Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Writing Unbound: How Fiction Transforms Student Writers

By Fran McVeigh

Wakelet transcript of our #G2Great Chat here

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

I think that we have made writing in schools a task, heavy labor. We need to connect writing with play, with improvisation, pleasure, and friendship.

Tom Newkirk, email.

Tom Newkirk’s response hurts my heart. My teacher heart. My writing heart. My parent heart. My grandmother heart. My literacy being just hurts.

It hurts my heart because I also know it to be true. Writing has become a “chore” in many classrooms, whether it is the kindergarten classroom where students COPY sentences from the board daily, the fourth grade classroom where students respond to daily writing prompts from the teacher, or the middle school classroom where students are engaged in formulaic argument writing day after day. Of course, not all classrooms have reduced writing to tasks and heavy labor. But many classrooms in middle schools and high schools across this country teach “how to write a sentence”, “how to write a five sentence paragraph”, and “how to write a five paragraph essay”. Disheartening. Disillusioning. Deadly for a writer’s heart.






Where do your writing experiences fit? Consider the stories in this blog post. Do they parallel your experiences? You will see stories of writing from writers, teachers of writing, and wisdom from some writing experts!

And now, back to our regular format. Typical posts begin with our title slide and some background on our author or topic. So let’s resume our regular program!

Our #G2Great chat on Thursday, May 27, 2021 with Thomas Newkirk tackled a variety of issues about writing that all writing teachers need to consider. We were discussing his newest beautiful book, Writing Unbound: How Fiction Transforms Student Writers, which is student-centered, qualitative research. Research carefully and respectfully gathered from students and teachers! This was a return visit to #G2Great for Tom who hosted in January of 2018 to discuss Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning. His previous books, Minds Made For Stories and Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones continue to grow our thinking about current fads as well as what we need to hold tightly to in order to realign and reignite our actions, visions, and beliefs about writing instruction.

I love to write. I write best when I have choice in topic/content and organization. I know that’s not always possible. I’m not comfortable writing fiction and stories are still hard. Not fun. Not pleasurable. But in recent years I know that stories cultivate friendships as I have learned through Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life. I have searched for the source of my failure feelings with fiction. One factor: I came from the era when we were taught that our writing should never include “I” or “you”. I and you were consistently “red-inked” by multiple teachers. Consequently it became easier to avoid situations where an “I” or “you” story felt more natural. Avoidance seemed to work. A second factor from my own school days – I don’t remember ever feeling that my teachers were WRITERS so there was little encouragement. And thirdly, writing was often a task or assignment to be completed only by students. Fiction . . . It was never presented as a choice in junior high or high school.

So here are two quick stories from my writing life.

My obsession with improving writing instruction began with a course on writing with Sue Meadows after I had been teaching for a decade or two. Sue was a local district administrator with ELA Curriculum responsibilities. And then I was hooked. Atwell, Graves, Harwayne, Hansen, Murray and Spandel were just a few of the writers that I was studying. I became a sponge. I went to additional training on the “6 Traits” and thoroughly absorbed the notion of aligning instruction with the rubrics used in assessment. Through assessment academies, I also went on to co-lead district-wide writing assessment. Each opportunity led to increased understanding and typical me, I never waited for “someone else to bring the learning to me”. Instead, I continued to search for more information about writing processes and the different genres of writing. My goal: Continue to grow my own understanding of “Quality Writing”!

In November of 2014, I attended and presented at NCTE in Baltimore. One speaker in a panel presentation stood out: Tom Newkirk. I was fortunate to have a seat in the packed room. I chuckled with conference attendees when Tom said that a “hamburger” organizer was an “even bigger insult to a hamburger” besides it often resulted in boring, dull, tired writing. I appreciated his emphasis on student choice writing even as I knew that would be a tough sale for some of the high school teachers in my region. Since that date, my collection of Tom Newkirk’s books has risen exponentially.

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

I felt that there were several “disconnects.” Students are immersed in fictional narratives–movies, video games, books, TV. But they are rarely given the chance to write in these forms. That’s one disconnect. Another is the profusion of fictional writing outside of school (e.g. fanfiction) and its absence in school. I think schools are still operating on an outmoded idea that reading is the dominant form of literacy, and that writing, particularly fiction writing is for the talented few. That’s no longer the case Finally, we praise the benefits of fiction reading as creating empathy and self-understanding. Why can’t the same be said for writing fiction–creating characters? So my goal is to open space for a kind of writing that students are eager to explore.

Tom Newkirk, email

Opening space. I wouldn’t have written about video games until my grandson introduced me to Mario Brothers. But I still don’t know enough to write about it. Fiction reading is my absolute favorite. Fiction writing is my absolute least favorite writing. I don’t know the expectations. I haven’t written enough fiction to write it even “passably” well.

What do you know about fanfiction? Here’s an excerpt from under “Books”.

1,237,100 fanfiction pieces about these 5 books. WOW!

What is the role of fiction in our students’ lives. Are students being asked to READ fiction but NOT write fiction? Isn’t that ironic?

This leads me to the final question that we ask our authors.

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

I hope that they will open their practice to allow fiction writing–not even necessarily requiring it, but making a space for it. I hope that they will listen to students–about what they want to write, and their experiences writing. I hope that teachers themselves try out fictional writing. I hope that teacher prep will make a place for fictional writing as prospective teachers move toward their career. And I hope that our instruction will avoid formulas and instead look inductively to how writers actually write.

Tom Newkirk, email.

Many hopes: allowing fiction writing, listening to students, trying it themselves, teacher prep, avoiding formulas and examining real writing.

Now that we have looked at Tom’s goals for his book and heard two of my stories about writing, let’s get to the heart. What are students saying about their writing? These two quotes were part of the #G2Great chat.

Writing Unbound, Thomas Newkirk

Some people don’t get the “What if?” Some people like the easier what ifs of what if this happened to so-and-so, in modern day. Other people can’t stand that kind of stuff and that is what fantasy is for.

Helen, quoted in Reading Unbound

I can relate to Caroline’s “flow of ideas” as drafting is a messy spot in my head with ideas ping ponging everywhere. As for Ernest’s ideas, I think I would pass on the writing a story and the analysis. Helen speaks of the freedom of “What if?” in fantasy writing. Maybe my niche in writing would be to verify more informational text/ideas that could be added?

What I take away from all three students and Tom’s tweets is that writing stems from many sources and that we must trust students because 1) they do know a lot and

2) there is no one way for writing to go!

And they, the students, know it!

But I don’t see that flexibility for students or even for teachers of writing in many of our schools.

The wakelet contains so much wisdom from Tom Newkirk and the many teachers and #G2Great friends who join us weekly. The remainder of this post is going to focus on just this one question.

Why has fiction writing diminished in the upper grades?

  1. Call for college prep writing and Common Core Standards

College and Career Ready

I call this bias, the cattle-chute vision of preparation. This is why a creative writing elective is often viewed as a kind of indulgence, unrelated to the main mission of high school writing. I think of the advice that the young Dav Pilkey received: that he would never make a living drawing silly cartoons about a principal who thinks he is Captain Underpants. That, of course, was several million book sales ago.

Tom Newkirk, Writing Unbound

Some folks do not believe that fiction writing has a place in academia; fiction writing is for beginning writers. That leads us to reason two.

2. Fiction is too easy and not rigorous enough.

… narrative is not a discrete type of writing—it is our primary mode of understanding, and it underlies all writing.

(Newkirk 2014)

It simply makes no sense to deny students the opportunity to write in the genres they choose to read.

3. Lack of personal perception of competence and conviction that fiction fits into daily writing instruction

Fiction writing can also offer an experience that I feel is crucial to enjoying writing: the feeling that writing generates writing—that a word suggests the next word or phrase, that we can listen to writing and sense what it suggests. And even for teachers committed to fiction writing, it’s a tough fit in the curriculum. Stories take time and are often far longer than more contained forms of writing—an editorial, for example, which can be held to a few paragraphs.

Tom Newkirk, Writing Unbound

Not all writing is equal. Writing-like activities are available that may or may not parallel reading activities. Tom calls these peripherals. It may surface in writing prompts, vocabulary or comprehension work.

In Conclusion . . .

As I searched for a way to conclude this post I was drawn back to these questions that Tom Newkirk used to close chapter 2 of Writing Unbound. What are your answers? How would your students answer them? They might be a source of reflection on past instruction or planning for next year’s instruction!

So we need to ask: Can we inhabit the dizzying worlds that Ernest and his friends create? Can we experience with them the dangers and narrow escapes? Can we even help them think through their plots, imagine their characters? Can we play their game? It’s a challenge worth taking up.

Tom Newkirk, Writing Unbound

LInks for Additional Resources:

On the Podcast: Writing Unbound Link

Sample chapter from Writing Unbound Link

A Confession from Tom Newkirk about Writing Unbound Link

Bridging the Divide between Creative Writing and Literary Analysis Link

Added 06.07.2021: “The Power of Writing Collaborative Fiction” by David Lee Finkle LInk

Love & Literacy A Practical Guide For Grades 5-12 To Finding The Magic In Literature

by Jenn Hayhurst

To access the Wakelet please click here.

On May 20, 2021 Stephen Chiger joined #G2Great to lead a joyful discussion about his and Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s book, Love & Literacy A Practical Guide For Grades 5-12 to Finding The Magic In Literature. My first thought about their book was, what a beautiful title. Any time the words: love, literacy, and magic come together, I know it is a place I want to be. Stephen did not disappoint. The chat was filled to the brim of good ideas and positivity, all of which was inspired by his brilliant book. We asked Stephen: “What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?”

Ultimately, we wrote this book because we fell in love with the idea of a better world, one where all of our children receive an engaging, equitable education.  Paul and I are fortunate to have worked at Uncommon Schools for a combined 3 decades, and in that time we have learned from some of the most tenacious, focused, and caring educators out there.  This book is part reportorial in nature – we spend time showing and then analyzing what successful teachers do so that all of us – whether we’re new to the field or seasoned instructors – can make these moves our own.

Above all, I hope this book adds research-based clarity and insight for ELA teachers and coaches.  We’ve filled the book with videos, printables, discussion guides, and other resources to help educators bring these ideas to life in their rooms.  And in every section, we always spend time demonstrating examples of the approaches we advocate, keeping the book as practical as we can make it!

Specifically, I’d love it if this book can disrupt the binary that educators have to choose between instruction kids love and instruction that challenges them.  In our experience, these both go hand in hand.  As we quote from one of my mentors: “kids love what they know how to do.”

Stephen Chiger

Stephen has captured our imaginations because if you teach then you know that so much important learning happens through story. Stephen and Paul have given us a resource that will help us craft instruction that is both appealing and relevant to all our students.

Maximizing Student Voice

If we want to develop student voice then we need to give them access to an audience. Giving students time for self-expression and critical thinking shows them that their voices matter. We are all in to know what they have to share, and now they are part of a larger community – a community built on a culture of literacy that is deeply invested in them and what what they have to say:

Instructional gems such as giving students time to be thoughtful and write their responses first prior to turn and talk ensures that all students have the opportunity to cultivate their voice When teachers minimize the role of “teacher voice” in learning we amplify “student voice”. In doing so, we gain invaluable formative data that helps us to know not only what students may need in an academic sense but how they see themselves in the world. The classroom community learns how to appreciate new and different perspectives that encourage flexible thinking.

A Free Exchange of Ideas

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

We think teachers will find new variations on many things they may have already been wondering about or implementing.  Specifically, we investigate four big questions that middle- and high-school literacy teachers might have (and that we’ve had!):

·        What’s our dream for kids? – What does the curriculum need to reflect and do to serve all children well?  How can teachers go about building or revising the curriculum they have?

·        What will I see when students “get it”? – How can we break down or make visible reading comprehension and analysis?  If students are stuck on a challenging text, what can we do?

·        What will I hear when students “get it”? – What does it take to facilitate equitable, student-centered discourse that doesn’t sacrifice our ambitious goals as teachers? 

·        How do I begin?  — What does it take to build a culture where students love reading and develop a sense of self in the humanities?  And how can educators project plan to make that – and all the ideas in the book – come to life in our classrooms?

Stephen Chiger

There is a common theme of empowerment for all in Stephen’s answers. Teachers have the power of impact on their side to make a difference for our students. The tweets that follow continue to show ways we can elevate our students’ thinking through dynamic instruction:

When teachers pay attention not only to what students say but how they say it, they are showing them that their ideas have value. Giving students feedback using an asset lens shows students that they are not only seen but appreciated by their teachers. All of these instructional moves knit together to make the classroom a safe place where they can continue to grow: intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

Just as a diamond has its foil, students have their teachers. Stephen and Paul have reminded us that we are here to make our students dazzle and light up the room. We are here to elevate their voices and celebrate their ideas. We asked Stephen: What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

As an English teacher, you know that the path you’ve chosen won’t always be easy. You’ve seen your way through enough bleary-eyed, late-night grading sessions to understand what Robert Hayden called “love’s austere and lonely offices.”

Loving literacy means loving our vast, luminous world, and teaching literacy means sharing that love with others.

Being an English teacher means you are called to love. And when that call comes, you answer.

Paul Bambrick Santoyo & Stephen Chiger

We want to thank Stephen and Paul for writing an important book. Love & Literacy A Practical Guide For Grades 5-12 To Finding The Magic In Literature not only informs best practice but it also inspires us to do the work. It holds true to a value system that honors students completely. If you would like to learn more, and we hope you do, please follow these links:

Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You

by Mary Howard

Access the full Wakelet from our chat with Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul here

On 5/13/21, we welcomed a familiar face to the #G2Great guest host seat when Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul returned to share her much anticipated new book: Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You (2021, Little, Brown and Company). Sonja and Dana Johansen previously co-hosted on 8/8/19 for Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide for Teachers (2019, Heinemann). We couldn’t wait to soak in Sonja’s wisdom yet again, especially given the critical need for deep discussions about racism, antiracism and actionable steps that each of us could take. 

Stamped (For Kids) joins a family of three incredible books. It is described as an “adaptation” based on the first of this book family by Dr. Ibram X. KendiStamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. This is quite an accomplishment considering Sonja beautifully transforms nearly 600 pages into less than 200. Dr. Jason Reynolds wrote an adaptation for teens in Racism, Antiracism and You while Sonja’s book focuses on ages 7-12, although we are already seeing that it is also having an impact on children beyond and even below this age range. 

My personal copy of Stamped arrived two days before our chat. It’s the first time I recall being so engrossed in a book that I read from cover to cover in one day, barely coming up for air followed by a reread the next day.

Yes, Stamped (For Kids) is that captivating.

With each page, I grew more certain that it would have a lingering impact for years to come. But then, why take my word?

“This book is going to change the world and shake things up in the best possible way.”

Julia Torres quoted above during a Stamped (For Kids) Webinar

Sonja’s final tweet of #G2Great chat shows that Stamped is already shaking things up!

As I read, I was struck by the student-centered design that included twenty-four short chapters divided into historical time frames with reflections expertly scattered across the pages lifted by the exquisite art of Rachelle Baker. Add to this, the text resources with a Timeline of Key Moments in American History, Glossary, and further reading for educators and it’s clear that Sonja’s gift between two covers will most certainly linger long after reading and “change the world” for many years to come.

Through this thoughtful design, I envisioned the amazing BIG conversations Stamped would provoke. I knew it was written for kids, but as an adult reader I realized that this design also offers teachers a gentle conversational nudge. One cannot read Stamped without recognizing that this dialogue will likely be uncomfortable for many educators, particularly white teachers like myself. Sonja wisely avoids a rigid “lesson plan” that may discourage teachers to draw from in-the-moment opportunities that arise in the course of reading. Instead, she adds “Let’s Pause/Let’s Unpause” thinking boxes at just right points across the chapters that feel like an “invitation” while leaving room for teachers to trust their instincts and what students bring to the discussion table. 

In the opening paragraph of Stamped, Sonja talks directly to the “FOR KIDS” of this book, acknowledging that they may wonder what learning about people and events across history has to do with their lives. As a child, this question often crossed my mind, but my thoughts quickly turned to those who still carry reservations about teaching the history of racism even now. After reading Stamped, I am confident that Sonja’s kind and supportive voice will dramatically reduce the reservations of many teachers but know that we have a long way to go to change this perception for ALL.

When authors host our #G2great chat, we invite them to respond to three questions about their book to provide insight that adds to our understandings from the author’s perspective. So, let’s pause to look at Stamped (For Kids) from Sonja’s wise eyes:

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

I thought about the power and potential that Stamped For Kids could have in the lives of young people who would no longer have to wait for their teachers to get comfortable teaching about race and racism. Students can read SFK and access the information they need to think about the kind of choices they’d like to make in their lives. I hope educators will embrace SFK and will make it a core part of their curriculum. Because students will read this book and will start to show up in their classrooms ready to question text books, curriculums, assignments, and teaching that presents white-washed version of history. Students will show up ready to challenge racist ideas with antiracist ones. 

Why are Sonja’s words above especially relevant? For me, it’s her deep belief in providing a support reference that could remove barriers of discomfort so that our children “no longer have to wait for their teachers to get comfortable teaching about race and racism.” The sense of urgency in Sonja’s words drew me back to a quote on page 3 that we shared early in the chat:

This quote was directly followed by Sonja’s use of “rope” as a metaphor to think about racism and antiracism. I have read this description repeatedly, but it was listening to Ibram X. Kendi read it aloud in a 5/10/21 live webinar as Sonja’s face lit up with joy that I will forever hold in my heart. Listen to Dr. Kendi read at marker 27:00 in this webinar recording by #LBYRExtraCredit Presents: Stamped (For Kids) with Ibram X.Kendi, Sonja Cherry-Paul and Julia Torres (The “rope” metaphor reappears in the book).

In twenty-four chapters, Sonja gives us the history of racism and antiracism spanning from 1415 to the present with events and people including names I was familiar with and many I was not. I learned about people who were both racists, those who were antiracists and even some who purportedly supported antiracist ideals while racist actions were in conflict with their words. I learned about writer’s musicians, authors, performers and artists and as a long-time hip hop lover, I was delighted to discover music I had missed by some of my favorite artists like James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” that now have a place of honor on my favorites list.

As I read, I was saddened to realize how few of these events and people are taught in schools today, just as I never learned them in my own schooling that began in 1955. Knowing that professional impact is limited without that knowledge, I thought about our educational obsession for reducing Black History to a mere blip on the school calendar radar screen with a short list of names often used for fill-in-the-blank activities. As I type, I glance at Sonja’s book filled with history at my fingertips. I think about the disservice we do to children and adults who teach and love them if we don’t know that history – history that continues to have a stranglehold on our world. 

This seems like a fitting time to share Sonja’s reflections on our second question:

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

Please keep in mind two powerful lenses to use when teaching about race and racism. 1) Affirmation. Even when teaching about the violent history of racism in the United States it is essential to affirm racial and cultural identities of those who have been most impacted by racism: Black and Brown people. In a country that is filled with anti-Blackness students need educators to affirm Blackness. 2) Awareness. Tell and teach the truth. Help students to identify the ways racism works beyond individual acts of hate; that racism is not isolated, but endemic. Help students see how racism functions systemically in all of the nation’s institutions, so that they can develop tools to identify it in their lives and also to disrupt it. 

Words to Live by from Sonja Cherry-Paul with Truths filling the pages of Stamped for us all to read

During #G2great chat, Sonja told the truth we can use to teach in tweet after tweet:


On the morning after a full read of Stamped, I reached for my copy to reread Sonja’s wisdom but then I decided to quickly check my email first. At the top of my emails was a post by Diane Ravitch with the headline: Oklahoma state officials say It’s “Racist” to Teach About “Racism.” I live in Oklahoma, in fact the very city where The Tulsa Race Massacre took place in 1921. Sonja’s words had filled me with renewed hope and possibility. But as I stared at the words of ignorance on my computer screen, I had an overwhelming sense of shame to live in my own state.

After spending several minutes pondering the tragedy of what is all too common in our schools these days and the stark reality of racism everywhere we turn, I found solace for the unrelenting ignorance that won’t let go with Sonja’s words on page 5. My spirits lifted when I thought about how Sonja defined “antiracist” for her young (and yes, much older) readers in such a powerful way: 

I thought about the hope and beauty in these words but also sadness for the love that is sorely missing in the world. I realized that the world cannot change until we are all willing to stand in solidarity and fight this ignorance in any way we can. I wondered if that begins with the introspective courage to admit that we have far to go personally. As I read the history of racism and antiracism from the 1415 “Great Big Lie” to present day, I was disappointed how little I knew. While this realization awakened a desire for change, I couldn’t shake the shame of not knowing. I had built a glass house around my whiteness shielding me from uncomfortable events simply because I had not lived them. But as I wrapped my fingers lovingly around Stamped as I had so many times in recent days, I recalled three words Sonja wrote in large capital letters: 

Those three words did not absolve my lack of awareness, but it did give me renewed hope: hope for myself, hope for others, hope for the world inspired by the knowledge of those who read Sonja’s beautiful book and share it with children they love. Sonja’s book is filled with invitations to change. She kept her promise to take readers on a race journey from then to now so that we may be part of writing the next chapter. She asks us to envision an “Antiracist Future” in her closing letter to kids on page 137. She reminds us that Stamped is “a start, not a finish” and that we can craft our journey to antiracism as we read, learn, talk and act in support of this journey. Above all, Sonja brings her words on page 7 to life on every page across her book. And it is these two words that I return to as I close this post and I will carry with me every day.

We are so grateful that Sonja graced our #G2great chat with her wisdom and gave us a book that will provide the heart fuel we need to engage in this important personal and collective journey. I can’t think of a better way to end this post than by returning to Sonja’s hopes for Stamped as each of us consider our own next steps toward an antiracist future.

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

I hope teachers will read SFK and see a clear pathway for teaching about race, racism, and antiracism. I hope educators will embrace racial literacy as a necessary part of their teaching practices and that SFK is used to support this work. It’s important for teachers to understand that we truly cannot heal as a nation until we air our wounds and face the truth. And I hope that they see this work as urgent, necessary work as they teach young people in order for us to realize an antiracist future. 

Thank you, Sonja!


Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul: Using ‘Stamped (For Kids)’ to Have Age-Appropriate Discussions About Race

Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul Letter to Young Readers: Stamped (For Kids) — Our Story

#LBYRExtraCredit Presents: Stamped (For Kids) webinar with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul and Julia Torres

From Read an Excerpt From Stamped (For Kids) By Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi by Alaina Lavoie 

Teaching Guide for the first two Stamped in the series with Sonja assuming the role of curriculum developer. NOTE: A Stamped (For Kids) guide will be out this summer  

Re-Examining and Revising Our Thinking To Transform Our Practices: Formative Assessment

by Brent Gilson

To check out the archive of this chat head over the the Wakelet here.

My Journey With Assessment

I have been teaching now for 11 years. I think back to my days in University and having taken courses on assessment; the idea of Assessment of Learning vs Assessment for Learning was drilled into me. It was the most basic understanding I had of summative versus formative assessment. I remember excitedly beginning my career thinking about all the potential. Potential locked behind kids who were worried about those summative assessments, how through formative assessment, reteaching and preparing them those tests would be less scary, less binding. They would be ready. Little did I know that so many teachers in my early days were not clear on the idea of formative assessment. We had grade books FILLED with marks for every spelling, math, grammar, science, social, writing exercise you could imagine. Assessment did not look like it was for more than anything than points and students were already in 3rd grade becoming excellent point collectors. Our division brought in all the PD in the world but practice rarely changed. Over time I started looking for things I could do myself, to just move the needle on assessment in my own room. Exit slips, hinge point questions, I worked with a local assessment consortium to learn about ways we can write questions better to explore what our students were missing. I learned to resist the call to bludgeon our students with an avalanche of data in a grade book and focused on what mattered…them.


Last spring the pandemic took a lot from us, our physical classrooms, the ability to have face to face conversations, sit shoulder to shoulder with our students safely. It also gave me something though and that was time. Time to research and look at my practice and one thing I really wanted to move towards was a feedback system that was less about grades and more about growth. I stumbled on to a book by Dr. Sarah M Zerwin titled Point-Less (the wakelet can be found here). Her work really helped me to frame what it was I wanted to do in my classroom. I shifted more towards students setting and assessing their own goals while I did the same. The conversations we have been able to have shifted in my classroom as well. Students are asking less “How many pages does this need to be?” Or “how much is this worth on the report card” and have started accepting statements like “Quality over Quantity” and understanding that all assignments are data to guide learning and completing their own goals. We are all engaged in work to inform how we are doing as both students and teachers. I am not certain I will ever be done learning how to assess because I keep moving the goal posts trying to be better. Looking at my practice and how I can grow. Imagining the freedom of a class no longer concerned about summative exams because there are no surprises they know where they are… learning.

The Chat

This whole reflection takes us to the chat. Teachers gathering to share their thoughts on formative assessment. We all recognize there are challenges, cracks that some of our students are being left to trip on because we either don’t know better or have not taken the time to ask what is better for them. I think the pandemic has pushed some questions to the surface, many on equity. Another is just the topic of how students learn best. I have had students thrive when online. A self-guided approach where they are in the comfort of their home, working at their pace and time has been what they needed. Other students who thrived in the systems pre-covid, struggled when left to manage themselves.

Is this observation not just another point of formative assessment? How can we adjust our practices to meet all students?

Looking through the tweets from Thursday I am struck by the fact that we do know the issues, also by the fact that largely they are the same problems we have been dealing with since assessment became a money maker. Standardized Tests and the companies that make them are big business and they are working overtime to shift our focus back to these programs and tests that forget the child and focus on data.

Not from the chat but thought it fit perfectly

When we look at the myth of learning loss because of Covid it is being pushed by companies, not by classroom teachers. When I assessed my students at the start of this year, early in the pandemic, certainly there were gaps I had not identified previously. But we are in a pandemic. When looking at the whole learner I see incredible growth. Students are learning time management, critical thinking, empathy and compassion. They are also learning all the things that a standardized test measures but the environment has changed. The assessment, to remain valid, must follow.

There was a lot of great thinking in the chat and I would recommend spending some time with the linked wakelet. In my own reflection I am continually going back to my students. If my assessment practices are driving them away from joyful learning then I am doing it wrong. Strong formative assessment takes work, it takes trust and it takes relationships. When our students know that they no longer need to be afraid of falling because we will catch them, they will take that learning leap. We just need to be there.

You can revisit the other chats in the series using the links below.

TITLE#G2Great Blog Links
4/8/21Fidelity: to What and to Whom? 
4/15/21Reading Levels: Maintaining a Flexible Stance 
4/22/21Small Groups: Broadening Our Perspectives 
4/28/21Interventions: Collective Collaboration 
5/6/21Formative Assessment: Instructional Informants

Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking Series Part Four Intervention: Collective Collaboration

View the chat in its entirety on Wakelet

by Valinda Kimmel

Part Four of #g2great Re-Examining and Revising Our Thinking Series was focused on intervention this week: Intervention: Collective Collaboration

As always, the discussion was lively and inspiring. When writing this post, I usually depend on the various tweets from peers who join the #g2great team. I’d like to take a departure from the typical format for this week’s blog post here. I’ll be sharing a blog post I wrote a few years ago about a staff member I worked with who is an intervention master teacher. I believe once you’ve read, you’ll agree.

Four days a week I witness first-hand the magic of learning to read. Mrs. O is an interventionist on our  K-6 campus and I share office space with her in Room 18. When I’m not in a classroom working with teachers and kids, I sit at my desk and learn from the master teacher of learning to love to read.

Mrs. O is in compliance with our district model of RtI, but she also knows that it takes more to become a lover of books. More than phonics instruction. More than repeated reading of leveled texts. More than picture walks or front-loaded vocabulary, or comprehension questions.

A typical small group reading session with Mrs. O includes:

  •                Phonics/Word Work
  •                Quick re-read of a familiar text
  •                Introduction of a new text
  •                Students read independently while teacher listens
  •                New strategy lesson on comprehension skills
  •                Questions to facilitate critical thinking within/beyond/about the text
  •                Engaging teacher read-aloud and written response

Look familiar? It should.

Did you, however, spot the outlier? Mrs. O chooses high-interest, children’s books to read aloud to her small group of students.

Magic. Pure magic.

Here’s what the read-aloud looks like:

Mrs. O asks students to quickly recap what they’ve read to that point. Sometimes students are asked to listen for a specific event, character reaction, or an element of author’s craft before she starts the new chapter or short selection from the text. Sometimes they just listen to Mrs. O read. At the close of the read-aloud, students write. Always. With lots of support from Mrs. O (who, BTW, is writing while the students write). Everyone shares their written response.

Students in Mrs. O’s group are reading books (or hearing books read aloud) that are a direct match to the content they are learning in their Tier I instruction. So often our kids who require additional support miss out on the “meaty” bits of reading content in their whole class instruction. Not on Mrs. O’s watch.

For example, several weeks ago third grade students were engaged in an inquiry unit about the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. O’s intervention session included a read-aloud or a leveled reader about that pivotal time in our nation’s history. There were books about Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King along with other great black heroes. The students asked so many questions about the civil rights movement that Mrs. O determined they needed a little more background information so they read The Drinking Gourd to understand the immense need for people in America to work together to create freedom for all its citizens.

Every day they wrote about what they’d read. I watched as the students struggled to articulate the heart of each text. Mrs. O exhorted and modeled and supported and listened. Every day they read their writing to an audience.

The mysterious allure of Mrs. O’s reading small group protocol is something that can’t be bought in a kit or mass-produced.

Mrs. O loves to read.

Maybe I should say she lives to read. She once told me that she can still remember the smell of the library she visited often as a child. She shares with me about the books she’s currently reading. She gives the absolute best impromptu book talks.

The love affair Mrs. O has with books is unmistakable. This book love wraps its arms around those burgeoning readers, drawing them into the text and, almost as important, drawing them into a supernatural binding of hearts with their beloved bibliophile of an intervention teacher.

That is true intervention. Taking a child who thinks they can’t or don’t want to read and knitting their hearts together through the shared experience of reading captivating texts is what ultimately makes a life-long reader.

A few days before our holiday break began, Mrs. O and her 3rd grade group finished reading A Mouse Called Wolf. So many miraculous things had happened to that small band of readers in a few short days. One child in the group is an ELL student who rarely shares openly in the discussions. A particular part of the story resonated with her and she and Mrs. O bantered back and forth giggling and making silly comments in reference to that event. Another student burst forth with an impromptu solo of the Beatles hit song, Help! (yet another great moment from the book.)

The laughter and the shared experience in that merry company  in Mrs. O’s group as a result of their most recent read-aloud spoke volumes about their growth as readers. Small group reading instruction for our most fragile readers is absolutely critical.

But so is an inexorable love of books.

You can see that Mrs. O has perfected the combination of the art and science of intervention. She knows the specific skills needed to accurately read and come to full understand of a text, but she also knows that intervention instruction is about leading her table full of kids to love reading in their community of peers.

That’s precisely what kids need.

This was the 4th chat in our 5-part series so we hope you’ll join us this week.