October 22, 2014

Guiding Reading with Great Books

Fish and Frog
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We are constantly on the look out for beginning reading material that gives young readers substantial work with meaning. Unfortunately, too many of the beginning reading texts available offer minimal opportunities to think deeply. As finding texts worth rereading is essential to teaching students to read closely and carefully, the quality of beginning reading texts is a real dilemma.


We’ve engaged in a number of efforts to promote conversations about quality, beginning reading texts. For example, we developed this Text Complexity Rubric for evaluating guided reading books on levels A-E (because after level E, quality material is much easier to find.) Also, we worked with the wonderful illustrator, Steve Jenkins, to develop “Think Books,” which are leveled A-E, are companions to Steve Jenkins’s other titles, and available as free PDFs and free digital flipbooks. We are fond of the guided reading books by Okapi (reviewed here), as they have higher than average numbers of books that rate a level 4 (highest score) on our rubric, which means they give young readers a lot to think about.


Recently, we have revisited the “Brand New Reader” collection from Candlewick Press. Kim’s sons both learned to read with these texts, while Jan is relatively new to them. We are excited to add them to our collection of texts that offer both appropriate word work and thought-provoking comprehension opportunities. The authors/illustrators accomplish this feat by letting the images carry some of the meaning in the text.


They are also super affordable. You can purchase four books about a set of characters, such as Fish and Frog (below) in a slipcase for $5.99, or $1.50/book. They also come in boxed sets of 10 titles and an incentive chart with stickers for $12.99, which would work well for summer reading programs.*


Here are a few of our favorite titles:


Fish and Frog

Fish Makes Faces (Level C) and Hide-and-Seek (Level D) are both part of the “Fish and Frog” collection. In Fish Makes Faces, fish makes different faces–sad, silly, happy– in a mirror stuck in the sand on the ocean floor. When he makes a scary face, he scares himself. In Hide-and-Seek, Frog and Fish take turns hiding, but when Fish hides behind Fish, Fish can’t find him. Both texts have illustrations that give readers something to think about.

Mouse has fun

In the “Mouse Has Fun” collection, you will find It’s Super Mouse (Level B). Super Mouse–Mouse in a red cape–jumps off various, increasingly-tall objects to “fly.” At the end of the story, when he jumps off a hill, he flies and “lands.” The picture tells the story, of course, as the landing is a little bumpy.

Termite Trouble

Finally, we particularly love Termite Bites, which is in the “Termite Trouble” collection. This Level A text begins with Termite facing a log and thinking about where to bite it. It ends with Termite facing a wooden sculpture of himself.


For more information about the Brand New Readers from Candlewick Press.
*We receive a lot of materials for review and we only write reviews for the few we like best. We don’t usually list prices, but it seemed relevant in this case, since these are SOOO affordable and schools are both desperate for quality guiding materials and short on funds. We don’t work for Candlewick and don’t receive any kick-backs for reviewing their books. We do, however, like just about everything they do.

Evaluating and Vetting Common Core “Aligned” Close Reading Materials

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As publishers continue to flood the market with “Common Core” aligned materials, the task of sifting through and weeding out the good from the bad becomes increasingly more difficult. Educators are particularly concerned about which materials to purchase to support students’ ability to read “closely and carefully.” In response to this growing concern, we offer you the following three questions to ask as you evaluate and vet the materials you are considering for your school.

1. How interested will your students be in reading the texts in this resource?

In developing their materials, many publishers have ignored the three defining characteristics of complex text (quantitative, qualitative, reader and task) and unfortunately include text that meet only the quantitative measure. Furthermore, in many cases, publishers are repurposing text that is decades old, offering students the dryest of reading selections. Because reading is a transactional relationship between reader and text, it is important that text be compelling. We cannot expect students to invest in close and careful reading if they lack the motivation, purpose, knowledge, or experience to be able to interact with the articles and/or stories in the resource. We recommend that educators read at least three to five different samples of text in a close reading resource to determine whether the content feels appropriate for the intended audience.


2. Who’s doing the work?

As we have perused many resources aimed at helping students read “closely and carefully,” we have noticed a trend toward the publisher determining when and where children should stop and think.  Generally, these points are delineated by the insertion of a text-based question or task that asks students to reread to notice something deemed important about the text. While there is some value in supporting students’ ability to read closely and carefully in this way, we are skeptical that repeating this process over and over will yield the desired result–an independent and proficient reader. We believe that the decision making process about how to read closely and carefully is more important than answering a series of questions about a text.  We recommend that educators consider how a resource releases thinking responsibility to the student. If there are no opportunities for students to make decisions about where to stop and think and what to think about, it is unlikely that they will transfer this skill to their own independent reading.


3. Are the questions worth answering? 

In looking at several materials by several different publishers, it appears that “close reading” has been generalized to mean “exhaustive reading.” We find that more times than not, close reading resources leave no stone unturned. Text is chunked into equal portions and students are asked to notice and note details about every aspect of the text, regardless of its significance to the larger themes and messages of the text. We are concerned that this practice implies that all text is created equally, which it is not.  Some text , even portions of classic literature, just isn’t worthy of close, careful rereading.  We worry that time spent rereading to answer questions about inane sections of text will perpetuate what Kelly Gallagher calls “readicide,” or, the systematic killing of the love of reading.” As you evaluate resources for reading closely and carefully, we recommend that you consider how much rereading students do in each text and consider whether the questions in the text have students striving toward significant or superficial understandings.

Participating in the National Conversation

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One of our first efforts to write about the Common Core State Standards involved looking closely at the research behind the author’s suggestion that students should spend their time in frustration-level texts. From analyzing the research a couple of years ago to speculating on the use of the term “frustration” more recently, the ongoing national conversation about the role (or lack thereof) of instructional level text in elementary instruction is of keen interest to us. There are a number of writers and/or bloggers we respect who offer us insight and perspective as we try to make sense of the array of challenges to sound literacy instruction. Among those is Russ Walsh, who offers thoughtful and balanced perspectives based on a keen understanding of the historical perspectives of both literacy instruction and the Common Core. Yesterday, in his guest post on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, “The Answer Sheet,” Russ wrote of recent and heated debates about the role of frustration level texts in classroom instruction. In his post, he refers to our analysis of the related research cited by Timothy Shanahan in support of eliminating instructional reading level texts. We are confident you will find the article of interest for its attention to both the nuts and bolts of the issue and the broader educational and political implications.  We are interested in learning more about what this national conversation has people thinking about and invite you to share your experiences, insights, concerns, and questions in the comment section of today’s post.

Has Close Reading Gone Amok? (Part 2)

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On Tuesday, when we first posed the question, “Has close reading gone amok?,” we shared some of the “close reading” tasks we found in the workbooks Kim’s sons are using this year to learn to “read closely and carefully.”  Here are a few excerpts:

Reread lines 27-44.  In the margin, make an inference about how the narrator probably felt about her father’s response to her new talent.

As you read lines 140-179, underline language that describes how the father seems to be changing.  Make notes in the margin in lines 140-150.

Reread lines 169-205.  In the margin, explain how Marlene’s relationship with her father has changed. What is her father doing at night? Support your answers with explicit textual evidence.

Unlike Social Studies and Science textbook questions that appear at the end of a section or a chapter about a specific topic, the tasks in these close reading workbooks are interspersed throughout the passages.  It appears that the design is intended to teach students to chunk text into meaningful sections, pausing periodically to notice relevant details or ask thought provoking questions.

As Matthew and Nathan make their way through their close reading exercises, they  stop when they are told to do so, underlining or circling text and making annotations in the margins. However, as they work, they are also counting how many tasks they have left to complete, calculating how long it will take to finish all of these tasks. They don’t make the effort to find all of the details that indicate how the father in the story “has changed” because they also have to write out their inferences and point to details that support those inference. Then, they have to write four short responses, complete with quotes and evidence from the story. They know this assignment is going to take a while, so they carefully measure their effort. They aren’t working to deeply understand the story, or even to practice “close reading.” Rather, they are working because they want to finish in a reasonable amount of time.

As we think about their work, we are reminded of a parable that Dorothy Barnhouse shared in her new book, Readers Front and Center. The story is about three stonemasons working in a quarry. When someone asks them what they were doing, the first stonemason says that he is cutting a stone. The second says that he is building a parapet. The third stonemason, however, shares that he is building a cathedral.

While all of the stonemasons were doing the same work, only the third was doing so with vision and purpose. Our hope is that when children read, they, like the third stonemason, see the larger goals and purposes of their reading. However, when students are prompted when to notice and connect and infer, close reading feels like a farce. Reading that should be building cathedrals becomes a mere act of cutting stones.

Has Close Reading Gone Amok? (Part 1)

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Social media response to the posts we write and share on this blog help us to keep our finger on the pulse of what really matters to educators. So, when Reading Today recently released its “What’s Hot” list, it didn’t surprise us that “Close reading/deep reading” ranked as one of the hottest topics in literacy. What did surprise us, however, was that “Comprehension” earned only a single yellow dot indicating that, by comparison, it’s not nearly as hot as “close reading.”

Interestingly, in the  “should be hot” column, the experts polled indicated that they think this phenomenon should be reversed, with a greater emphasis placed on comprehension.  We couldn’t agree more and, in our post The Essence of a Close Read, we even cautioned educators against the dangers of overemphasizing “close reading” warning that doing so risks “schoolifying” and subsequently undermining the real purpose of reading closely: to understand.  

By now, the school year is solidly underway in all parts of the United States.  We find ourselves thinking a lot about close reading and its place in American schools.  In fact, Kim’s sons, Matthew and Nathan have shiny new “Close Reading” workbooks for the new school year. These workbooks involve finding and highlighting bits of “evidence” in relatively short, purportedly complex texts.

In these workbooks, Kim’s sons and their peers are instructed to execute discrete tasks, such as the following:

Reread lines 27-44.  In the margin, make an inference about how the narrator probably felt about her father’s response to her new talent.

As you read lines 140-179, underline language that describes how the father seems to be changing.  Make notes in the margin in lines 140-150.

Reread lines 169-205.  In the margin, explain how Marlene’s relationship with her father has changed. What is her father doing at night? Support your answers with explicit textual evidence.

This oversimplification of a sophisticated process, which involves trying to reduce close reading to a few objective responses in a workbook, is what often happens in education, unfortunately. Succombing to political and testing pressures and responding to the abundance of poor and mediocre materials flooding the market, we take a reasonable idea, such as reading for meaning, and we go to extremes,  losing sight of what is really important. Close reading is merely an extension of tenets we all consider important, i.e. students read to understand, to learn, to think.


Helping Students Engage with Complex Texts

Readers Front and Center by Dorothy Barnhouse
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Readers Front and Center by Dorothy Barnhouse

In October 2012, we reviewed several texts useful in helping students engage with complex texts. These professional resources predated the Common Core, yet seemed to address many of the themes educators were discussing in relationship to the new standards. Books, such as  Janet Allen’s On the Same Page, Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds, Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading, and Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton’s What Readers Really Do, offer insight into Common Core related topics, such as helping children read closely, understand deeply, and access increasingly complex text. However, these books are not how-to guides for aligning instruction with the Standards, but set about to deeply investigate these topics and help strengthen educators knowledge-base and therefore, practice. We relish and deeply appreciate books like these because they delve deep into the heart of “what really matters,” and we are always excited when we find new titles that fall into this category.

This past spring, Stenhouse released one such book: Readers Front and Center by Dorothy Barnhouse. For teachers who have been struggling to figure out how to close the gap between what students can read proficiently and what they are expected to read proficiently, this book sends a powerful reminder that, in spite of the onslaught of educational materials that promise to deliver a silver bullet, the real silver bullet comes down to this: thoughtful teaching.

Dorothy clearly understands that, when it comes to comprehension instruction, most educators default to focusing on the WHAT of the text, asking questions, such as

  • WHAT is the story about?
  • WHERE does it take place?
  • WHAT do you know about where it takes place?
  • WHO is the main character?
  • WHAT do you know about that character?

Readers Front and Center prompts us to question the limitations of such inquiries and what they reveal about a student’s understanding of a text.

Filled with anecdotes from the classroom and transcribed conferences with students, Readers Front and Center skillfully shows educators how to shift from product conversations with students to process conversations, thereby reiterating the important message that, in the classroom, HOW students know something is just as important as WHAT they know.

Reading Readers Front and Center is a bit like being coached and coaxed by a trusted colleague. Through rich examples, Dorothy teaches us how to listen, notice, and name what students are doing as they read.  She reminds us to be active listeners and to take careful notes about what we are learning about students.  Inasmuch as she values students’ processes for making meaning, she values teachers’ processes for understanding what students are doing as readers, and she reassures us that those awkward moments during a conference when we’re unsure of what to say or how to respond are normal.  Dorothy teaches us to embrace and celebrate cognitive dissonance–both in teaching and learning.

By now, most educators are steeped in Common Core implementation and grappling with the question of how to help students access and engage with complex texts. While this is, indeed, challenging work, Dorothy Barnhouse’s new book reminds us that giving students the “right” complex texts or assigning the “right” tasks is not enough.  The whole solution requires active listening and responsive teaching, which means that we must begin by placing readers “front and center.”

What’s the Difference in Frustration Level and Above-level?

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In our recent article, “Break through the frustation: Balance vs. all-or-none thinking,” which has just come out in the September/October issue of Reading Today, we make a case for considering the big picture of your literacy instruction and varying the level of student texts for different instructional contexts. In the same issue of Reading Today, Timothy Shanahan makes an argument for students to work in harder texts. He has softened his rhetoric a bit since he began talking about his concerns about instructional reading level, and some of what he says now makes slightly more sense, although we still seriously disagree with his interpretations and generalizations of the research.

The issue seems to be the choice of language around this topic; in many cases the groups on either side of this “debate” are saying the same thing. For example, one of the main studies Shanahan cites is a study about shared reading in a partner reading context, in second grade. Not surprisingly, in this study, the less proficient second-grade readers made more progress when they read from texts on their partner’s–a more skilled reader– instructional reading level. We find few educators who would disagree with the idea of pairing a less able reader with a more proficient reader and selecting a text that is a bit harder, i.e. frustration level, for the less proficient reader. Who doesn’t do this already?  This instructional context is basically the scenario, at least in terms of the research, that Shanahan is hanging most of his discussion on. So what is there to argue about?

Why don’t these perceived extremists just say, “Do buddy reading with more difficult texts?,” to which there would be little contest. Basically, why is there so much talk about putting students in frustration level texts when many of the “frustration” level encounters are instructional contexts in which informed literacy educators have been using “frustration” level texts all along?

The difference is that most of us haven’t referred to them as frustration level texts (although they always have been), because the term frustration has negative connotations; it doesn’t describe the way we want children to think about reading. Instead, most of us call these texts above-level texts (or sometimes even above-grade-level texts), which has some positive implications, although we are referring to the same texts.  We save the term frustration level,  and its negative implications, for referring to texts that truly frustrate children. But, who doesn’t technically use “frustration” level texts for read aloud and shared reading, already? The majority of the research in support of frustration level reading instruction (although the research doesn’t generally refer to it as this, either), is about these instructional contexts. And if you watch closely, much of the “scaffolding” suggested in the name of CCSS instruction and complex text is actually a variation on or hybrid of read aloud or shared reading.

The original problem is that, when they implemented guided reading, too many schools let go of (or greatly diminished) shared reading and read aloud, which were students’ only exposures to texts beyond those they could proficiently navigate independently. Shanahan is right on this point, this created a serious problem in terms of opportunities to expand vocabulary. But we really just need consistent, intentional shared reading and read aloud opportunities for students in above level (frustration level) tests. That’s all. We don’t need 5th graders reading the United Declaration of Human Rights or first graders reading A Wrinkle in Time.

So really, there isn’t that much to argue about. Unless you just like to argue.

Read our earlier analyses of the research behind Timothy Shanahan’s ideas.

Seek and You Shall Find

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Heart-Sunglasses_46724-lAs the first bell of the new school year rings, both teachers and students walk tentatively through the doorway. Breathing in the scent of newly waxed floors, they hug blank notebooks to their chests and proceed to classrooms with impeccably scrubbed whiteboards. They wonder. What kind of year will this be?  

Recently, Kim’s children started new schools in a new district in a new state and joined the legions of others wondering about the year ahead.  On his first day of high school, Kim’s ninth-grade son, Matthew, came home complaining about his science teacher. Not only does she require a three-ring binder, it has to be black, blue, or white and two inches thick. No bigger, no smaller. She requires students to divide the notebook into eight sections. If, by chance, Matthew misfiles a paper, she will deduct points from his weekly homework grade. And to add insult to injury, he needs not just one pen for class, but two! A black one for answering questions and a blue one for correcting his responses!  

In less than 55 minutes, one class period, Matthew decided that he was not going to like science. In the short two weeks that he has been attending Science classes,  he has been stocking his arsenal of distaste with ammunition to defend his idea that his teacher is mean and unreasonable. Here’s part of his list:

  • The cover that he made for his binder was not good enough because the picture was too big.
  • He asked a question about homework, and she threatened to give him detention.
  • He needs to bring a bag of M and M’s to class and it has to be a 1.69 ounce bag. If it’s not that size, he can’t participate the experiment.

In fact, he is so intent on hating everything about science class, he was taken aback when Kim said, “How fun!  You’re doing an experiment in Science using M and M’s!”  

He replied, “Did you not hear me, mom? If I bring in the wrong size bag, I can’t do the experiment!”  

Kim very simply replied, “If you look hard enough, you will always find what you are looking for.”  

Kim went on to explain to a confused Matthew that because he expects Science to be awful, he looks for and finds reasons that support its awfulness. She wondered if he looked for ways Science class was good, if he’d be able to see that as well. She challenged him to spend the next few days peering through a new lens.   Because today is the first day of looking for something different in his Science class, it is still too soon to know how, or if,  this exercise will shift his attitude about this class. However, we believe that for Matthew and everyone else asking the question, What kind of year will this be? the answer is already written in invisible ink on the blank pages of those new notebooks:

It can be whatever kind of year you are looking for…

Collaborative Writing (Part 2):  A Rich Slice of Life

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Once again, we offer you a piece from Fran Haley, a literacy coach in Wake County, North Carolina. Last week, we shared Part I of her guest series on teaching writing. This week, she takes us even deeper into the heart of writing.

“When you write a memoir, you aren’t writing about your entire ten or eleven years of living. What do you want your reader to think or feel? Decide on that first. Then pick a moment when you learned something about someone, about yourself, or about life. Your job as a writer is to bring the readers into that memory so that they live it with you, like it’s happening right now.”

– Fran Haley, to fifth grade students


I was initially invited to fifth grade by my extraordinary colleagues, who thought I might help inspire students to write meaningful memoirs. In the end, however, it was the students who inspired us.

The collaborative writing of my memoir developed out of the need to model, think aloud, and share the writing process simultaneously with students, but they weren’t just witnesses or passive participants. They became a team of editors, critics, and sojourners who walked back in time with me to live pieces of my childhood.

As mentioned in Collaborative Writing, Part 1, I started out giving students a choice of my memories: Do you want to help me write about The Mysterious Noise or The Time I Was Death? This later morphed into a choice of feelings: Do you want to help me write something suspenseful, something that will make you laugh, or cry?

If the students wanted to laugh, we wrote “The Time I Was Death,” concerning a last-minute costume for a party I didn’t know I was supposed to attend when I was in fifth grade.

One class said, “Make us cry.” We wrote“The Kitten’s Song.”

When you are collaboratively writing your own memory, you have to fill students in on just enough for them to have an idea where you’re going:

Okay, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve chosen to help create a story which will make you cry. The topic is a sick kitten. A good writer anticipates questions of readers and works answers into the narrative. What kinds of questions do you think a reader would have in this case?

The students generated this list: Why was the kitten sick? How did you feel about it being sick? How did you know it was sick?Where did the kitten come from? When did this event take place? How old was the kitten? What did you do to try to cure it?What did the kitten look like? How long was it sick? Did it die? Could you play with the kitten? What was its name? How big was the kitten? Was it a boy or a girl?

Thus the framework for the narrative was created; my goal was to answer all of these questions as we wrote the memoir together.

As words went on the pages under the document camera, the tiny gray-and-white striped kitten was born. Within a day she was pushed away by bigger, stronger siblings who got all their mother’s milk. When I picked her up, she was about the weight of an egg in my hand. I was horrified to discover a raw, red sore where her tail should have been. I was afraid the mother cat had bitten it off, but my mother explained that this condition is spina bifida.

          What is spina bifida, Mrs. Haley?

          Hmmm. Readers may not know what the term is either. How can we help them know the meaning of spina bifida?

          Maybe your mother can explain it to you so everyone can know. Also, you need to go back and tell us the name of                the kitten. You forgot.

          I’m saving the name for a reason. We are building up to it.

The hook comes in letting the narrative unfold without giving too much away too soon. Here’s how the kitten’s name was revealed in the draft:

Mom handed the dropper of milk to me and I put it up to the kitten’s mouth. She didn’t take it.

“Mom, I can’t do it!” By now my hand was shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything, I knew. Once she had rewired our oven all by herself. She made beautiful clothes for us and other people to wear. As I placed that tiny gray and white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure she would make the kitten well. I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched on TV with Mom. The song was “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. Part of the lyrics are: “Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to me … blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever.”

One student waved her hand wildly: Oh, Mrs. Haley, I know that song!

The rest of the class didn’t know the movie or the song, so we paused as the girl sang it for us in a pure, sweet soprano. There was a reverent hush in the room as we got back to the writing:

In that moment, the kitten’s name was Edelweiss. As my mom tried to put milk into the kitten’s mouth, I sang the song over and over in my mind.

The milk just ran down the sides of the kitten’s cheeks. When I looked at my mom’s face, her mouth was set in a straight line. Tears were rolling down her face like the milk on the kitten’s cheeks.

After a few minutes, Mom said, “She’s already gone.”

“NO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

Sniffling was audible throughout the room. I could hardly see the page or the document camera; long-ago tears welled up afresh. We pressed on to finish the memoir, wiping our eyes. One student, sighing, summed it up at the end: Mrs. Haley, that was so terrible and wonderful.

As the students worked on their own memoirs, they focused on what they wanted their readers to feel. The depth of emotion they incorporated was astounding. We tasted the anger of one girl whose family had moved many times; we felt the loss of friends she’d had to leave behind. We experienced another girl’s anxiety giving way to joy on the birth of her baby brother.

Rich, rich slices of life, shared and savored.


-Fran Haley

August 2014

Collaborative Writing (Part 1): A Co-Labor of Love

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For the last couple of years, we have connected with Fran Haley, a K-12 ELA educator and literacy coach at a Title I school in North Carolina, via Twitter and some in-person conversations at PD we have facilitated in Wake County. She has a wise soul and her insightful perspective prompts us to think more deeply and act more intentionally. As a child, Fran imagined herself as characters in the books she read. Then she discovered the power of writing. She continues to study the craft of writing and to stretch herself with various genres, experimenting with voice and perspective. Nothing delights her more than seeing students get excited about writing. We are honored to share some of her enthusiasm with you through this guest post, the first in a two-part series.


“Every moment is a teachable moment as well as a writable one.” –Fran Haley


When it comes to teaching writing, teachers know the three Ms: minilessons, mentor texts, and modeling. A fourth M, however, is a little more problematic: motivation. Despite the teacher’s careful selection of high-interest, quality texts and the deeply important think-aloud, there’s that student who just does not want to write.

So much for Common Core Writing Anchor Standard 5: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting …” because, darn it, that student doesn’t want to write at all, let alone develop or strengthen any writing. Forget the rest of it. We pull everything out of our toolbox and none of it sparks that student.

But CCR Writing Anchor Standard 5 doesn’t end with developing and strengthening; the final phrase is “or trying a new approach.” This “new approach” surely means students rewrite pieces from different perspectives or take different stances, but might it subtly hint at an opportunity for those of us who teach writing? Different things work for different teachers; the dynamic of each classroom, the ebb and flow between teacher and students, is never the same twice. For me, as a teacher and literacy coach, collaborative writing was the “new approach,” which reached even the hardest-to-reach student with that fourth M and brought student writing to life.

Perhaps it was mostly because I love writing; I tell that to students up front. Passion, we all know, tends to be contagious. Perhaps it was because the fifth-graders took my carefully selected mentor texts into small groups for a few minutes, where they read to each other and discussed what they noticed about the form and the author’s approach, as I listened in. Perhaps it was because I let the class vote on the topic of the paper from several topics I hoped might work. Most of all, I believe that the collaborative writing of my memoir—my own memory, my own thinking, shaped by their input—was the hook which pulled every last one of them. The students became part of the process; the process became synergistic.

Collaborative writing closely resembles shared writing, except that students take on more of an advisory role; the goal isn’t to complete a model piece quickly but to have students contributing during the whole messy process of good writing. Once the topic was agreed upon, I started writing under a document camera. The students helped create an appropriate beginning. They began to ask critical questions, from characterizing my family members in the memoir to whether or not “that comma” was appropriately placed, and why. The students asked me to define some of my word choices; once or twice they even recommended better ones. We even debated artistic or stylistic choices.

The students saw things I didn’t (Are we not always a bit myopic with our own work?) and made spontaneous suggestions which improved the narrative. They watched, nodding approval, when a sudden inspiration sent me back to the previous paragraph to insert a thought (I was, after all thinking aloud). The students actually caught “holes”–gaps in the logical flow–that I had to go back and fill!

Together we completed our first draft, and when the final period was placed, the students applauded. All of them. The memory was mine, but we all owned the work.

Afterward, when it was time for “you do,” the students generated numerous ideas for their own memoirs, and that student who hadn’t ever wanted to write was the most excited. His memoir about telling the truth after an unwise choice ended up being one of the most moving.

Yes, there was still planning, revising, editing, and rewriting to do, on our collaborative draft and on their individual ones, with much, much conferring, but the difference was that all the students wanted their work to be powerful, to impact their readers.

And they did.


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