 12, #g2great hosted Heidi Anne Mesmer to lead our chat about her book, Letter Lessons and First Words: Phonics Foundations That Work. This is a timely chat as there has been much for educators to read lately in regard to the “science of reading” debate. You can see the chat in its entirety on Wakelet here

Heidi’s book and our #g2great chat help to make clear some pivotal points about the teaching of phonics and its foundational work in growing young readers. Before we look at the specific discussion points from Thursday’s chat, I’d like to share some of Heidi’s recent work on phonics.

American Educator published an article by Heidi and Nell Duke in their winter 2018-2019 edition. In that article, Duke and Mesmer shared seven faux pas that teachers make when delivering phonics instruction:

  • Spending Too Little or Too Much Time on Phonics Instruction
  • Neglecting the Alphabetic Principle, Concept of Word in Print, Concepts in Print
  • Teaching Letter Names without Letter Sounds
  • Using Inappropriate Alphabet Key Words
  • Lacking a Scope and Sequence
  • Using a Problematic Approach to Teaching Sight Words
  • Missing Essential Elements of Phonics Instructions–
    • Specific Applicable Generalizations
    • Active Construction and Deconstruction of Words
    • Opportunities for Application
    • Responsiveness

Heidi’s tweets and quotes taken directly from her book spoke to many of these issues in our #g2great chat on Thursday evening.

It’s critical for students to have daily opportunities to build words and take them apart. This practical application of their new letter sound knowledge helps them to understand how individual phonemes and letter combinations form words.

Emerging, early readers need a combination of direct instruction and repeated practice on their own to try out the new learning. Phonics teaching must include instruction, modeling and lots of authentic practice through reading and writing in order for students to become proficient.

Heidi states that we must start by knowing what our students already know and what instruction they’ll need for decoding and encoding.

In Letter Lessons and First Words, Heidi reminds us that we must think back beyond our ability to read proficiently and embrace the importance of phonics instruction—

For a proficient adult reader, phonics can feel like a cumbersome distraction to the “real” work of reading and writing. But what this actually shows is that we’ve lost our awareness of what it is to be new to the printed word. As proficient readers, we read most words by sight and decoding is rarely a part of our reading and writing experience. Because phonics feels unnecessary to us, some teachers decide not to teach it or to give it only cursory attention. Others view it as necessary but don’t make the connection between phonics principles and real reading and writing. The latter kind of phonics instruction involves lifeless routines; odd, dreary activities; excessive repetition; or whole-group, scripted lessons that soar over the heads of some children and bore others. Instead of rejecting phonics outright, we might want to consider that it’s not phonics but how we teach it that is the problem. The teaching of phonics is a means to an end. Children need to decode in order to independently read and write. Phonics shouldn’t feel like an interruption or detour away from these authentic experiences. Phonics should be the building of a curiosity—developed by a passionate, informed teacher— about how words work, an inquiry about how the sounds of our language are mapped onto visual symbols. It is discovering the purpose of letters, how letters can work alone or be combined to symbolize sounds, and later in the journey, how the spelling of words quite often intersects with their meaning. Phonics instruction simply gives children the information about how letter–sounds work so that they can build automatic word recognition that frees their conscious attention to concentrate on meaning. (p. xiii)

 Mesmer created the chart below which clarifies for teachers the research-based steps in a well-planned phonics lesson.

There is more to phonics instruction than a comprehensive program with teacher’s guide and mounds of consumables. Heidi lays out the critical components of phonics instruction.

Good phonics instruction is about learning the architecture of words—what they are made of. It’s about putting words together and taking them apart. Think about Legos and how children learn from assembling and disassembling. Words are the same way. To learn how they work, children must work with them, understand the parts, put them together, and take them apart. The best phonics instruction relies on active, manipulative, engaging activities in which students read and spell words. Children learn it by doing it. They should have dry erase boards to practice spelling words and listening for sounds. They should have magnetic letters for building words. They should have (child-safe) scissors that allow them to cut the words apart and put them back together. (p. xix)

In the midst of all the hype around reading instruction and various groups touting products, it is important that we return to the research around balanced instruction that includes teaching AND plenty of opportunity for children to use the basic elements of language in practical and authentic ways. The time spent in manipulating sounds and applying new knowledge of letter sound relationships to read and write is exactly what emerging readers need.

Thank you Heidi Anne Mesmer for your book and your support for our #g2great professionals. We know that together we can collaborate for a more effective and efficient way to teach our youngest readers.

American Federation of Teachers. (2019). Phonics Faux Pas. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Sep. 2019].

Mesmer, H. (n.d.). Letter lessons and first words. (2019).

Planning and Organizing for a Student Centered Year

The Greatest Adventures Begin with a Map

by Brent Gilson
If you missed the chat or want to relive it here is a link to the Wake

In my first year of teaching, I remember a coworker teaching her students how story writing was kind of like hunting for treasure. You start with a plan (map) and you follow it to craft an amazing story (treasure). She cautioned her students about wandering too far off the map. How not following the plan will lead the reader to confusion and take the story in a completely different and oftentimes difficult to follow conclusion.

As I looked at the topic for our chat this week I could not help but laugh at how this advice that was given to nine-year-olds is so applicable to us as teachers. The need for a plan that is centred around our students and organized in a way that scaffolds the learning towards student mastery. The purposeful work of bringing all members of the learning team into the equation early so parents/guardians see themselves as valued members of the team and not just observers from the outside. Building a community together, both the social aspects and the physical ones and how we must be purposeful in this as well. All pieces of a map that when followed and centred around our students will do wonders in creating an amazing learning space for our students and a community that helps support everyone involved.

In one of my favourite stories, The North Star, Peter Reynolds writes about a little boy who sets off on a journey. There are signs and markers and people all along the way telling the boy the way to go but he never feels it is the right way. He ends up choosing his own journey and follows the star. I like to think of a good plan as a star. At times I get distracted when teaching. I wander off the map because of these distractions (time, other responsibilities, bad lessons that shake your faith in yourself… you know…distractions).

Last week marked the start of a new school year. I LOVE planning. I have my year written out, all of my objectives set by the curriculum, some different options to address those outcomes and some open-ended options for culminating projects that are heavy in student choice. I stick to a digital format because it is easy to adjust when those roadblocks pop up. This week a big roadblock popped up. Just before I was about to begin my first class teaching 9th grade I received word that the plan I had set for the year would not work. Some miscommunication left me in a spot that I will have to (probably this weekend) rework my whole year. Now this is not a woe is me reflection but a great example of why it is so important to focus our planning, centre our planning on our students. I had built my ninth grade year around the Provincial Assessment. This was in an attempt to leave a large part of the year open to the cool stuff but we would do the lame stuff (standardized assessment) first. Unfortunately, that early writing of the exam was not approved. So I sat trying to figure out how to reframe the year minutes before it started. That uncertainty distracted me and our first class was less than the positive experience I wanted. The next day I apologized to my kids for the mess the lesson was, vowed to do better and now I sit here finishing this post and preparing to revamp a year plan that centres on my students, not a test.

Monday is the start of a new week. I am excited to take some time to talk about expectations, not rules. I didn’t start the year that way because I was excited and assumed that as I have taught many of the students I have this year twice before we didn’t need to discuss these expectations. The thing is though that the expectations are just not ones I have for them, my students needed time to tell me what expectations they have for me and for their peers. Rules just sound oppressive. Expectations create opportunities for students to rise. I have two expectations. BE KIND and WORK HARD. They sit above the board so students see them. It is a work in progress. Rules place limits. I think there is some chemical in middle school and high school students that is triggered when they hear “rules”, I think it is because they (the rules) are rarely focused on student success and more on compliance and kids can sniff that out a mile away. Expectations are centred on each student and can be individualized to assist in success. This purposeful decision has reduced “management issues” in my room and we spend less time talking about rules we have broken and more time discussing how we can rise to surpass expectations.

Reflecting on planning and how important it is to plan with our students at the centre has been a great reminder for me this week. I had lost my way a bit on the map of a successful year. Luckily I am only 1 week in and the path is still under my feet. I know where I am going. I am inviting my students to join me as we explore literacy and surpass our expectations.

All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond

By Fran McVeigh

On August 29, 2019, the #G2Great community gathered with Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey and Dominique Smith to discuss their ASCD book,  All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond. 

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a popular “buzzword” in education although the concept is now about 20 years old. The goal of SEL is to educate the whole child and many programs purport to do so as one more “program” added into student days. Fisher, Frey and Smith contend that no new programs need to be purchased. Let’s check our their responses to three questions to begin this post.

 1.  What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

“We’ve witnessed the power of integrating SEL into the academic flow of daily learning. The students at the school where the three of us work learn to use these skills to understand the biological, physical, and social worlds. In doing so, they gain insight about themselves and their value to the world. We hope that works such as this one open up schools to the potential of SEL as an essential part of the curriculum.” 

2.  What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

“One big takeaway is that SEL is fully expressed through public spirit. Learning about oneself and others is foundational, but ultimately wasted if it isn’t in service to families and  communities. Another big takeaway is that strong teacher-student relationships make social and emotional learning possible. Face it, we teach SEL whether we intend to or not. How we carry ourselves shapes how children and youth see themselves and the world. Why not be intentional?”

3.  What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

“As teachers we have tremendous influence in the lives of our students, and our number one job is to teach with hope. The words we choose, the books we select, the discussions we hold, matter to our students. Hope-filled schools ensure that our students are wise, resilient, and courageous.” 

So what did we learn?

All learning is social and emotional. In order for students to thrive, SEL should be included in content instruction every day in all subjects and grade levels. It is too important to be an “add on”. It is too important to be a “separate curriculum”. And it is too important to not have a predictable framework that equips students for life. The language of teachers, the values they share, the materials, tasks and skills they choose to teach kids matter. Teaching kids (not standards) is the target (A shock for many of our readers to consider!). An SEL focus will influence how students think, how they see themselves, and how they interact with content and with others based on their agency and identity, the emotional self-regulation, their cognitive self-regulation and the development of community in classrooms and the cohesiveness of parent and support groups outside school groups. 

Agency and Identity

 Agency (my belief that I can take action) and identity (how I see myself) are foundational for students’ social and emotional learning. Choice and voice empower students. Classrooms are filled with teachers who make choices every day about addressing students’ agency and identity in their conversations with their students, the learning they design, and the actual tasks developed to elicit student learning. Specific tweets from the authors about building agency and identity, the consequences of limiting agency and identity, and ways to empower students address these issues.

Emotional Self-Regulation

Children learn the vocabulary of identifying their emotions as one step on the road to emotional self-regulation. Naming emotions is an important first step in empowering students. Teachers can infuse emotional regulation skills into read alouds during the academic day and provide opportunities for students to consider the effectiveness of emotional self regulation through reading, writing, and discussion. Selected tweets from the authors follow.

Cognitive Self Regulation

Fisher, Frey and Smith note that goal setting is an essential component of cognitive regulation. They suggest that the adults can lead the way by modeling their own cognitive regulation by sharing their experiences with goal-setting. Involving students, their families, and their community in goal setting has the potential for increased student social and emotional learning. This practice during school and academic content will enable students to be better decision-makers for the remainder of their lives. 

Development of Community 

 Many teachers use circles and regularly scheduled class meetings to address issues that arise in the classroom community. Fisher, Frey and Smith shared how their school faculty uses circle discussions to foster community.  Planning in advance to strengthen family and community involvement also pays off by strengthening social and emotional learning. Planning for involvement makes the learning seamless instead of the appearance of SEL initiatives as an afterthought. Wise tweets from the authors include these.

In Closing . . .

In our lives the “R’s” we face daily go beyond the old Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic to include relationships, responsibility and regulation. It behooves us to make sure that instruction includes agency and identity, application in authentic situations, as well as opportunities for important decision-making that build real life practice. Having SEL be a part of school content work will equip students to be confident and competent as well as informed and involved citizens!


Wakelet with all tweets

Learn more about All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond at

Nancy, Doug, and Dominique have prepared a Quick Reference Guide on these principles. Learn more at

Nancy Frey, Doug Fisher, and Dominique Smith will be hosting a full-day pre-conference session on this topic at the ASCD Empower 2020 conference on March 13 in Los Angeles. Check this link for further details: